How the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission (NORD) and The 18th Ward connect, empower, and support New Orleans’ students
At NSNO, we work to ensure every child in New Orleans has a great education. Academics are at the heart of this, but for every child to truly thrive, they need a holistic, supportive experience in and outside of the classroom. They need access to the arts, athletics, mental health resources, and a strong sense of community and culture.
Schools across the city are providing these things, often in partnership with local organizations. Throughout the fall, we’ll be highlighting some of those extracurricular opportunities for students. To kick off the series, we’re focusing on two organizations that form a strong community for students outside of school–using the power of sports and other extracurriculars. The 18th Ward focuses on bringing young people together from across our 17 wards, and NORD has long brought children together through their shared neighborhood.
Between NORD’s programs and The 18th Ward’s, New Orleans’ young people have rich opportunities to play sports, access resources, and develop as leaders outside of school hours. NORDC and The 18th Ward are collaborating this year to provide soccer at Easton Playground in Mid City and Norman Playground on the West Bank. Both organizations are focused on making sure that children have safe, supportive spaces to grow and connect with one another.
The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) Commission
The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) Commission has been serving the city since 1947. Their neighborhood parks and centers are community institutions, and they live up to their motto of “something for everyone” with programming and events for young children through seniors. They go beyond offering recreational programming–they help community members access food and housing, open their center doors in extreme heat and cold, and provide resources in the wake of natural disasters. NSNO’s CEO, Dana Peterson, is a proud member of the NORD Commission.
NORD’s programming for young people is extensive. Their recreation centers are open after school; each day, many students get dropped off at one directly from their school bus, and others have their evening meal at a center. Forty of their playgrounds offer sports teams. They also offer theater classes, arts and music programming, holiday events, and a “teen council.” Larry Barabino, Jr., CEO Of NORD, explains these spaces play an important role in New Orleans’ culture, and that they’re intertwined with the sense of belonging that can come from a neighborhood, a school, and a city.
“When you meet a person in New Orleans, you ask a few questions,” he says. “‘Where did you grow up? Which playground did you play at?’ Because, you know, our neighborhood playgrounds mean a lot to us. And ‘where did you attend school?”
Barabino says that he was a “NORD kid” himself and later volunteered at the same playground he played at.
“I wouldn’t be the CEO of NORD if I would not have started my career at Willie Hall playground, first as a kid playing sports in 1978-79, and then returning in 1991-92 as a volunteer coach at the same playground that I played at–which serves the kids out of the St. Bernard housing project, which is where I grew up,” he explains. “I know the role that NORD played in my life as a kid, as a volunteer, and today as a professional.”
NORD’s efforts are inextricably linked with the work of our city’s schools, and the organization is responsive to student’s needs. When they noticed, for instance, that some children were thriving on NORD sports teams, but unable to play in high school because of the schools’ and Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) GPA cutoff, they took action. They worked with middle schools to create middle-school sports teams that also had a GPA requirement. This prepared students for the expectations they’d face later on, and gave them the chance to make the most of academic resources at their school and NORD’s homework help sessions earlier.
NORD is also working to empower young people as leaders. Last year, NORD convened teenagers from across New Orleans.
“We had representatives from different high schools across the city. And our teens said that they wanted a festival. They wanted a festival that was like the Jazz Fest that was just for them,” Barabino explains.” So we created it. We hosted the Gen Z Fest in June.”
It was one of the hottest days of the summer so far, but over six hundred teens showed up to enjoy the music, food, and games.
For Barabino, this strong turnout wasn’t much of a surprise. He knows how important NORD’s spaces can be for our city’s children, and he’s fiercely devoted to making sure they are open, welcoming, and supportive. He remembers how much they meant to him, growing up, and he wants to provide the same resource to today’s children.
“Anytime I wanted to go to a safe space,” he says, “I went to my neighborhood playground.”
The 18th Ward
A local nonprofit, The 18th Ward, is also devoted to building safe spaces for play, growth, and recreation, and works to connect young people from different parts of the city.
The 18th Ward launched in 2019 with the goal of providing high-quality, low-cost sports programs for New Orleans’ youth aged 3-24. But their work has never been just about the sports themselves. They strive to build community, and purposefully build teams that are diverse in terms of race, gender, income, and neighborhood; families pay what they can to participate. The organization envisions that, in a city with 17th wards, the 18th is where children from all neighborhoods play together.
The 18th Ward Chief Operating Officer Ashley Butler believes this has the power to transform New Orleans. As young people build relationships across lines of difference, she says, they integrate their social worlds.
“Who are you going to invite to your birthday party? Who are you going to invite to your crawfish boil?” she asks. “We’re building the connection, and removing barriers–not just barriers to participation in our program, barriers to interconnectivity within our city, which is so divided by race and class.”
This vision and model resonates–The 18th Ward has grown exponentially in recent years. The program launched with just 40 children and eight coaches; this year, over 4,000 children participated. Around 400 high-school and college aged students–nearly all of whom were people of color, and more than half of whom were women–joined them for part-time jobs as coaches.
But as Butler sees it, The 18th Ward isn’t just about athletics. The program is a strong, supportive community for students and families.
“It’s more than sports. Sports are great. We love sports,” she explains. “But it’s more than that–when your kid is struggling to get out of bed, or struggling at school, it really matters when there are people you can rely on for support…we use sports as a vehicle to build that network of support.”
For The 18th Ward’s coaches, students who are in high school and college, Butler says it’s about skill-building beyond the field.
“We are helping them build leadership skills, communication skills, and financial literacy opportunities. Maybe this is their first paycheck–we can help them with getting a bank account, moving through some of those milestones.”
As students work as coaches, says Butler, they also grow as people.
“We’re trying to model to our coaches, ‘okay, this is how you kick the ball. This is how you catch the ball.’ But also like, ‘this is how you treat people. This is how your words can change an environment,’” she explains.
A number of The 18th Ward’s coaches come from local universities–the organization has partnerships with teams at Xavier, Dillard, Tulane, and Loyola–but many of their coaches are former players. As these young people move into this new role, they continue to leverage The 18th Wards’ community–socially, athletically, and now professionally, as The 18th Ward’s full-time staff connects them to parents or other coaches who share their career interests or goals.
For Butler, this type of community building and support is what The 18th Ward is all about.
“It’s not just youth sports,” she says. “It’s not just creating jobs. It’s creating a pipeline where kids from three to 24 have a place to be, have a community to be a part of, and it’s something that they not only can receive from, but that they can give back to.”
At NSNO, we believe that programs like NORD and The 18th Ward are critical. They’re a powerful part of the constellation of support our children need to truly thrive. We look forward to profiling more extracurricular programs in the weeks to come.