The dimples deepen in LaShawna Schofield’s lively face as she recalls a moment a year ago when she watched a child scamper across the floor — a kid who just months before had been unable to take even one uncertain step.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” Schofield says. “Small steps, maybe, but a big one for me.”
Schofield’s life is measured in such small steps. As executive director of Raintree Children and Family Services, she sees a lot of need in a state where medical and mental services are being cut back, where 29 percent of children live in homes that meet federal guidelines for poverty, where more and more, children are falling through widening cracks left by shrinking budgets and programming.
She has seen school-age children who have never been to class, simply because no one ever bothered to enroll them.
She has gotten calls in the night, asking if she might have a bed for a runaway.
She has met girls pushed into prostitution at unconscionable ages by guardians.
She watched last year as one of her girls opened a Christmas present with wonderment, because her family had never celebrated the holiday. Not once had she ever been given a yuletide gift.
Older New Orleanians will remember the single-story brick house at the corner of Eighth and Chestnut in the Garden District as the Protestant Home for Babies, a place that started in 1926 as an orphange and where, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, unwed mothers received care and babies were placed for adoption.
The world has changed a lot since then, and the organization, now Raintree Child and Family Services, has adapted heroically to the times, overseeing everything from foster families and after-school care to therapy for developmentally disabled toddlers.
Residentially, the former orphanage has given way to a group home. At any given time, Raintree House, in a handsome two-story frame building next door to Raintree Services headquarters, is home to a dozen girls who have nowhere else to go.
“We came to the realization a few months ago that we are one of the only local agencies that is doing this kind of work,” Schofield says. “We’re the only all-female group home for abused and neglected children ages 10 to 17.”
The young residents, referred to Raintree by state child welfare specialists, get short-term intensive services, including counseling and tutoring. The average stay is only three months, but not because the girls don’t want to remain. For many of them, it is the best place they’ve ever lived. But state and federal money is tight, and it’s cheaper to put kids into foster or relatives’ homes than institutions. So they continue to get shuttled through the system.
“We stay with them, though,” Schofield said. “They get attached to the staff and we keep up with them.”
Raintree House is only a drop in the parent agency’s philanthropic bucket.
Raintree Services’ Early Stages Family Coordination program, started in the ‘90s, works with parents and their children up to age 3 with developmental disabilities. They are kids like Karson, born to a substance-addicted mother that necessitated a three-month stay in neonatal intensive care, and who is now babbling like any inquisitive 2-year-old after months of occupational and physical therapy under the direction of a Raintree case worker.
The 130 other youngsters getting counseling and care represent half the number served a year ago: The state mandated that only children who qualified under two disability domains, instead of just one, could be accepted.
“So a child with, say, just speech impairment doesn’t qualify. He has to have another disability,” Schofield explains.
She and her staff are living on edge these days, she says, as the Family Coordination program was scheduled to be cut from the state budget in May, then was refunded at the last minute for one year.
“We don’t know if we will even last through next June.”
Other Raintree programs include Family Foster Care, with the agency recruiting, training and supervising foster families for about 30 children, and an after-school program, partnering this holiday season with the New Orleans Recreation Department, that offers early intervention and education to 103 kids 6 to 17 in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes who have been determined to be at-risk for disciplinary action.
In all, Raintree Services in the past year intervened in a meaningful way in the lives of 476 children categorized, in the lingo, as belonging to “vulnerable populations.”
“These kids’ situations are so dire,” Schofield says. “We have parents who love their children but just don’t see to special needs, like a child with spina bifida. Others have their own issues, and say, ‘I just can’t do it.’ A school administrator told me the other day that one of her mothers was taking her child out of school to put her to work.
“There is just such need.”
Schofield has seen it all firsthand. In her 15 years in the field she has dealt with substance-abusing parents, the AIDS population, troubled youth, foster care children, the homeless. All the “vulnerable populations.” She has been executive director at Raintree since 2007.
“Changing the scenery helped,” she says with a laugh. “Going into administration, you see the broader issues, not the day to day heartbreak.
“Still, all I have to do is walk across the yard and my heart goes right back into it. Seeing the changes in the individual, no matter how small, is what keeps us all going.”
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.