Connie Uddo is the outreach coordinator for Beacon of Hope, a grassroots neighborhood organization established by Denise Thorton. She also works with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana in the Office of Disaster Response. Beacon of Hope demonstrates the Tocquevillian impulse for association and exemplifies the critical information sharing role of social entrepreneurs.
What is Beacon of Hope?
Beacon of Hope [is a] grassroots neighborhood organization that formed with a homeowner, Denise Thornton, out of her house.
Denise started out opening her house up…to people as they came in to address their homes. She formed a database of referrals for electricians, plumbers, [and] contractors because at that time, phone books didn’t work. You couldn’t find your electrician or your plumber because his business was probably flooded out. Phone lines were still all down for a year. And so, she formed this database and she became a respite for her neighborhood.
[Denise] started bringing in volunteers and started a major clean up….We’d take a whole block and go down a block and just clean all the front yards…[We’re] still cleaning yards and abandoned properties and lots.
How did you get involved with Beacon of Hope?
I met Denise [in] May 2006, the year after the storm….I was trying to figure out a way to survive because I was the first of ten families, out of 7,500 flooded homes, to have electricity. So, I was living in this nuclear disaster bombed out, no one around, with my kids and my husband….I met Denise and she said the only way to survive here is to get busy, start helping your neighbor. So, we opened my house as the first Beacon of Hope satellite. From there, I was running the Beacon of Hope out of my house.
How did you get involved with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana?
I opened [Beacon of Hope] in May, and by August the pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is in Lakeview, had heard about all of the good things that we were doing….He had seen a lot of the progress we were making just in my little gridded neighborhood. And he took me over to this empty building and he said, “You know, I have a vision; I would like to open a full Katrina response center with housing, with case management, with resources. And I’m building a church and a school, and I can’t do it [alone]. If you would come on board, we could have this building.” And he showed me the building, and I just immediately saw what he was saying….I just knew it was the next step.
I went on board and became a staff member with the Episcopal Diocese. They had formed the disaster-response office which is the first disaster-response office ever formed in the history of the Episcopal Church.
What have volunteers brought to the recovery effort, especially in Lakeview?
The volunteers have played such a critical role in our recovery. Not only have they brought that physical labor that we needed because it was just so overwhelming to clean…you got 200,000 homes or 180,000 homes….We cleaned for two years with volunteers. But really, what they bring besides that work [are] two very important things: hope and energy.
People were just in despair and so discouraged and still are because things are going so slow. And they’re tired. Every day is a fight to live here and to rebuild your house and to work and to raise a family on top of all of that, and to address all of the issues that were attached to that.
We have hosted—probably in Lakeview alone, I would say—12,000 volunteers in the last two years….Planting green space was one of our big goals, because we felt like we had to do something positive. We used 700 volunteers to plant eight miles of green space, 2,500 trees and shrubs.
Why has Beacon of Hope been so successful?
Beacon of Hope was successful because of the way we structured [the organization]. We took Lakeview, 7,300 homes to 7,500 homes, and we gridded it out….[We] have a Beacon of Hope in this area and a Beacon of Hope in another little area of Lakeview. We divided into five grids.
And people started approaching Denise and I and saying, “God, you’re looking good. What are you all doing? And can I be a Beacon of Hope?” And so, we had Beacon of Hopes in trailers, and we had one in a dental office. Gridding that out, I think is one of the reasons why it’s successful. Because we broke it down into a manageable situation….It’s like looking in a big dirty house, and if you just take it one room at a time, before you know it, the house is clean. Well, that’s how we did. One bite at a time. One block at a time. One home at a time. One neighborhood at a time….
We have morphed into Gentilly; we have three Beacon of Hopes in Gentilly right now. We have one in the Ninth Ward that we support with lawn equipment and things like that. We’ve even rippled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Bridge City, Texas. We’ve gone there and given meetings on how neighborhoods can recover. And I really think the Beacon of Hope model could be a national model for neighborhood recovery. It works.
It sounds like the Beacon model is really based on decentralization, is that correct?
Any beacon could create their own project, create their own goals of what they wanted in their neighborhood….[In the] Lakeview area, 30 percent [of the residents were] 65 and over. We knew those elderly couldn’t come home. So, we would sit down with them and talk to them; help get a demolition crew to demolish the house; or get them to list their house. So now, because of those decisions, [Lakeview] is…becoming a great young neighborhood full of vitality. I think that was a very important thing that decentralization did. We did have the liberty…to create our own projects.
The critical thing that we set up was the St. Paul’s Homecoming/Beacon of Hope, and that became the mothership beacon….What I created there was a one-stop shopping concept where people could…come to my center. They could have a case manager if they had huge issues that our mini-beacons couldn’t assist them with. We had a washateria in a double-wide trailer set up that was free because no one had washers and dryers because they were in trailers. We offered a free notary. We offered Road Home representation. We offered a lawn equipment lend-out service because everybody’s lawn mowers were flooded. People could come and borrow lawn equipment to keep their weeds cut. People could come, and they could get on a computer; they could use a fax.
We were also an incredible emotional respite for people. We always had a pot of coffee going. We always had snacks and food. We tried to create a very homey atmosphere where people were comfortable and didn’t feel intimidated coming in and overwhelmed. We would literally sit and address their issues, point by point, make a list, and start connecting them to the resources that address their needs.
I truly feel like every neighborhood, if they have had a center like this, they would be further along. Because people needed a hub to go to for answers, for resources, to get immediate action going. We weren’t bureaucratic. There was not red tape to go through. You needed help; you got it.
Where should Americans direct their resources if they want to help out the Gulf Coast?
We’re not really getting the funding anymore, especially the grassroots organizations. If you’re a corporation or an organization that wants to support [us] in some way…I would like to see the funding go to the people still on the ground doing the work. And United Way, actually, is a big agency, but they are a tremendous supporter. They’re one of our funders….The faith-based [organizations] have just played such a critical role here. They have been here since the third day after the storm, and they’re still here. They have totally funded the recovery themselves.
And so, I would like to see corporations contact…faith-based, grassroots, their local churches and say, “I would like to support the Episcopals or the Lutherans in the city, or Catholic Charities or whoever in the city of New Orleans, towards the recovery.”
Why have faith-based organizations been so successful?
I think…they’re incredibly organized. I think their hearts are in the right place. They’re not in it for profit or glory….The faith-based have deep pockets. Their churches are strong, and the outpouring has just been so huge within the churches.
I really think if the faith-based were given more—if they would have run our Road Home program or some of this federal stuff were given to the faith-based—I think it would have been more efficiently run….They’re the first to show up, and they’re there for the long haul. They’re the last to leave.
What can be learned from Katrina?
I think the best way New Orleanians can give back to everyone who has helped us is to tell them this: We’re in an economic freefall just like we were in a Katrina freefall.
You’re going to have to get up everyday and figure it out. Don’t wait for your government because your government…has forgotten how to care for its people. I think our government is broken, too broken to care for its people. We’re going to be part of that repairing of our own government by repairing our own lives. I think that’s the greatest teaching we can give.
I tell groups, “Get off your sofas; don’t wait for Obama to come fix your economic problems. Start thinking out of the box like we had to. Try to figure it out how to feed your family, if that’s what it’s going to get down to, like we had to do”….Shoulder with each other like we have with the people of America, and I think we will be a stronger country and a better country.