By DIANA CHANDLER, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS – On the walls of a house in the Lower Ninth Ward, children and young adults draw their realities: symbols decrying rape and drugs, words proclaiming hope and strength, a tear-soaked face.
Enchante’ Franklin, founder of the What About Us Community Mentoring Program, WAUS, calls it the expression room, just one area of a non-residential safe house where she mentors at-risk youth.
[img_assist|nid=6905|title=Students involved in What About Us Community at St. Thomas Missionary Baptist Church in New Orleans|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=75]Christ is new to many of the 7- to 24-year-olds WAUS serves and introducing them to God is key to the program but difficult, Franklin said.
“I’m saying to them, learn the Word, learn His ways, but I have to be careful how I teach it,” said Franklin. ”It’s really hard to just throw God at these kids, because it’s not in the home. We have to slowly give it to them in a way that it connects to their cognitive level.”
Franklin pairs mentors with youth to help them connect with God, lead law-abiding lives, avoid jail, develop self-esteem, learn community service and improve academically.
Franklin doesn’t call WAUS a ministry, but says it was born of a spiritual calling.
“It was in 2008 that I really knew this was God,” she said, sharing that God’s calling became apparent during a women’s retreat on discerning God’s voice at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, where she is a member.
“I didn’t know a lot. I just was doing what God told me to do,” she said. “At the right time, He said to me no training at the time is pleasant, but it later rewards you with peace,” drawing her attention to Heb. 12:11.
Franklin’s obedience has led the 34-year-old to give half her income since 2007 to fund the program.
“Every job I’ve gotten, I’ve always given half of my check to WAUS and lived off the other half,” she said. “It’s always been self funded (by) me and God.”
Today, she also receives donations and help from volunteers.
New to the program this year is Safree House Unit 1, which gets its name from Safree, Inc., the consulting company Franklin founded to help organize WAUS and other community programs.
Intended as a safe haven for youth who might otherwise fall prey to community gangs, criminal activity or community violence, the Lower Ninth Ward house serves roughly 30 families in a neighborhood that was one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Franklin sees Safree houses as an economical answer to the lack of public recreational facilities in the city and hopes to open scattered units throughout the city.
Raven Batiste, a New Orleans police sergeant and WAUS volunteer mentor, gave WAUS free usage of the house for one year.
Each room has a particular purpose apparent in its name, including a greeting room, a kitchen, a wash room encouraging chores, a theater for dramatic plays and liturgical dance, a study room with books, a homework room and the expression room.
Both Franklin and Batiste uniquely understand WAUS’ mission. Both lost teenage brothers to murder spurred by community violence.
Both grew up in disadvantaged areas of the city, Franklin in Central City and Batiste in the St. Bernard public housing community, and benefited from the outreach of concerned neighbors and non-profit groups. By their work as New Orleans police officers, both are keenly aware of the recidivism and frequent run-ins with the law that is common to disengaged youth.
“I was one of those kids,” Franklin said, but a neighbor encouraged her and took her to church. She excelled as a community police officer with a master’s degree in criminal justice.
It was during her law enforcement career in 2005 that Franklin envisioned WAUS, but briefly put the idea aside after Katrina while she earned from Southern University at New Orleans a master of science degree in social work, with a concentration in mental illness. During her studies, she wrote the current program for WAUS, modeling it after Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Franklin began WAUS in 2007 with a back-to-school supply give-away in Central City, serving about 250 children with help from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which helps publicize the program and is the membership of many program volunteers.
WAUS has served more than 500 youth since 2007, Franklin said, including about 70 through the safe house. She engages the youth in theater, liturgical dance and rhythmic stepping and provides one-on-one counseling through a network of 28 mentors and volunteers.
A recent performance at St.Thomas Missionary Baptist Church marked the first time at least five WAUS liturgical dancers, ages 12- 17, ever entered a church.
“These are the ones who say ‘we want to know Him; we just don’t know how to know Him,’ “ Franklin said.
Her patience is slowly paying off.
In the words of 21-year-old Darrell Deal, Batiste’s mentee and Franklin’s nephew, “It’s important to know God and know who he is. At one point in your life, you’re going to have to go to him.”
Deal lost his father, Franklin’s brother, to community violence while growing up in the Melpomene public housing development.
Franklin has often worked two jobs. When she resigned from the NOPD in 2005, she replaced that job by helping manage the city’s first Forensic Assertive Community Treatment Center, designed to serve mentally-ill individuals lacking health care and frequently in trouble with the law.
Single and childless, Franklin works part-time as a New Orleans Forensic Center social worker, manages WAUS and will begin classes soon at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, earning a master’s degree in Christian Education and a doctorate in philosophy.
“I want to be better for them, to show that we are all a work in progress according to God’s will,” Franklin said of the youth she serves. “God has set me up in a way which I find no peace until I’m giving back what He puts within me daily.”
To support WAUS, contact Franklin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 504.303.1290.