Grandma’s Hands

Tronn Moller – Faith and Community Development Institute

Meeting at their weekly Bible study to pray, share potluck suppers, Chat and Chew discussions and  ideas about how to better their grandchildren’s lives was a regular event for many of the grandmothers residing at The Estates, formerly known as the Desire Housing Development in New Orleans.  According to Marcia Peterson, director of Desire Street Ministries who leads the weekly study, it began after Hurricane Katrina and the main focus of the ladies was to help provide activities and services for their own live-in grandchildren .  “A lot of them are single women raising their grandchildren for various reasons,” said Peterson.

The women met every Thursday, planned activities for the kids, and participated in  discussions focused on keeping the children safe and healthy.   But they began to realize that in order to make more effective and long term  change within the neighborhood, they needed to reach beyond their own homes and  into the community itself. This they decided could be best done by mentoring the young mothers around them.  So, armed with spirited determination and a strong sense of community , they became , “Grandmas Hands,” an organization bent on community empowerment.

According to group member, Margaret McMillan, during one of their meetings,  Peterson was struck with a divinely inspired idea about how to better reach the residents. “We were all in here doing crafts one day and Ms. Peterson during Chat and Chew , the Lord gave (her ) a vision. So we said we could reach them (mothers) and then teach them because of economic situations . We wanted them to be thinking about economic development. Isn’t that beautiful? Now we’re taking our hands and going back to basics, teaching the things they need to know, “said McMillan.

Their meetings soon gave opportunity for developing simple money making basics. The grandmothers brought with them a wealth of information and knowledge on how to accomplish the task , teaching economic empowerment strategies. Sylvia Norman, who began raising her three grandchildren after her daughter succumbed to cancer , set a goal to teach the women to refurbish and recycle used linens and home decorations. “I can cook a little , I can sew dolls , sewing and alterations, that’s my thing. We can go to thrift stores and a sheet becomes curtains, those things can turn into money for the home ,” Norman explained. Some of the items purchased by the group to help bring their goal to fruition, include a sewing machine, cake decorating kits, knitting kits, and cookbooks. Bonnie Peters, a member  who gives the women instruction in flower arranging , explained their realization that empowering mothers, many  of them single parents  was key to building a more  productive home environment.  “The Bible says that the older women should teach the younger women. Spiritually , socially, you know. It’s all about showing the young people how to survive with what little they have.”

Margaret McMillan added “When they would come, they would talk at the Chat and Chew , it was more counseling than anything. We didn’t know where this was going but you’re talking to older women who have come through some of the same things.

But  McMillan like the other grandmothers believes that with age comes wisdom and a responsibility to those who are in need. “When you were young , you’d go to mama and get negatives  but grandma would have the answer. ” The mothers, mostly in their twenties are allowed to bring their children to meetings and are met with compassion and lots of patience.

Grandmas Hands is measuring its success within the community as mothers take  advantage of what they have to offer.  Twenty-six year old Terri McMillan  a mother of a nine year old son and seven month daughter, pointed out how being a part of the group has helped to better her interpersonal skills. McMillan who, outside of her home and work environments found it hard to connect on a social level  has greatly benefited from the group’s influence. “I’m was a very reserved person, I am still somewhat reserved, but they helped me sit with and hang out with other people. I am not good with new people in my personal life, just being able to connect with other people.”

Ashley Stewart , a twenty-four year old mother of  four children ranging in age from six to one year old, explained that the ladies helped her in developing better parenting  skills and develop a positive discipline strategy for her children by having her write a list of behavioral changes the children needed to practice.  “It’s mainly like dealing with them (her children) because they were all over the place, but now they are better, “said Stewart .

Overall the group believes that the total recovery and health of their community lies in the hands of the community as a whole and can only be turned around by a concentrated effort by those with the wisdom to do so. That is one reason why they believe Grandmas Hands is so important. “Many young mothers have succumbed to the drug culture, grandmothers are stepping in and filling that gap. They have to mother their children again and their grandchildren,” Margaret McMillan said.

We Can Do Our Part: Youth Build Urban Gardens

Tronn Moller – Faith and Community Development Institute

Lots in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans maybe still abandon because of Hurricane Katrina, but its days are quickly coming to an end thanks to youth in the community.  They are turning the abandon lots into urban gardens.

The Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans still has 25 percent of their homes still blighted and 15 percent of the lots are abandoned.  Parlo Perkins, a Youth leader at Desire Street Ministries and resident of the community, said, “When I walk around the Upper 9th Ward, I see work that has been done. But I also see an opportunity for work to be done. Several months ago, we turned a vacant lot into an urban garden and we were excited about what happened. When the vegetables started growing, we really got excited.  That excitement grew into us asking ourselves, what if we took more lots and built more gardens?”

With the assistance of Desire Street Ministries staff and Tronn Moller of the Faith & Community Development Institute, the youth organized, mapped all of the properties on Louisa Street, and then researched to see who the owners were.   Some of the properties were owned by locals, and some of the properties were owned by the City of New Orleans.

The youth contacted the owners of 1706 Louisa and 1540 Louisa and they acknowledged that they weren’t ready to move on rebuilding on the lots. They just didn’t have the resources. The youth shared their vision of planting urban gardens and the property owners agreed to allow them to clean and plant gardens.

The first month of the project, the youth cleared the yards of paper, trash, old tires, and debris.  They reached a roadblock with hauling away the trash, but the City of New Orleans moved quickly to help.  On March 10th, youth volunteers and community leaders turned dirt and planted seeds. After they completed planting, Parlo commented, “I think we are on to something here. We can do our part in rebuilding the community.”

Transforming The Upper Ninth Ward

On the corner of Louisa Street and Higgins Blvd, in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, transformation is taking place.  While New Orleans is trying to rebuild and bring back various communities, the Upper Ninth Ward is making a comeback.  Beautiful landscaping and tree planting is a project by CURE with sponsorships from Desire Street Ministries.

Although the landscaping is small in comparison to the scope of what was destroyed, it was an important first step.  It was an important symbol for the city to see that the Upper Ninth Ward is alive and coming back.  We also wanted to send a message to people who are displaced from this neighborhood that there are people back here working hard to bring the community back home.  The areas that were chosen to landscape are very visible and a central entry point to the Desire neighborhood, so it seemed a logical place to begin.

While CURE and Desire Street Ministries remain committed to this neighborhood and doing even more to bring it back to life, this was something tangible that could be done to show people that we are here and we still care.

Also, it was important that neighborhood residents were involved instead of bringing in volunteers from around the country.  A strong desire to see the neighborhood beautified and redeemed must come from within.

The efforts of outside groups are appreciated but are unsustainable in terms of the life of a community.  This was something that needed to be done by community residents.

Landscaping is just the beginning, but the commitment to the Desire neighborhood remains and it will be a part of the recovery and rebuilding as long as it takes.

A special thanks to Winn Dixie and Lowes for their acts of kindness through generous donations.  With Spring approaching, more plans are underway to continue the beautification project.