A handmade sign advertises supplies available at ENCORE Academy.

After Hurricane Ida, people across our community stepped up to help those impacted by the storm, from their neighbors to those in other parishes. In New Orleans, schools have a long history of serving as community hubs, and after this storm was no exception. 

Schools citywide reached out to their students and families. They made sure they had information about the resources available to them. Educators fundraised within their personal networks. Students connected with one another, making sure their friends were safe. Nonprofits, mutual aid organizations, and community groups coordinated around supply drop-off and distribution, volunteer support, and financial resources. Schools set up COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites in preparation for the return back to class. 

ENCORE Academy, which serves pre-k through 8th graders, was one of those schools. ENCORE has always focused not just on its students, but on its neighbors in the St. Roch neighborhood. After Ida, they had the chance to serve anyone from across the city who wanted resources.

“We have always been a school that embraces the community and the neighborhood,” ENCORE founder and CEO Terri Smith explains. 

ENCORE’s director of student support, Sam King, managed much of the outreach to both the school community and their neighbors. After the storm hit, she and three colleagues began connecting with ENCORE’s families.  

“In the days after the storm, we were just texting and reaching out to families to see where they ended up and if they needed anything. In the first couple of weeks after the storm, we were able to make contact with most of our families and do a pretty solid needs assessment,” King says.

Many families needed funding for urgent basic needs, like food, gasoline, medicine, and shelter. ENCORE’s staff helped fundraise even as they coped with the disaster themselves. Within the first few weeks after the storm, they had raised and distributed $10,000 in direct relief to families. They had $8,000 more available through a GoFundMe account that families were registering for access to as well. 

King also jumped at the chance to partner with two community organizations they trusted, Imagine Water Works and Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE). Imagine Water Works was looking for a site for aid and resource distribution, and CORE was one of the organizations they had asked to help with that process. 

CORE was already a partner with ENCORE. They had been running COVID-19 tests across New Orleans schools since last year, and had been testing at ENCORE since last winter, sometimes testing over 200 students a day. CORE engages in disaster response of all kinds, however, so after Ida, they turned their focus to direct response and aid.  “We started mobilizing the Tuesday after the storm,” explains Brian Falgoust, Deputy Area Manager of CORE. “Since ENCORE had been such a great partner to us, and also has a great connection with Imagine Water Works, it was kind of a no-brainer” to partner with the school again.

CORE advertised its COVID-19 testing.

King was quickly on board. “Imagine Water Works has been doing a ton of work around disaster relief and CORE has been doing a lot of work around COVID,” she explains. “They have the organizing skills, they have the knowledge of disaster relief funding and resources, and community connections – and they also had volunteers. What ENCORE had was physical space. So when they reached out, that was something that we were more than happy to offer.”

Social media post from Imagine Water Works sharing details about the offerings at ENCORE

Within days of the storm, ENCORE was the site of free supply distribution and services organized by Imagine Water Works, with support from CORE and other local groups. Imagine Water Works raised more than $50,000 for supplies and used additional funds from their Hurricane Ida Relief Fund to pay community members to pick up and deliver supplies and offer services on-site at ENCORE. CORE raised an additional $5,000 and helped with sourcing and distribution.

“There was water and ice available. We had cleaning supplies available, construction supplies, tarps, food, diapers, hygiene items…it just filled the entire first floor of our school. It was really incredible,” King says. 

Imagine Water Works also brought in different musicians each day, and Miss Linda “the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady” cooked meals. There were reiki healers, massage therapists, acupuncturists and herbalists on site for free holistic healing. Imagine Water Works set up a computer lab with a solar-powered charging station, and hired Emergency Legal Responders to help folks through the FEMA application process. “Schools have always been the heart and soul of their neighborhoods,” says Klie Kliebert, Executive Director of Imagine Water Works. “This kind of deep connection is healing and can provide stability, especially to children and their families, in times of crisis — it’s an invaluable resource throughout disaster relief work. The way that Encore opened its doors to us in the wake of Hurricane Ida is a replicable model for others across the Gulf Coast.”

ENCORE stayed open as a distribution site and resource center for two weeks. Over 1000 families received supplies, including thousands of diapers, batteries, and disinfecting wipes. Then, on September 20th, school started back up again. 

Even though classes are back in session, CORE offered testing through mid-October at ENCORE, and Smith and King are thinking through ways to offer comprehensive community supports beyond times of crisis. “What would it look like if we could open up one day a week for a couple of hours just to the community to offer support with whatever folks might need, whether they need assistance in filing for SNAP benefits, or if they need help navigating any of these difficult systems?” King asks. “It’s the dream, right?”

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