A July veto by Gov. Bobby Jindal stung a 40 year old St. Mary Community Action Agency, a non-governmental organization whose work got the attention of Capitol Hill, after they took in more than 3,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees and fed them their first hot meal in days.
Veto message No 198 was to provide $100, 000 to the St Mary Parish Community Action. The message that followed in a Jindal issued press release stated, “This is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) funding request which did not meet the criteria established in my letter of April 30, 2008. Therefore, I am vetoing this item.”
St. Mary Community Action Director Almetra J. Franklin said she was “startled” when she heard the news. “We were just one of 258 cuts. But all of the Governor’s cuts affected children and families, and that bothers me. I still don’t understand how he can talk about a new quality of life for Louisianians, and then turn around and do something like this,” she said.
“When you talk about social services and improving the quality of life of this state, and the need for employees and people to work, but more importantly helping to bring people from the bottom to the top, why cut the driving force who empowers, enriches and teaches life skills to these folk? Is that the kind of Louisiana we’re trying to build?” Franklin asked.
During Hurricane Katrina, the St. Mary Community Action Agency took more than 3,000 of the first wave of Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and gave them their first hot meal in days. They also placed 105 children into Head Start classrooms, and they sponsored an adoption program that led 23 families to take in displaced residents of New Orleans.
Jennifer Turner, found out about the St. Mary organization about 15 days after Katrina. She is a New Orleanian who, together with her family, drove to a friend’s home in Morgan City, who informed her of the agency. She had previously evacuated to North Louisiana, but later returned to her home.
“After living for about a week with no power, and no sleep, and watching my husband guard our home with a shot-gun because of looters, I was near the break of losing it,” Turner said.
“If it had not been for St. Mary Community Action, I know I would have lost my mind. With their assistance, I found my peace again. Then, I found housing, I got food stamps,” she said.
“With their help, you knew that things weren’t all right, but you also could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Turner said. She has since returned to New Orleans, and has been able to re-open her business, which also was heavily damaged from Katrina.
St. Mary Community Action’s work during Hurricane Katrina also caught the attention of former Democratic Presidential hopeful Chris Dodd, who referenced the organization during speeches he made on the campaign trail.
Dodd called the work “…acts of justice. Although their work did not remove the stain of what happened, it can begin to tell us how the stain might be dissolved.”
Laura Meadows, legislative assistant for Senator Butch Gautreaux, said she too was baffled by the veto. “I call Ms. Almetra for everything, and 99 percent of the time, she either can help me with the problems I have, or she points me in the direction to go. This is one veto I believe was not researched properly,” she said.
“Our motto is people helping people, reaching families, touching lives,” Franklin said. “And we try to do that with programs like Head Start, Home Buying, Job Access, Jag, Utility Assistance, even transportation – yes we bring those with no transportation back and forth to the doctor, especially for things like kidney dialysis.”
Franklin is also in the planning stages of launching a Foreclosure Mitigation Program, to help people work with their mortgage lenders, instead of entering the foreclosure process where they would lose their homes.
“Our programs aid tax payers, and non-tax payers. We were planning to use this money for the expansion of services – particularly in emergency responsiveness. With all the good we did during Katrina, we checked ourselves and evaluated our weak points. That’s what this money was going to help us fix,” Franklin said.
State Rep. Sam Jones said he could not believe St. Mary Community Action was part of the Governor’s veto list.
“He’s such a big proponent of early childhood – and there’s no group I know who does it best like Mrs. Franklin and her staff. They do so much good, since 1963 or 64. And she’s been at the helm for the past 19 years,” Jones said.