In accepting an invitation to tour the still-devastated areas of New Orleans, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner and about 30 other Hollywood women – actors, directors, musicians, activists and philanthropists – received a heartbreaking first-hand look at the ongoing struggles in the area, more than seven months after Hurricane Katrina hit. The recent trip, sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and organized by founder Marion Wright Edelman, focused on the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, the New Freedom School and a makeshift hospital. Here are some of their accounts.
The night before the trip, Garner rocked 5-month-old Violet to sleep before leaving her with husband Ben Affleck. It was her first time away from her first child.
“I didn’t want to leave her, but I thought to myself, ‘People in New Orleans love their children as much as I love mine and I might be able to help there,’ ‘ she says “I’m talking to my husband all day long to see how our baby is. Our children are brought into privilege, but you know that this kind of catastrophe could happen anywhere.”
Garner, 32, listened as single dad Douglass Chambers spoke at the New Freedom School about how his son, Douglass junior, 11, was falling behind in his studies since the storm. “He told about going from teacher to teacher and to counselors,” she says. “He was not going to leave any stone unturned to help his child.”
Another parent described how a little girl was now afraid of bathtubs, sure that she would drown in the water. And on rainy days, a staff member said, many children don’t go to school out of fear that they won’t return home.
So moved was Garner that she is considering what she can do in her home state of West Virginia, a “poor place,” and already began asking Edelman (of the Children’s Defense Fund) for suggestions. “I’ll be talking about this a lot, she says, “Telling my family what I saw. I can see that this isn’t over.’
“They deserve more than the pile of rocks that is their playground,’ says Witherspoon, 30, as she visited a FEMA trailer park where families who had lost their homes and most of their belongings squeezed together.
She talked with Diane Lazard, who lives in a one-bedroom trailer with five of her seven grandchildren. “She showed me where the kids sleep,’ says Witherspoon. “One girl sleeps on the top shelf in the closet and the other girl sleeps on the bottom shelf. … That woman deserves a voice. She deserves to be heard and those children helped.”
Witherspoon, who first read Edelman’s book The Measure of Our Success as a sophomore at Stanford University, says she “was surprised by my own emotional response” as she toured the Ninth Ward. “I had seen it on the news, but it’s different in person. It made me think, ‘What if that was me, with two small children and no help and I had to climb up on a tree to save my kids who are little and helpless? Would I be strong enough to survive?’ ”