Jacob’s Well – Peace Center NOLA Featured in Dominican Ashram

Dominican Ashram is a journal published by the brothers of the province of India. It regularly includes articles on Dominican life and mission, history, and spirituality, as well as book reviews and news about the Dominican family worldwide.

Sr. Pat Thomas, OP
Sr. Pat Thomas, OP, is a founding staff member at the Peace Center.

Peace Center, New Orleans, USA

MOST OF US when asked, “How are you, today?” will answer “OK” or “I’m just fine. Thanks for asking.” Not so from neighbors around the Peace Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. Herman joyfully says, “I am still above the ground!” and Miss Barbara slowly responds, “I am blessed.” It gives one pause to hear responses like these that are not quite the usual superficial kind. Yet that is the norm in the neighborhood around the center.

The Birth of Peace Center
In the summer of 2013, the leadership team of the Dominican Sisters of Peace invited the whole Congregation to pray about and consider opportunities for new ways to be present in the city of New Orleans and for Sisters who might want to be a part of them. The Dominican Sisters had been there since 1860, and now diminishing numbers and sales of properties motivated us to question if we could maintain a presence and how. With the merger of seven (now eight) Dominican Congregations in 2009, such an opportunity did not seem beyond the realm of possibility.

Seven Sisters came forward and participated in a week of prayer, discussion and discernment in January of 2014. In the end, three accepted the invitation to come and live together in New Orleans and create a neighborhood outreach center which would be named the Peace Center. The Sisters wanted to live within the neighborhood so that became a direction for finding the right location. Sisters Ceal Warner, Pat Thomas and Suzanne Brauer moved into the apartments on the second floor of the chosen building at 2837 Broadway Street on August 8, 2014 and were ready to open the doors of the center on the first floor of that building on September 28.

They might have had some sense of how they could minister to the neighborhood through the center, but the learning curve would be steep. Ceal and Pat were Yankees, so Suzanne, a native New Orleanian, acted as our guide. She was not alone in her task of helping us understand the culture. The other Sisters in the area had a lot of influence on our appreciation for all things N’Awlins! But it was a very real issue to come to an appreciation of the city’s culture and the African American struggles as part of it.

As true Dominicans, we did our homework, watched and listened, and began to make plans. We promised to be present to the neighborhood, and that meant many things besides just living there. A survey had been taken the
year before, so we had some inkling of the needs. They ranged from programs for kids and senior adults to referrals and advising on special needs. We set about creating ways to meet those challenges.

The Peace Center is located in Gert Town, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Nine years later, there were still homes with the markings from FEMA that indicated the date of inspection, whether any bodies had been discovered and a large X showing the inspection was completed. BK/AK are the benchmark letters when stories are told and memories are shared. We had come into a neighborhood where many families had evacuated and some members did not return because better jobs were taken and new lives were started in other cities and states. Many
abandoned homes and properties still existed because no one came back to tend them. The senior adults were survivors; the children we worked with had not been born at the time of Katrina. The young adults in the gap had not become responsible citizens yet and lost lots of motivation and initiative. They saw how the city handled their families and that did not inspire them to give back. All three groups demanded our attention.

Our Ministry Outreach
From the very beginning, networking and collaboration were key proponents of the ministry. We made connections with the local police district, nearby high schools, especially our own St. Mary’s Dominican High School and other grade schools, Xavier University, agencies both city and archdiocesan, all of the religious orders present in the archdiocese, the Urban League and Job One programs, the Office of the Mayor and the City Council. We began the arduous task of learning about the “red tape” for as many services as might be requested by our neighbors.

And since much of the area was a kind of “forgotten” zone, our tasks were more difficult. All around us there were neighborhoods which had rebuilt their neighborhood associations and maintained good communication among their residents (After Katrina), but Gert Town had suffered damages from more than just nature. Residents became
caught up in schemes to get money into the neighborhood under false pretenses; the money was never seen, and now the neighbors did not know whom to trust. Somehow they have trusted us; trusted us with their children, with their stories and with their hopes even though we could not always meet their expectations.

