Introducing the Lifetime Exercise and Physical Activity Service-Learning (LE PAS) Program: Young Katrina Victims in Louisiana Learn to Cope with Their Loss through This Physical Activity Program

Article excerpt

"Hurricane Katrina was the single most catastrophic natural disaster in
our nation's history."
--David Paulison, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director
(U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS], 2006)

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina pulverized the daily life once known to Gulf Coast residents. This storm, coupled with Hurricane Rita, which struck the Louisiana-Texas border nearly a month later, devastated a square-mile area greater than the size of Great Britain (DHS, 2006). The most notable effects were the breached levees and 80 percent flooding of New Orleans, leveled homes throughout coastal communities, and incapacitated, gridlocked roadways (Wikipedia, 2006). As a result, more than 275,000 Louisianans were forced to find alternate housing (Louisiana Geographic Information Center, 2006), which mostly took the form of travel trailers and mobile homes provided by FEMA (DHS, 2006). Almost overnight, approximately 65 FEMA-run, short-term living communities cropped up throughout Louisiana (Singer, 2006). The state's first and largest makeshift community, dubbed "Renaissance Village," opened in October 2005, and it was the site for the exercise and physical activity promotion initiative introduced in this article.

Renaissance Village

Renaissance Village was built on 62 acres of pastureland near a juvenile correctional center in Baker, Louisiana, a town of roughly 14,000 people just north of Baton Rouge. It is a crowded FEMA-run community of nearly 575 trailers housing over 1,600 hurricane evacuees from some of the poorest sections of the Gulf Coast (DHS, 2006). The village can best be described as a barren grid of white, metal, vacation-size travel trailers containing anywhere from single individuals to six-person families, and separated by gravel roadways that radiate clouds of gray dust with every passing car. Besides the black-and-white "address" labels (e.g., B-11; E-19) and the sporadic potted plants for exterior decorating, little distinguishes one trailer from the next. The expansive green fields bordering the trailers cannot be reached because of the chain-linked fence surrounding the property. The patches of new grass sprouting in the limited space between trailers are the only natural greenery on the site. If it were not for an overgrown picnic area on the periphery, the sterile, treeless village would be without any natural shade.

The community-wide facilities in Renaissance Village are sparse. When the park first opened in October 2005, there was a cafeteria trailer serving three meals a day, a "library" trailer housing only computers, and a trailer for volunteer service providers. These trailers have remained on site, but for purposes other than originally intended. There is also a small laundry facility; a row of mailboxes; an unheated, non-air-conditioned canopy tent used for community meetings and church services; and a slab of concrete that serves as a basketball court. According to the land-use restrictions by FEMA, all structures are meant to be temporary (Singer, 2006). Guards from a private security company, present 24 hours a day, screen visitors and returning residents. Anyone wishing to enter Renaissance Village must show identification.

The facilities improved in the fall of 2006. Comedian Rosie O'Donnell's For All Kids Foundation donated an estimated $3 million for services and structures dedicated to the children of Renaissance Village (Singer, 2006). In time, three double-wide, mobile classrooms for Head Start, Early Head Start, and after-school learning programs were delivered, and a colorful, spacious children's plaza--including two playgrounds; a large, turf-covered gathering area; and a water play area--was erected. The installation of these facilities freed up two trailers that are now used as a teen center and a family center, respectively.

Besides the physical features, there are several contextual characteristics of Renaissance Village that deserve mention. …