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Silver Lining

Eliot-Pearson in New OrleansAs the child care industry in New Orleans recovers from Hurricane Katrina, students and faculty at Tufts are committed to helping and learning along the way.


When a bus full of volunteers from Tufts pulled up at Gilda's Day Care in New Orleans, they had already driven past boarded-up windows and abandoned homes. Now they saw a child care center with no children, and a pile of dirt where grass and toys should be.

But what they also saw were the center's founders, Warren and Gilda Toledano, arms open wide.

"When we got off the bus, every one of us got a hug," recalls child development doctoral student Laura Beals. "When we got on the bus to leave the last day, we all got a hug again."

Fueled by Toledano's Cajun cooking, the volunteers spent a week cleaning, painting and planting. By the end of it, the outdoors area had been transformed into a clean, bright and lush space. On the fence, the handprints of Tufts volunteers formed a colorful mural.

"There was nothing there and then all of a sudden there's this beautiful courtyard," says Mallary Swartz, a doctoral student who helped to organize the trip.

As New Orleans continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina, some child care facilities in this embattled Gulf Coast city received a much-needed boost this May from the efforts of these 20 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, led by faculty members Chip Gidney and Betty Allen. The trip was only the latest step in what the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development foresees as a long-term partnership to help bolster the child care industry in the region.

"We have a responsibility to share the resources and share the knowledge that we have, and also to learn about what's happening in the rest of the country and the rest of the world."

— Mallary Swartz

"We have a responsibility to share the resources and share the knowledge that we have, and also to learn about what's happening in the rest of the country and the rest of the world," says Swartz.

This was no ordinary cleanup mission. The trip also presented an opportunity for the students to apply their knowledge in a cross-cultural context and understand the impact the child care industry has on the infrastructure of an entire community.

"Getting a glimpse at the lives that other children are leading really is an eye-opener when thinking about how children develop and how families work together," says Beals. "We learn from them and they learn from us."

A Critical Need

Even before Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, the child care industry in that area was suffering, with Louisiana ranking 49th nationally in child well-being for the past several years.

According to a 2006 report by Agenda for Children, a nonprofit Louisiana child care advocacy group, more children in the state under the age of five (78 percent) attend some form of non-parental child care than the national average (65 percent), with the average Louisiana family spending nearly twice as much of its income on child care than the national average. Louisiana also offers the lowest mean hourly wage for child care workers in the nation, at just $6.55.

In New Orleans, where Tufts is currently focusing its efforts, Hurricane Katrina severely affected the child care business. In August 2005, 275 child care centers were in operation. Today, just 98 are open—a 64 percent drop, and many of those are at capacity. In some cases, according to the nonprofit, parents who would like to return to the city for a waiting job cannot due to the lack of reliable child care.

In August 2005, 275 child care centers were in operation in New Orleans. Today, just 98 are open—a 64 percent drop.

These numbers have very real consequences for the parents and children of Louisiana, as the workforce and overall economy suffer. The fate of the child care industry there has close ties to the broader infrastructure, which is already hobbling under the weight of a multi-billion dollar recovery.

With the storm exacerbating an already dire situation, national attention has been drawn to the struggle for quality child care in Louisiana. In that sense, the storm had a silver lining.

"The storm presented opportunities," says recent Eliot-Pearson graduate Lisa Schlakman, a key organizer of the efforts. "All of this could have happened had there been no Katrina. On the other hand, I think there wouldn't have been the urgency."

Finding a Way To Help

The initiative came together through a partnership between Tufts and the United Way cultivated by Schlakman and Associate Professor Fran Jacobs. The common bond was Carol Wise, a cousin of Schlakman's and a leading supporter of Success By Six, a United Way program to improve early childhood education. When Wise spoke to Jacobs' class about the situation in New Orleans, students began asking how they could help.

"One of the reasons I chose Eliot-Pearson is their commitment to really becoming involved in the community. They are not an ivory tower academic institution but have people using their skills as they're learning," says Schlakman. "I think there is an awareness that reaching outside the immediate community is an important thing to do."

Eliot-Pearson in New Orleans

Tufts volunteers paint a landscape mural at Gilda's.

An initial January fact-finding trip by Allen, Eliot-Pearson chairperson Ellen Pinderhughes and Eliot-Pearson Children's School director Debbie LeeKeenan, as well as trips by United Way officials to Tufts, helped generate ideas on how best to apply Tufts' expertise and laid the groundwork for the May trip. (Read more background here.) In the meantime, other elements of the partnership—including an ongoing pen-pal and sister-to-sister program between students at Eliot-Pearson Children's School and Royal Castle Child Development Center, as well as fundraising and book drives—began taking shape.

The Tufts team concentrated their efforts on Gilda's Day Care as well as Royal Castle and Happy Kids Preschool, two understaffed centers that needed help unpacking, organizing and, of course, taking care of the children. The help was much appreciated; at Royal Castle, a large sign reading "Welcome Tufts Volunteers" greeted the Eliot-Pearson contingent, and participants reported nothing but warm welcomes from the New Orleans community.

Their efforts are beginning to bear fruit. At Royal Castle director Pearlie Harris recently received good scores on her preliminary assessment by the state and Gilda's has since received its license and is completing renovations while marketing for new customers. (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Photos courtesy of Eliot-Pearson doctoral candidate Laura Beals ('10).

This story originally ran on Sept. 24, 2007.