Michal Boyarsky moved to New Orleans in August 2009 from New City, NY to join AVODAH. As a Community Outreach Coordinator at REACH NOLA, she works to improve community health and access to quality health care in New Orleans through community-academic partnered programs.
When I decided to do AVODAH in New Orleans, I was prepared for an extraordinary experience. While each of the AVODAH cities has a distinctive history and culture, and its own manifestations of urban poverty, New Orleans is unique in the sense that every aspect of people's lives here has been affected by Hurricane Katrina and the subsquent levee failures of 2005.
I knew this when I boarded a plane bound for Louis Armstrong International Airport back in August. My AVODAH placement is with REACH NOLA, a local non-profit community health organization that focuses, among other things, on community wellness and mental health. I prepared myself to deal with the depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder that so many are still struggling with several years after the flooding and devastation of the city. What I didn't prepare myself for was the added surge in mental health issues following another manmade disaster—the BP oil spill.
As public attention begins to shift away from prevention and toward the clean-up efforts, environmental and health effects of the spill are beginning to play a more prominent role in media and public discourse. As a local community health organization, REACH NOLA has been contributing in significant ways to this conversation.
After Hurricane Katrina, one in three people from the affected area struggled with post-disaster depression, anxiety and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). REACH NOLA was established largely in response to this mental health crisis. From 2006 to the present, we have trained over 400 people from over 75 organizations in New Orleans to provide high quality services for stress, depression, and PTSD, and our infrastructure support has paid for over 110,000 client visits.
It is because of this work in post-disaster mental health recovery that REACH NOLA is able to respond to the oil spill crisis by addressing the rising anxiety levels among communities affected by the spill. In addition to the mental health impact described above, REACH NOLA is concerned about increases in domestic violence, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse, in addition to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In order to cope, it is critical that fishermen and tourism workers and their families, as well as others who are impacted by the spill, have a strong support system. This is the importance of "community health," something I have learned a lot about in the past ten months of working at REACH NOLA. Communities, like individuals, can be healthy and resilient. They are the ones in which community members are involved and connected to one another through multiple channels. Churches, neighborhood organizations, and even networks of family and friends can fill this role.
In addition to addressing emerging mental health issues, REACH NOLA has played a role in supporting the cleanup efforts in the Gulf. Though BP has attempted to employ local fishermen in the process, many of these fishermen are Vietnamese immigrants who speak little or no English. Communication is difficult, and BP initially failed to have important documents, such as contracts and waivers, translated from English to Vietnamese. This situation, like the mental health crisis, is familiar to us at REACH NOLA.
Through our Health and Language Access Program, we advocate for access to quality health care for individuals with limited English proficiency. Growing communities of Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese speakers in New Orleans struggle to find culturally sensitive health care services delivered in a language they can understand. To this end, we provide training and support for medical and community interpreters through a course that covers the ethics and techniques of interpreting.
In May, my co-worker Katrina Badger trained 20 Vietnamese community members in "Interpreting in Community Settings." The course participants were bilingual Vietnamese community members, including fishermen and people working in the seafood industry, whose livelihoods were impacted by the spill. The training is designed to prepare them to get jobs working for BP as interpreters, which will improve communication between BP and the Vietnamese community and reduce the likelihood that miscommunication will lead to accidents, injuries, or coercion of community members.
Through my work at REACH NOLA, I have come to understand the ways in which disasters, both manmade and natural, impact community health broadly, and mental health specifically. Communities faced with disasters need social capital to survive and build supportive networks and relationships that members rely upon in times of need. Likewise, my AVODAH community has such networks, with the support of AVODAH alumni living in New Orleans, and with others in the Jewish and social justice communities at hand. My housemates serve as my support, as we unpack the day’s frustrations and successes over a meal of stir-fried vegetables, or through check-ins at house meetings.
As my AVODAH placement strives to increase community capacity and resilience in post-disaster New Orleans through encouraging a strong sense of community, and as we redouble our efforts in response to the BP oil spill, I, too, feel surrounded by the characteristics of a healthy, robust community. I feel a strong sense of community in New Orleans, in synagogues and at the JCC, on the streets of Treme and Uptown, at work and above all, in the AVODAH house.