Gardere Initiative volunteers focus on children

Drive down any street in the Gardere neighborhood and you’re more than likely to get a glimpse of a community in crisis. It’s a small pocket of East Baton Rouge Parish that is frequently in the news.

Shootings , break-ins and robberies aren’t a big surprise when they happen in Gardere.

Baton Rouge lawyer Caulette Jackson-Guillard knows the neighborhood well.

She spent 20 years there before leaving, getting her law degree and becoming an associate minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

Jackson is back in the neighborhood as president of the Gardere Initiative. It’s a nonprofit community organization, established in 2006, run entirely by volunteers.

It has ties to Southern University’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and different Baton Rouge-area churches. The goal is to address substance abuse, crime and anything that negatively affects children.

Every year, the group sponsors programs. Last year, they handed out close to 700 back-to-school kits for neighborhood children then turned around and distributed 500 gifts to children during its “Christmas Love Fest.”

“I lived there, I’ve seen the crime,” Jackson-Guillard said. “You don’t have to allow your environment to shape you; you can shape it. I was one of those children there. What they need is hope.”

The Gardere Initiative recently got some good news and some bad news.

First the group opened its new headquarters in the neighborhood. It marked the first time volunteers have actually had an office in Gardere, from which to work. But the nonprofit also was recently turned down for a federal grant that would have meant $300,000 in funding for various programs over the next two years.

That means the group is going to spend 2014 trying to live off volunteerism, community donations and a $10,000 grant from the South Burbank Crime Prevention and Development District .

While the situation doesn’t look promising, Jackson-Guillard said she’s confident her group will find additional funding from somewhere.

On Thursday, the Gardere Initiative’s executive director, Murelle Harrison, was working out of the new Ned Avenue headquarters.

She’s a professor by trade, and chairwoman of Southern’s Department of Psychology. Harrison explained the Gardere Initiative is about casting a wide net — the group is dipping into a number of projects simultaneously.

With no library within walking distance of Gardere, the group has become a charter member of the Little Free Library organization . In fact, the small wooden box filled with free books outside the apartment is the only thing that separates the group’s headquarters from the other homes on the block.

Harrison said the group gave away about 700 of their 900 books during the recent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Inside the building, straight ahead is where the community computer will be kept. Harrison and other volunteers have compiled a list of available jobs in the area, from cashiers and security guards to carpenter’s helpers and custodians.

She envisions it becoming a work station where neighborhood residents without internet access will come to scroll through the job listings and use the complimentary phone to set up job interviews.

Down the hall is the kitchen. It’s where volunteers will hold healthy-eating demonstrations thanks to a Wal-Mart grant. Adult education classes are scheduled to be start later this year in an adjacent room.

One room, that would normally be a bedroom, is perhaps the most important part of the headquarters. Volunteer Caprina Stewart is anxious for the courses where people from the neighborhood will be able to earn their high school diploma equivalents.

The group wrapped up its recruiting for the current session earlier this month. They will assess their students early next month and classes will start by the end of February.

“We have a lot of kids in this neighborhood that have come to me wanting to go back to school,” she said. “People look at us in this neighborhood as people who don’t want anything out of life, and it’s not true. We do.”

Stewart’s husband McArthur Stewart was one of the men who helped renovate the structure. Now, he runs the community garden. He said his next role will be in recruiting.

“I’m going to boost this program,” he said. “I want to get it overflowing.”