The STAIR program at St. Paul's United
Methodist Church in New Orleans provides children with tutoring and a
listening ear. A UMNS photo by Stephanie Kovac.
By Stephanie Kovac*
Nov. 28, 2006
Willa Cristina has spent her life raising five children and seven
grandchildren. At age 80, she thought retirement was finally around the
corner, but Hurricane Katrina had more work in store.
"I thought I had retired from everything, but they're desperate for tutors this year," says Cristina of New Orleans.
She's now committed another year of her life to another child -
7-year-old Da'Lan Hammette. The second-grader lost everything in the
storm and now lives with her family in a trailer provided by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency, in a Pepsi-Cola parking lot near New
Da'Lan is one of 10 students involved in a children's literacy program
known as STAIR or Start the Adventure in Reading, and she's receiving
one-on-one instructional help from Willa, a six-year volunteer.
Jessie Wells learns his letters with help
from tutor Dorinda Deuchert. A UMNS
photo courtesy of STAIR.
STAIR, a nonprofit organization, originated in New Orleans in 1985 but was virtually wiped out by Katrina last year.
"We lost our curriculum materials, our library books, a lot of our
materials because our sites were totally inundated or damaged in some
way," says STAIR Executive Director Sara Woodard. "So we had to kind of
regroup and salvage materials from other sites."
Getting on track
Before Katrina struck, STAIR had 24 sites in the New Orleans area.
Today, it has only 12, but it is getting its program back on track.
Three area United Methodist churches are among those hosting the
program, including St. Paul's United Methodist in Jefferson Parish,
Algiers United Methodist in Orleans Parish, and Belle Chase United
Methodist, the first-ever site in hard-hit Plaquemines.
The Rev. Sheri Zehner of St. Paul's says the church is a perfect
partner for the program, and notes that the children need comfort now
more than ever. "School can be a very frantic place, especially now,
when they're just trying to figure out where their lives are, where they
Finding someone to talk to can be hard, especially for children,
Zehner says. New Orleans has a shortage of mental health workers, and
many parents and children alike are turning to the clergy.
"A lot of the children want to come into the sanctuary and just sit for a while, which is strange, but they do," Cristina says.
While the walls of St. Paul's United Methodist are providing a safe
haven for youngsters such as Da'Lan, the tutors are lending a listening
ear. They too know consolation is as important as comprehension.
"Our refrigerator broke," Da'Lan interjects in the middle of her
lesson. "Ah, yes," replies Cristina, "everybody's refrigerator broke, I
think." And young and old share an impromptu moment of laughter.
A necessity for recovery
Woodard does not doubt this year will be difficult for all involved.
"It's an emotional year for the tutors too because it's not just
something that happened to one group, it happened to everyone," Woodard
explains. "I think the tutors can really relate to what the children
have been through since they've been through it themselves; they've
experienced the sense of loss also."
Still, Woodard says the program can be part of the city's recovery
process, and she views it as an absolute necessity given that so many
children have been in a variety of schools the past year and may have
"We want to make sure they get a good education and that they
graduate from high school, go to college here, and then join the work
force because we're going to need them more than ever now."
Before Katrina, 90 percent of STAIR children were African American.
Since the storm, the program has had an influx of Caucasians and
Hispanics because so many Hispanic workers have moved to the area to
help in the rebuilding. The program is adapting to accommodate their
needs, including staffing more bilingual tutors.
Churches such as St. Paul's are adapting too. St. Paul's has
installed showers in the upstairs space once used by STAIR in order to
open its facilities to work teams from outside the area. The church has
also prepped its fellowship hall to accommodate tutoring on Mondays and
St. Paul's believes that mission and outreach are what Christ calls
us to be about, Zehner says. "If one child is helped along their
journey, that's a huge reward."
*Kovac is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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