Five years after Hurricane Katrina struck, Sister Judith Brun remains a beacon for children traumatized by the storm.
Day in and day out, she is in the community to assist displaced families with everything from housing and counseling to educational opportunities.
Along with a team of art therapists, Sister Judith also helps kids “find a way to tell their story.”
Devon is one of these children.
In a shaky voice, Devon said, “I feel like it’s my fault.”
He blamed himself for his infant cousin’s death during the hurricane. The baby needed CPR, and no one who knew CPR, including Devon, was there to help.
Sister Judith says Devon “drew his way through a resolution of knowing that he had done well," and there was nothing more he could have done.
After drawing through the moments of the hurricane, Devon was finally able to write next to the baby’s mouth, “It’s not your fault.” He whispered that back to himself over and over again.
Children like Devon are the number-one priority for Sister Judith and her Community Initiatives Foundation (CIF) team.
“In order to help children," she says, "we must also work with the family. Just like on an airplane; the directions are to put on your own oxygen mask, then assist your children.”
The families she works with “have a strong heritage of poverty, of compromised education and of not really being self-sustaining. If they weren’t self-sustaining before, and they have this trauma laid on top of their lives, these folks really have some challenges to face.”
She adds, “Two-thirds of the heads of households we began to serve had significant mental health challenges.”
The families are also among the last residents of Renaissance Village, a trailer park set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the outskirts of Baton Rouge to house as many as 2,000 Katrina evacuees.
Sister Judith says that CIF practices a “very intensive contact model” for its clients. Five years after the storm, Sister Judith is still going door-to-door checking on the children.
A driver for the families is also available. His name is Mr. Lionel, and Sister Judith calls him “the glue” of the program. He’s like “a grandpa to everyone”, she says.
Just like the kids and parents the Community Initiatives Foundation helps, Mr. Lionel was relocated to Baton Rouge because of Katrina. He picks up families and takes them to their appointments, while helping them learn to be as self-sustaining as possible.
Community Initiatives Foundation has worked with more than 200 families since the storm, and has undoubtedly made a lasting impact.
Two children in particular have touched Sister Judith's life.
“I love Adrian dearly,” she says of 11-year-old Adrian Love.
Adrian and her father (seen in this New York Times video) were among the last to leave Renaissance Village. Sister Judith has been a safety net for them ever since.
She has high hopes for this “bright little girl,” but worries about her father. She says he “is a very loving father and has done a great job raising her” but is “very single-minded and his developmental capacities are a little challenged.”
Opening up about her experience after the storm has been a challenge for Adrian.
Sister Judith says, “She learns from her dad that you just toughen up and move on…. This is a legacy Adrian has that we’re hoping we can help her adjust and realize that Dad’s great, but we don’t have to do everything like Dad.”
Sister Judith has also advocated for Justin Nicholson since the storm hit.
“Justin I fall in and out of love with regularly.” With a laugh, she adds, “I always have to remind him that he is blessed with two ears and one mouth.”
Sister Judith’s role with Justin has been that of stability and opportunity. After Katrina, she opened the door for him to Boy’s Hope, a residential program for promising kids who have the potential to go to college.
Justin has the capacity to do well, though Sister Judith says, “He has to be reminded every now and then.” She adds, “I don’t do this lightly. I do this with serious love.”
Justin has a legacy of prison. His mom went to prison, and his dad, two uncles and other relatives are all in jail. She is hoping to “start another legacy” for the high school sophomore.
Today he is thriving in school and has a 3.7 grade point average.
Sister Judith has recently taken her endeavor one step further. She and her team, along with National Heritage Academies, have started the Inspire Charter Academy for children in Baton Rouge.
Focusing on the highest need children, the school, she hopes, will be a wonderful opportunity for the kids and “a rising tide for the neighborhood.”
When asked why she continues to help Katrina’s children five years later, Sister Judith says, “I am in love with a group of people, and I can’t not serve them.”