A Rosie Future

updated 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

Rosie O'Donnell still can't get over the first glimpse she got of Renaissance Village, a trailer park set up in Baker, La., to house 1,600 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. "It devastated me," recalls O'Donnell. "I came here in February, five months after the hurricane, and there was nothing set up—just dirt and trailers. It looked like a prison. [There was] no sense of community. No child care. I saw kids without crayons drawing in the dirt with sticks."

Not anymore. Eight months and $1.1 million later, that dirt is covered by classrooms and play spaces thanks to O'Donnell, 44, whose For All Kids Foundation teamed up with local churches, the federal government, the YMCA, Head Start, Apple, IBM and others to build an innovative six-building community center at the site. There, kids can go to preschool while parents go to work. Parents can receive family counseling in private rooms. And everyone can take a much-needed break just to play.

"For over a year, these kids have not been able to leave their houses," says O'Donnell, who attended the grand opening of the Child & Family Services Center on Oct. 27. "There was a lot of crime, no lighting. These people felt forgotten and uncared about."

For Gentel Allen, a single mom who shares a trailer with her mother and two kids, Shanuja, 4, and Golden, 1, the classrooms couldn't have come soon enough. "Next month, if this place didn't open, Shanuja wouldn't be going to school, because I don't have the money to pay for [preschool]," she says.

O'Donnell also helped move 20 families into apartments in surrounding towns, and purchased cars to help Village residents get to their jobs. "I'm in shock that we were able to work with so many amazing groups and pull this off," O'Donnell says. "It's amazing to be a part of something so inspiring."

To watch video from Rosie's appearance at Renaissance Village, go to PEOPLE.COM/ROSIE.

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