Transforming Lives on the Gulf Coast

Transforming Lives on the Gulf Coast

Jana Gonzalez achieved her dream on July 28, 2005. On that day, the single mother of a 5-year-old girl moved into her own home a few blocks from the beach in Biloxi, Miss.

"I got it all by myself," Ms. Gonzalez said. "I was so proud. Being a single mom, I didn't have to have help." It was a special achievement because Ms. Gonzalez, like so many other women on the Gulf Coast, had a job that paid very little. She worked in banquets and catering at the nearby Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. She made $4.50 an hour, plus tips. Her dream lasted 32 days.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005 and wiped it away. The good news was that she had flood insurance. The bad news: the bank took it all. The insurance was enough to pay what she owed on the house but not enough to rebuild. And worse - the bank charged her an extra $7,600 for needing to pay off the mortgage early. "I tried to fight it, but at that time I was in such a fog, it was like I was walking in a dream - a nightmare actually. Everything was demolished. It was awful," Ms. Gonzalez said. She was also without a job because Katrina had washed out Beau Rivage. The casino remained closed for a year.

After Katrina, Ms. Gonzalez's life was a mix of moving from one place to an- other - a FEMA house in Hattiesburg, a low-rent apartment in Biloxi - and working back at the casino when it reopened, going back to school and working as a substitute teacher.

Ms. Gonzalez's daughter, Mia, suffered posttraumatic stress. "She would absolutely have a nervous breakdown if she was not with me," Ms. Gonzalez said, remembering a 2007 storm during which she was stuck at work and couldn't leave until 2 a.m. "She started freaking out, plus I started freaking out."

At the time they were living in an apartment a half block from the Gulf of Mexico. The place was cheap. "Nobody wants to live by the beach anymore."

At that apartment, whenever it rained they had to put sandbags down to keep the water out.

After seven years, it was about time for The Dream, Act 2.

During a warm week at the end of October, dozens of volunteers descended on the empty Holley Street lot Ms. Gonzalez still owned and built her a new house. The "Blitz Build" was led by eight students from Women in Construction, a program of the United Methodist Women-supported Moore Community House.

Moore Community House has long been known for its child care and Early Head Start programs. It added Women in Construction in 2008 as a way to help women acquire the skills they need to move beyond the low-wage women's jobs that are typical of the area.

"There are very few jobs within this community that pay wages that support a family," said Carol Burnett, executive director of Moore Community House. Many single mothers "work in the casino-hotel-restaurant industry as maids or waitresses. They work at fast-food restaurants. They are home health providers or they work cleaning a hospital," Ms. Burnett said. "All of it is work that is very low paying, minimum wage, no benefits. No health care. If a family has access to health care they have it through a spouse, or they might have the state children's health insurance program - insurance for their children but not for themselves." Since 2008 Women in Construction has graduated about 140 students, said program director Julie Kuklinski. They've gone from making minimum wage at McDonald's to maybe a carpenter helper or construction assistant at $10 to $12 an hour, or up to pipefitter or welder at about $18.

Women in Construction graduate Sabrina Graley stepped down from the new home's rafters for a few minutes to talk about her experience.

Ms. Graley said that construction has always been "sort of a passion." She took building trades courses in high school but found doors closed. "Most of the time down here it's hard for a woman to get into any kind of industry like this because of it being a male-run world. But [Women in Construction] opened up possibilities," she said. After going through the program, she worked for a commercial contractor and then for contractors doing cleanup work from the BP oil spill.

She said the additional income made a big difference to her children. "I was actually able to pay for child care instead of keeping them home with family. It made a phenomenal difference with my kids to be able to go to a day care and get the education they needed to start kindergarten."

But higher pay is only part of the story. Ms. Kuklinski said that as her students gain skills, they gain confidence. "You can see it throughout the whole course, that confidence change," she said.

The program also includes financial planning classes that teach students how to manage an increase in income.

Shanna Aldridge is a 41-year-old single parent with three kids and no permanent home. She's taking her third Women in Construction class. She talked about her life while painting doors. She said she expects the program to change her life "tremendously." "It's not very commendable for a 41-year- old woman to be bouncing back and forth [to different homes] with her kids. If I get a future out of this construction,

I will be able to support my own family. That's my goal right now." She likes the work. "I like to stay busy," Ms. Aldridge said, "and you're always busy on construction. You're not going to sit around for two hours and wait for some- thing to do. I like the fact that it's some- thing that I'm doing on my own."

As the Women in Construction students swung their hammers on Ms. Gonzalez's new house, they were joined by out-of-town volunteers, most of them women, from Kaiser Permanente. Each year since 2007, Kaiser Permanente has sent two teams of employees to work on Gulf Coast volunteer projects. This year, more than a thousand employees applied for 30 volunteer positions.

By midweek they had the frame up and the plumbing in, wiring was being completed and work was beginning on the roof.

While Moore Community House has previously partnered with other groups working to rebuild the Gulf Coast as a way of giving the Women in Construction students construction experience, this is the first one that has been Moore's own project. Ms. Burnett says they plan to do more of them.

They've had a lot of help from the Seashore District United Methodist Women. The district's women took up a love offering that they sent to Moore Community House to support the Blitz Build.

There has been a lot of positive recovery from Katrina. But Ms. Burnett pointed to a nearby street as an example of the continuing need. "If you drive down Howard Avenue," she said, "you would think, Wow, this is beautiful, it's just green space. You can look between the live oaks and see the Gulf, and it's gorgeous.

"You would never know that before Katrina it was a vibrant, though fairly low income, neighborhood. But people haven't been able to put things back together in places like Howard Avenue because they didn't have insurance, or because they can't [afford] all of what is required now to rebuild." Insurance rates are higher and building codes more strict. For instance, Ms. Gonzalez's home had to be built on pilings eight feet off the ground, a significant added expense that many cannot afford.

The Gulf Coast is being rebuilt one house at a time and one life at a time. Thanks to Moore Community House, Jana and Mia Gonzalez are on their way. "I'm still in awe," Ms. Gonzalez said as she watched her house going up. "I've cried every day. My daughter's called me a big baby," she laughed. "I can actually breathe now - financially breathe. this is the biggest blessing I've ever got since having my kid. I'm going to cry again." She did. "But it's great. God works."

Jim West is an editorial photographer and writer in Detroit, Mich., who specializes in labor and social issues. View his photos at

Posted or updated: 2/28/2013 11:00:00 PM