Grassroots Groups Struggling To Compete Large Grant Awards

Frances Burney's home smells like fresh paint. It is fully furnished, the white walls are immaculate and not a speck of dust appears on the hardwood floors.

Not long ago the house was a waterlogged heap, a grim remnant of Hurricane Katrina.

But volunteers from the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center cleared out the muck and rebuilt the interior.

Without them, the 92-year-old woman would probably still be sleeping on a nursing home bed.

Burney's home was one of thousands all along Mississippi's 70-mile coast that were either splintered by the Aug. 29 hurricane or left in soggy ruins.

City Councilman Bill Stallworth is proud of his relief center's work, but he's frustrated that limited funds restrict the number of houses his center can refurbish. His home is one of those awaiting repair.

Accessing the millions of dollars raised to help Hurricane Katrina victims can be a challenge for small grass-roots organizations like the relief center. Much of the money is awarded to larger charities with a proven track record, such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity.

"I was hoping there would be a lot more money, especially for groups at ground zero that are actually doing the work,'' Stallworth says. "If I had $5 million or $6 million, I can turn around a whole lot of homes.''

Startups have to show they know how to manage money to win grants, says Mark McCrary, executive director of the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, an agency that teaches organizations how to apply for funding.

"If you're a startup nonprofit, you really don't have a track record. Their best strategy is probably to partner with another more established organization,'' McCrary says.

There are more than 100 organizations involved in relief and recovery efforts along the battered coast, officials estimate. The scale of the projects varies, depending on the sponsor.

Earlier this month, the Salvation Army announced a $155 million recovery and rebuilding plan and opened a 140-person volunteer village at Yankie Stadium in Biloxi.

Located in St. John AME Church, the relief center was born out of desperation, Stallworth says. After the storm, people in the low-income neighborhood near the beach were without food and their homes were uninhabitable.

Officials say at least 5,000 homes in the community were destroyed. So far, Stallworth has received about $210,000 in grant funding, and much of it has been used to purchase building materials, some at a discount rate because it's warped or slightly damaged.

Center volunteers have refurbished 120 homes. The average cost to the center is $20,000 in materials for each house.

"What we've been able to do is truly amazing,'' Stallworth says.

Burney says she waited two months before she attempted to return to her house after the storm and refused to become dismayed over its condition.

"I didn't break down. I didn't cry,'' she says. "I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew the Lord would make a way.''

The center assigned volunteers, many of them from out of state, to Burney's home. Using a $10,000 insurance check and her savings, she purchased the flooring and other construction materials, but the labor was free.

"It's better than it was before,'' Burney says.

Stallworth says currently the center can only help people who have between $15,000 to $25,000 to put toward rebuilding a home.

The others are put on a waiting list. Further north from the coast on U.S. 49, the United Way of Southeast Mississippi is acting as the umbrella for several other relief organizations that comprise the long-term recovery committee for Forrest, Lamar and Perry counties.

United Way executive director Dan Kibodeaux knows his agency's name recognition and solid background give the committee an edge.

"We have the credibility that is required to go after grants. We have accounting systems in place, reporting systems in place,'' he says. "Many are operating under the auspices of a church or local entity that is not known to a grant funder.''

The area's recovery committee has received $750,000 in funding. A small part was used to hire a long-term recovery manager to get the organization off the ground. The rest is for the rebuilding phase.

Both the relief center and the recovery committee are eying the Mississippi Hurricane Recovery Fund, which Gov. Haley Barbour created just after Katrina struck. The fund has collected $30 million, but it has yet to make any allocations.

A significant portion of the money came from a nationally televised "Mississippi Rising'' concert October 1 in Oxford, featuring 30 celebrities, including Mississippi natives Faith Hill and Sela Ward.

William Richardson, who oversees the fund, says Barbour wants to wait until people have exhausted all of their options for state and federal assistance.

Richardson says the governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal is working with long-term recovery committees on the coast to determine the unmet needs. Once they've collected all the data, then officials will decide how to award the grants.

"It could take a year or so or it could take a couple of months,'' Richardson says. "Until we know what the needs are, we don't know how fast we will be able to commit the funding.''

Charities and nonprofits also are hoping to win grants from the money raised by former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.

The fund totals about $120 million, but all but $30 million is earmarked for higher education, religious and state projects in the hurricane-devastated areas, says William Pierce, the fund's spokesman.

Pierce says any charity is welcome to apply for the $30 million, but applicants must focus on meeting unmet or undermet needs in the region. In addition, the applicants must show that the needs cannot be financed by other sources.

"The fund literally gets hundreds of inquiries regarding grants per month. There are many more applications than the fund is able to fund,'' Pierce says.

Samantha Brann, a New Hampshire resident who came to the coast as a volunteer, also is searching for grant funds, but she falls into that category of little-known groups.

Her Grassroots Volunteer Network was officially formed in December and operates out of a tent city at an old VFW facility on Howard Avenue in Biloxi.

She says her organization's volunteers have helped 125 families in the same neighborhood where Stallworth is based. She's received no grant funding and less than $8,000 in donations to operate.

"We've written of intent to the to Bush-Clinton fund, but that's a very slow-moving fund,'' Brann says.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)