We established an after-school program for grades K to 8, Monday through Friday, and recruited volunteers to help with homework. We were able to provide one-on-one assistance for many of the kids and were blessed with some small rooms for those who might need to get away from the distractions of the big room. A benefactor donated fourteen desktop computers that immediately became the major aspects of the center. Most homes did not have WiFi; cell phones had limits on data and internet use, so knowing they could come to the center to play their games as long as we were open was a real prize!

If the internet went down, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as you can well imagine! Along with homework and computers we also had snacks. Some of the kids have been with us since we opened so they now have their favorites and sometimes their tastebuds have changed radically, thus PBJ sandwiches with the crusts cut off no longer receive resounding acceptance.

A friend donated some cash for any use, so we purchased an electric griddle. Pancakes and sausage are a big treat!

Some of the volunteers I mentioned are older adults from the surrounding area and came with no preconceived notions of the kids and grew very fond of them. Miss Elizabeth and Miss Isabelle handled the younger ones, while Mr. Larry worked with the older boys. Eventually, we had some volunteers from the nearby Dominican high school and then established a partnership with a student organization from Xavier University.

Men on the Move became the much-needed mentoring program that we had hoped to find. All of the kids are African American, have various family dynamics but need help. Having the after-school program has exposed us to the weaknesses of the city’s educational system which is sad. As a teacher, I would often have “Time Out” for a student, usually in the book corner. Now, if “Time Out” is needed, telling them to pick up a book is true punishment because many do not really know how to read and so do not like to read. It is a slow process to build that skill. Poor study habits, disorganization, lack of consistency in the schools, and so many other weaknesses just did not help.

Our volunteers were able to give some more individual attention as needed and built some good relationships.

The senior adults enjoyed opportunities also. Monthly luncheons with Bingo gave them an opportunity to have good conversations with neighbors and win some prizes. One of our Dominican Associates volunteered to cook the meal and came to enjoy being with these elders.

We also took them on field trips to museums, other cultural sites and local restaurants. We collaborated with another organization to provide an additional luncheon each month and a speaker who made presentations
on topics of interest to seniors about health, wealth and happiness. We also had a volunteer teacher for our adult computer classes, which took place for six-week sessions four times a year. The participants worked
with computer basics, WORD and EXCEL programs, and they practiced their typing skills.

We scheduled field trips for the kids and for the seniors. Some were to restaurants; some to museums; some to local amusements. For the kids, we began having two-week summer camps, but when we realized that families would love to have them at camps for longer periods, we sponsored many to local Catholic high schools or Zoo camp or sports camps, and these often lasted for a month at a time, so it was helpful to the families who
might not have the wherewithal to take a vacation or any time away.

As school began we purchased school supplies and gave gift cards to families to uniform companies to defray some of those costs, e.g., one pair of shoes could cost over $100 depending on the school’s requirement.

Then came COVID. By the middle of March 2020, New Orleans was on lockdown. We had just had our monthly senior luncheon with a St. Patrick’s theme. That was Wednesday and by Friday, we knew the schools would be closed indefinitely. Our doors were locked from 20 March until 1 June, when we were allowed to have a limited number of people coming in. I am sure most people reading this article can identify with the changes that this caused in their ministries. The ministries did not stop, but they all had to look different.

Between March and June, we would not be able to open our doors to anyone if we did not have masks and sanitizers and thermometers available; all of which were in short supply. The main goal every day became going to stores, checking online, looking at local newspaper ads until we could find the materials. Online orders were mostly coming by ship from China so it did take weeks for things to arrive, but we ordered anyway and kept looking locally.

One day a flyer appeared from a local pharmacy that had a limited supply of thermometers. We acquired one
and that meant the possibility existed that we could be open. Our neighborhood is primarily African American, so they were not leaving their homes for any reason. Parents kept their children close. We knew we had to find ways to go to them that would be helpful.

Several City Council districts set up food distribution locations, so any day one took place in our district our two cars became loaded down with products available, and then delivered door to door. One neighbor cried
because she had not had any fresh fruit for days and now found oranges and grapes in her delivery.

