Iray Nabatoff

Iray Nabatoff arrived as a volunteer in New Orleans from Acworth NH during January 2006, expecting to stay only about 3 weeks. But after working at the Made With Love Café in Arabi, LA, and seeing first-hand the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Iray found that he just couldn’t walk away. He returned to New Hampshire in February 2006 to shut down his life there, and made a long-term commitment to helping in the Gulf for as long as he was needed. Giving up his comfortable NH home for a tent and then a FEMA trailer, Iray has continued to work tirelessly as an unpaid fulltime volunteer in St Bernard Parish, adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Every single building in this Parish (county) was flooded, and hurricane damage to the Murphy Oil Refinery caused the largest residential oil spill in US history. Even today the population is only about half of what it was before the storm. In April 2006, Iray was chosen by a group of local community leaders to be the volunteer Executive Director of the newly-formed nonprofit Community Center of St Bernard. Under his guidance, the Community Center has become a premier provider of recovery resources in St Bernard Parish. One of the main Community Center programs overseen by Iray is the Mustard Seed Food Pantry, which is a Second Harvest/Feeding America Member Agency. This program provides free food, including canned goods, produce, eggs and bread, to families in St Bernard and neighboring parishes who earn less than 130% of the federal poverty limit. To put that in real dollar amounts, 98% of these families earn less than $25,000 annually. In fact, 62% of them are struggling to survive on less than $10,000 per year. In addition to being low-income, many Mustard Seed clients meet multiple vulnerability criteria. Demographic data on the 2,033 unique households (5,560 unique individuals) who used Mustard Seed Food Pantry services between January-December 2008 shows that 36% were children under age 18 and 6% were senior citizens age 65 or older. Of those survey participants who opted to disclose their race, 55% indicated they were Caucasian, 33% were African American, 6% Hispanic, and 1% Asian. 21% of households were receiving Supplemental Security Insurance, 26% got food stamps, and 28% were on Medicaid. 43% of households were unemployed, 6% were homeless, 31% contained a member who is physically or mentally disabled, 24% were single parent (female) and 5% were single parent (male). Geographically, 1% of these clients came from Jefferson Parish, 11% from Orleans Parish (New Orleans), 2% from Plaquemines Parish, 84% from St Bernard Parish, 1% from St Tammany Parish, and the remainder listed no fixed address. Under Iray’s direction, the Mustard Seed Food Pantry — using a staff that included senior citizen trainees enrolled in the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program, on-site job training crews from ARC of New Orleans, and more than 1,500 short-term volunteers from all around the world — distributed 245,000 lbs of food to local families in need during 2008. However, it is Iray’s intention that the Community Center go beyond just providing food to these families, and also help them achieve independence and self-sufficiency. That is why, rather than being an isolated program, the Mustard Seed Food Pantry is an integral part of the Community Center’s innovative Community Connections Model, which seeks to bring a wide variety of recovery resources together at one centralized location. This “one-stop shop” approach to service delivery both increases client knowledge of the many kinds of available assistance and also provides clients with access to service providers from throughout the greater New Orleans area right in their own community. For example, the Community Center itself provides clothes, hot meals, internet access, public phones, computer classes, information and referrals. Meanwhile on-site partner agencies, including BlueStone Ministries Case Management, LA Office of Family Support (Food Stamps), Road Home, St Anna’s Medical Mission, Daughters of Charity of New Orleans Mom & Baby Mobile Heath Center, New Orleans Legal Assistance, Families Helping Families (advocacy for the disabled), Milestones Mental Health Agency, Red Cross St Bernard Chapter, Rebuilding Information Station, and the Jefferson & St Bernard Councils on Aging (Senior Community Service Employment Program) help families and individuals to meet their housing needs, get job training, receive food stamps, and avoid medical and emotional crises, eviction notices, and utility disconnects (www.ccstb.org) Unfortunately, for low-income families like those who participate in the Mustard Seed Food Pantry, just receiving assistance is often not enough. These families must also learn to use every dollar that passes through their hands effectively if they are ever to become financially self-sufficient. Iray is therefore a working with local Regions Bank branches to offer the “Money Smart Adult Financial Education Curriculum” to Mustard Seed clients. Developed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Money Smart training program helps individuals build their financial knowledge so that they develop sound financial practices to avoid excessive debt, damaged credit records, and even bankruptcy while accumulating savings and becoming financially self-sustaining. While it may not be possible for every Mustard Seed Food Pantry client to become an ex-client, it is Iray’s goal that as many as possible have the practical skills that they need to do so. Finally, in addition to being the volunteer Executive Director of the Community Center since its inception in April, 2006, Iray was appointed to the St. Bernard Parish Citizens Recovery Committee in July 2006 by the St Bernard Parish Council, and also serves as vice-president of the Board for both the St. Bernard Community Recovery Committee and Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans. Iray’s ongoing dedication to assisting the hurricane survivors in New Orleans has led the Times-Picayune newspaper to name him one of its “Heroes of the Storm” for 2006. And in August, 2008 he received the "Footsteps to Growth" award from the St Bernard Parish Government for the significant role he has played in the recovery effort.