'This Storm Is Not Over'

updated 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

New Orleans

Rainy days are the worst for the children of New Orleans. Even a shower reminds some of Aug. 29, the day Hurricane Katrina washed away the lives they knew along with huge chunks of their city. So now, when the skies open, children tend to stick close to home. "The schools are empty," says Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. "The children are afraid if another hurricane hits, they'll be separated from their families, that they'll lose what little they have left."

While federal and state officials continue to tote up Katrina's financial costs, mental-health authorities are struggling to assess the hurricane's psychological devastation. Dr. Raymond Crowel of the National Mental Health Association estimates that up to 50,000 children are beset by emotional problems and perhaps another half million grapple with the loss of homes, family and community. Edelman, who has worked with distressed children around the country since founding the CDF in 1973, warns that if help is not forthcoming—and soon—the toll will deepen, giving way to violence, domestic abuse and lives lost to drugs and alcohol. "We must help," she says. "This storm is not over."

Toward that end, the CDF is bringing an after-school program to New Orleans that it has run in various states since 1993 to provide children with a safe haven to learn and play while their parents work. Earlier this month the city's first Freedom School, housed in a strip mall, opened for children ranging from 5 to 13 years old—and welcomed a star-studded group from Hollywood, who had arrived to lend support and spread word of the children's great need. "It seems impossible, but these kids are so resilient," said actress Jennifer Garner, as she watched a group dance and sing in a room that, because of scarce electricity in the city, was poorly lit and stiflingly hot.

Parents paint a different picture. Douglas Chambers, a widower whose son attends one of the nine Freedom programs established in Mississippi, told the visitors how his son Douglas Jr. had slid from a good student to a poor one at his new school in Jackson. Chambers visited teachers and counselors, but no one seemed to listen until the CDF stepped in and helped him secure math tutoring. "He needed a little attention, and he got it at Freedom," says Chambers. "That's all these children need: a little attention and love."

Edelman aims to open 12 more Freedom facilities in Louisiana by summer to provide daylong programs for kids during the school break. CDF raised $50,000 in Los Angeles to get New Orleans's first center up and running. "Go home and become fleas, constantly causing those around you to itch; make those around you uncomfortable with what you have seen," Edelman exhorted her influential guests from Hollywood. "It's already been eight months. The children can't wait any longer."

For more information, go to www.childrensdefense.org

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