Seeing people, masked face to masked face, was its own reward. With the schools going to virtual education, we tried to keep in touch with what the families might need. The parents had to go to the schools and line up to receive available computers, and schools were running out. No one planned for the lockdown so supplies were
limited for everything.

We received moneys through a congregational grant and were able to purchase tablets that relieved some of the anxiety.

In June we received the go-ahead to allow no more than ten people to come inside. We let the families know and offered some afternoon time for the kids if they needed a break after school work or just needed a break
period. We were able to have snacks; some brought their work because they needed a little help, and some needed the desktop PCs that could give them more help. It began slowly and continued through the next year.

We were back to normal for the most part until 29 August, 2021, when Hurricane Ida paid us a visit as a Category 4 hurricane. No mandatory evacuations were ordered, but many who could, chose to do so, after all this was the 16th anniversary of Katrina. We did not leave, and, like everyone else, spent four days without electricity. We slept on the front and back porches, had enough gas to charge our phones and use the car’s AC for brief times, cleaned out the freezers and tried not to open the refrigerator doors at all.

ICE!!! Now that was the top priority.

We drove miles to wait in lines for two bags of ice. There were limits so we knew we could not get enough for the neighbors, but the food we could keep on ice we were able to share as needed. Lines at the grocery stores, lines at the gas stations; it was the days of lines. For Americans who want what they want when they want it, these were tough times.

Our neighbors took it all in stride, believe it or not. They knew we were around and would do what we could.
Once the electricity returned we set about visiting or calling people to check-in. Since many homes did not have central air-conditioning before the storm, the lack of AC was not a real hardship; after all, they had
their church fans. But once the power returned we would find them sitting right in front of a window unit even for a short time. Moratoriums were placed on rent and utility payments which helped so many people, but eventually, that ended. Now they face electricity shut offs or evictions. We found ourselves the contact point for financial requests.

Since COVID restrictions have been lifted, we have begun having field trips once again. We continue to sponsor the summer camp experiences, and we purchase school supplies and gift cards for the school uniform stores. We continue to respond as best we can to requests for financial aid and we welcome those who just want to chat.

Sister Ceal left the Center in the summer of 2020, and we have been blessed to replace her with Miss Vallerie Maurice who has become instrumental in programs with adult neighbors seeking employment and needing skills training. Vallerie also works with the seniors to organize programs they might find beneficial. Vallerie is an alumna of St. Mary’s Dominican High School so she understands the Dominican way.

Funding for Ministries
How have we been able to continue doing these ministries? Obviously, we have had the support of the Dominican Sisters of Peace and Associates. The Congregation gives us financial support for the ministries. Sisters have donated Jubilee gift money or specified that other gift money be allocated to the Peace Center.

Our Associates give both time and treasure to the center. One Associate cooks the meal for the monthly senior luncheon; another helps us to purchase the Easter hams that we put into baskets for the seniors. The greatest resource for us are grants and the grant writers in the Congregation work tirelessly to put together the requests that are made to local and national organizations.

“Grant speak” is not always very Dominican. You know how we love to wordsmith. Yet it is a language that can convey the truth of a situation in a way that words we might like better could not. The grants might be local, national or sponsored by other Religious Congregations. One group has a province in Canada and COVID restrictions where they lived prevented the Sisters from using their grants. So they asked other provinces, and their Sisters in New Orleans thought of the Peace Center.

We received gift cards to WalMart that helped so many people once stores opened and supplies increased.

Conclusion: Our Mission Statement
The mission statement of the Peace Center is “With Jesus at its heart, the Peace Center strives to build peace, preach, and be peace with residents of the surrounding area.”

As Dominicans we seek ways to educate for peace, seek the truth when the peace is broken, and look for solutions to repair the breaks. The Peace Center sits in the middle of it all, opens its doors and welcomes the people, young and old, to find some peace for themselves.

Recently, one of the neighborhood’s elders stopped for a visit, and as she stood to leave, she leaned in to me and said, “It had been 10 years since Katrina. The need was beyond all need, and then came the Peace Center.”.

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