UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2008 / 0303 - Community Services Agency

Community Services Agency “Stretches” to do Disaster Response

By Susan J. Meister *

March 3, 2008—Miss Bonita Jethro was born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, and remembers Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House from her childhood days. As an adult, she had started a new life in New Orleans. “It was a great move for me,” she said. “I was a head baker for Piccadilly Restaurant for fourteen years!”

But then Katrina blew in. Miss Bonita evacuated to the Metro East area and encountered the Neighborhood House again, this time as a ministry reaching out and assisting survivors of the hurricane.

Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a national mission institution of The United Methodist Church, was one of twelve organizations in nine states that received grassroots grants from the Emergency Services Office of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) to assist Hurricane Katrina survivors around the country. The historic generosity of United Methodists made over $2.3 million available for grassroots grants for hurricane recovery.

“The Neighborhood House offers a prime example of an existing community-based ministry that ‘stretched’ itself to do effective disaster response,” explained Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s domestic disaster response executive. “The ministry has a nearly 100-year history of assisting families in the Metro East area, so when Katrina survivors began to arrive, they were ready and willing to step in with short-term relief services and case management for long-term recovery.”

Ministry Greets Survivors Evacuating to Metro East Area

Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House specializes in social, economic and neighborhood development services aimed at meeting the special needs of the children, families, and elderly in the East St. Louis and St. Clair County areas. When Katrina hit, the agency began to raise funds and collect items to send to those affected on the Gulf Coast. But the staff quickly realized that the disaster was arriving in its own back yard. Miss Bonita and many other families were evacuating to a familiar place.

“Within a week, we became aware that hundreds of individuals and families were coming up from Louisiana and Mississippi to stay with family and friends here,” explained William Kreeb, executive director. “That presented a problem – the majority of the families that were providing emergency housing for their relatives were already living below the poverty line themselves.”

The staff at Neighborhood House quickly shifted their focus and joined with other churches and agencies to form the St. Clair County Disaster Relief Coalition. “The families we met didn’t come through the local airports, where state and local disaster relief organizations had time to plan and put services in place,” Kreeb continued. “Our folks came by car or van or bus, at all hours of the day. There was no way to know how many families who needed services were coming or when. We just had to be ready.”

Denita Jacox, who focuses on support services and jobs for the agency, and other staff members took the lead in providing emergency transportation, food, clothing, shelter and more until the families could get connected to FEMA and other governmental organizations.

Moving from Relief to Recovery

After the initial emergency phase, it became clear that the survivors would require assistance in pursuing long-term solutions to reestablish their lives and find permanency and stability within Illinois communities. The UMCOR grassroots grant provided the ministry with resources to help move families into recovery.

In October 2005, Shirley Ellington joined the staff at Neighborhood House as Hurricane Katrina Coordinator. She joined ongoing efforts to get survivors the direct services they needed and began to network to other agencies for the long term response.

“The biggest challenge the survivors faced was finding jobs in this area,” Ellington said. “They came from a tourist/agricultural mindset to an industrial/corporate job market. They needed education and job skills. The people also dealt with a lot of depression.”

Ellington and other Neighborhood House staff members tenaciously reached out into the neighborhoods to find and assist survivors. Miss Bonita was impressed that the agency knocked on her door and asked, “What are your needs?” “And they reminded us, ‘You are not alone.’ And they are still there for us,” she said.

Miss Bonita has been facing some serious health issues since September 2007, but she is doing “just fine” and raising three grandchildren, ages 12, 13 and 14. Her older son, Greg, is in culinary school at the local community college, funded through Neighborhood House.

“Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was equipped to meet the challenges faced by those who came to us,” Ellington continued. She reported that 500 individuals and families were assisted by the ministry.

Case Management Offers Compassionate Care

Ellington approached long term recovery with survivors through the case management model, a family-by-family problem solving approach advocated and perfected by UMCOR and other agencies over years of disaster response. This approach encourages each family to write and implement its own recovery plan. Case managers walk alongside the family to help negotiate the labyrinth of paperwork for insurance and government services and to access other available resources.

Case managers are also a caring presence to individuals and families during the difficult process of recovery. The spiritual and emotional help they provide can sometimes far outweigh the financial assistance they access.

This was true for Miss Donna Meyers, who affectionately referred to herself and Ellington as “the boohoo crew.”

“It is humbling to be on the ‘receiving’ side,” Meyers explained. “I really worried about everything. Shirley was someone to talk to.”

Meyers’ husband’s business in Louisiana was destroyed. The family left their homes and came to the Metro East area because “it was a 10-hour drive (to a niece’s home) instead of 19-hour drive to Ohio.” She, her husband, her two teenage children, her mother and her mother-in-law thought they would only be here a week. Ellington and Lessie Bates stepped in to help the family find a house. They helped pay for Meyers to be recertified to work as a nurse in Illinois. They helped with Road Home paperwork and other financial challenges.

“Shirley has been such a blessing,” she said. “Without her, I don’t think I would have made it.”

Mission Institutions Span the Nation

Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House is of 103 National Missions Institutions related to the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church located across the United States. The institutions include community centers, schools, colleges, health care facilities and women's residences.

More information about Neighborhood House and other mission institutions is at the General Board of Global Ministries web site. Contributions to Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House can be made through Advance Special #132195. Online Giving

*Meister is the Domestic Disaster Response Corespondent for UMCOR