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Region’s nonprofits struggling to recover, continue serving

Times are tough for nonprofit organizations on the Coast. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they struggle with loss of employees, property and funding while the residents and communities around them struggle to rebuild their lives and homes.

The seven children who were being sheltered at Hope Haven in Bay Saint Louis at the time of the storm were driven to foster homes in northern Harrison County before the monster storm roared ashore. Director Terry Latham knew they were safe and was thankful the usual 12 children weren’t there as he put his disaster plan into action.

‘We’re coming back’

A resident of Diamondhead, he is the only one of the shelter’s 12 employees who did not lose his home. Eight of 10 board members lost their homes, too. The shelter’s buildings had six feet of water in them and everything inside was lost.

“Katrina dealt us a huge blow and our entire community was wiped out, but we’re coming back,” Latham said.
Founded 10 years ago, Hope Haven gets two-thirds of its funding from private sources stretched from Pascagoula to Slidell, La. The rest comes from the United Way and small refunds from the state for sheltering children in the state system.

“It’s gone,” Latham says of the private funding. “We had an average of $33,000 to $34,000 per month last year. Now our funding is about one-tenth of that. The county can not help us. The churches can not help us and the casinos can not help us. If we do not get assistance from outside sources, we won’t make it.”

Thanks to gifts from a bequest and a golf tournament held by Grand Casino, Hope Haven received approximately $100,000 more than normal last year. Some of that windfall was used to make improvements to the shelter and some was put back for a rainy day. That day came with Katrina and is helping the shelter recover. It, along with donations from outside the area, is enough to keep them going for about nine months.

Latham says that local people can not contribute at this time and outside gifts have been incredible. A donation came from his old high school in Crystal Lake, Ill., in addition to those from classmates he hasn’t been in touch with since he graduated in 1964.

He recalls the first few days after the storm when he searched for 3,000 records that were covered with mud and strewn across miles. The records contained personal information about all the children who have been housed at the shelter.

“I had some volunteers helping me dig for them, and we were struggling to clear things out of the destroyed building before mold got them,” he said. “We didn’t even have water to drink. A newly arrived policeman from Virginia came by and gave us some cold water. I asked him to find some help for us. I told him I was a retired Navy chief desperately trying to save a home for abused kids.”

Two hours later, Latham was thrilled when 22 Navy Seabees arrived to help. “I would have danced naked in the street for help,” he says. “They spent three weeks with us and when they left, another group came.”

The Seabees found all of Hope Haven’s 3,000 records but two, tore out wet sheetrock, put on a new roof and hung new sheetrock. Latham feels fortunate that the shelter’s main building was structurally sound and that a storage building remained intact. Now the shelter is 99% complete and the director faces the task of finding new employees in a community that has few inhabitable places to live.

He plans to hire house parents and hopes to bring children back in mid-March. Hope Haven shelters children who’ve been removed from homes for different reasons. The children remain there until they are returned to their homes or to permanent children’s homes, go into foster care or are adopted. Latham says an average of 35 children are turned away each month.

Seeing clients again

Back Bay Mission’s operations were shut down for two months following the storm. All seven of the Biloxi organization’s buildings had five to seven feet of water in them and are not inhabitable. Executive director Shari Prestermon said the staff is working out of two trailers in the parking lot.

“We no longer have a food pantry or thrift shop but we’re seeing clients once again,” she said. “We’re helping with relief for rent and prescriptions and doing what we do on a modified basis.”

The mission’s thrift shop was the only one in the area that actually gave things away. Affiliated with the United Church of Christ, Back Bay Mission has always had volunteers come to Biloxi to repair homes of the elderly and poor. Prestermon says those groups are coming again.

The mission also worked to help the homeless. “The homeless program took another hit because we had leased apartments in the community to give them permanent addresses,” Prestermon said. “Many of those apartments were ruined. We’re trying to find rental space but it’s very hard to do now. We still have five units operational.”

In spite of everything, she says Back Bay Mission is blessed with funding from all over the country as they always have been. Like everyone on the Coast, the mission is dealing with insurance questions and their clients were hit hard.

“We will stay and rebuild,” she affirms, “but we’re starting from a blank slate.”

Local donations gone

Based in Gulfport, Make-A-Wish moved out of its office in a condemned building into director Shellie Moses’ home. Local fundraising has dried up but contributions have come from the national organization and chapters around the country. Enough funds have come in to provide for 10 wishes since the hurricane.

“We’re committed to continuing to grant wishes,” Moses said. “Chapters all over the country have contributed to keep the wishes going. They’re supporting us 100%.”

Although she says local people aren’t giving these days, the Harrison County Young Lawyers held a Halloween dance to raise funds, Stennis Space Center gave a donation and the Brett Favre Fourward Foundation continues its yearly grant of $15,000. Moses says she doesn’t know how Make-A-Wish would make it without them.

The wine tasting that usually takes place this month won’t happen. Moses says it’s time to get creative with fundraising as she fears people across the country may be tapped out with giving to charities. Normally, $150,000 to $200,000 would have been raised on the Coast this year.

“We won’t be able to do that and the national chapter can’t keep doing what they’re doing,” she said. “We’re applying for grants rather than have events. It’s hard to ask people here to buy tickets to events right now. I don’t see us doing a lot before the end of the summer, and then we’ll do them on a much smaller scale.”

The Gulfport office’s scope has expanded since the hurricane. It now encompasses 12 counties in South Mississippi instead of six. The larger territory will allow for more fund raising but will also mean more wishes to be granted to seriously ill children. Moses’ new title is South Mississippi regional director.

“We still need support like all the nonprofits who’re hurting,” Moses said. “We are making the best of it and we’ll keep smiling.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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