Looking back, Cliff Doescher quietly reflected on all that has occurred since those very dark days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area in August 2005. Doescher serves as executive director of Arc of Greater New Orleans, a 62-year-old non-profit that helps children and adults with intellectual disabilities and delays, such as Down syndrome and autism.
As the 10th anniversary of both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita approach, Doescher said, "I tend to look at all the positives that came from the devastation. What we accomplished here at Arc, as a team, is what I remember and what stands out to this day."
What had to be accomplished after the storms of 2005 was the daunting task of rebuilding a non-profit that helped, at the time, more than 1,300 of the community's most under served residents, Doescher said. Arc did this by operating day centers that offered those with disabilities a safe environment with age-appropriate activities, such as health and fitness programs, community volunteer opportunities and work.
In the weeks and months after the storms, Doescher said those Arc participants he saw were often confused and grasping for understanding of what had happened. "Arc was their stability and without the organization, they had no place to go. Families were also in need because those who could work needed to know their loved one was being taken care of," he recalled. "We had tremendous hurdles we had to overcome."
Polly Campbell livedin Chalmette when Katrina hit and took this picture on Aug. 30, 2005. She was one of the volunteer leaders who had just led a group to work on Torres Park, and she took a picture of the park completely inundated. In the background is the Prince of Peace property, and the tall building is Sterling Hall. Years later, Prince of Peace would become the Arc Chalmette Community Center.Polly Campbell
The task ahead was not just rebuilding bricks and mortar, but restoring some sense of normalcy for those that Arc serves as well as employs, which in 2005 meant some 1,400 people. Of those, nearly 60 percent lost everything in the storms, he said.
Prior to Katrina, Arc managed four centers and a respite home spread about in three parishes – Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard. Two centers flooded; the other two suffered damage due to high winds.
"I knew picking up the pieces was not going to be easy, but looking back over the past decade, I'm proud of what we have accomplished despite the challenges," Doescher said.
Over the years, Arc has been able to expand as an integral part of the organization and that is its social enterprises, or non-profit businesses that Arc manages, which then allows Arc to employ those with disabilities. Arc Enterprises manages several social enterprises, or non-profit businesses. The companies allow Arc to employ dozens of people with disabilities and range in everything from the Vintage Garden Kitchen, a commercial endeavor that produces healthy soups, wraps and salads, to a recycling center that collects, sorts, repackages and sells Mardi Gras beads and trinkets.
Piecing people's lives together was just one task Doescher faced, the other was putting Arc, the agency, back on its feet and making it whole. Because there was limited building space that could be used, all services were relocated to its Uptown center. Its Jefferson Parish Center was the first building to be gutted and rebuilt and that was accomplished in a little over a year, but only because of a fluke run in Doescher and Vance Levesque, Arc's Controller, had when they were in town briefly to check on Arc properties.
Levesque said, "Here we are a few weeks after Katrina, very few people around and driving along the one lane that was open on Airline Drive we just so happen run into a contractor from Shreveport looking for work. We hired him on the spot and once we could return to Jefferson Parish, we started working on our Labarre Road facility. We were one of the lucky ones as we only had to wait a little over a year to reopen that building."
Once that was accomplished, Doescher started working on a plan to rebuild in St. Bernard Parish where Arc had lost all three buildings. Leaving a huge void for those in the parish as well as eastern New Orleans, Doescher and longtime volunteer and mother of a teenager with disabilities, Polly Campbell, worked to find a location for Arc.
Keeping in mind that St. Bernard Parish sustained nearly 100 percent destruction made this even more challenging, as what was still standing was going to need to be rebuilt. It took years, but finally in 2010, Arc announced plans to reopen after entering a long-term lease to take over the former Prince of Peace Catholic Church and surrounding grounds. The Archdiocese of New Orleans closed Prince of Peace after it flooded in nearly 20-feet of water that inundated St. Bernard Parish. The church was deconstructed leaving Arc the rectory and a 12,000 square foot community center.
The rectory was gutted and rebuilt and in 2011 became the new Arc Chalmette Community Center. Arc just recently finished renovating the community center, which is known as Sterling Hall, and it now houses services offices as well as serves as a rental facility for private events.
In addition to opening the new Chalmette Community Center, Arc has also expanded it's presence in Jefferson Parish, by opening a second facility, and recently located a center on the Northshore in St. Tammany Parish. It has since closed the respite home, but 10-years after Katrina, Arc is now operating seven facilities, serving close to 1,000 people and looking forward to many, many more years of service to those with intellectual disabilities and delays, Doescher said.