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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 Orleans.


Jessie Wells learns his letters with help
from tutor Dorinda Deuchert. A UMNS
photo courtesy of STAIR.

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.

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 fit in."

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 fallen behind.

"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 Wednesdays.

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

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