The library's opening is the culmination of efforts orchestrated by Marissa Davis, a senior at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, whose commitment to rebuilding New Orleans has grown with every effort. Katrina's destruction and subsequent lack of federal aid lured Davis to the city to get personally involved.
"I was experiencing a bunch of feelings -- I was feeling upset, sad," she says. "I was seeing a lot of people being ignored because of the color of their skin. ... I wasn't trying to save the world, but I wanted to do something."
First, Davis created the Katrina Direct Relief Committee at Swarthmore, which eventually garnered enough funds and student support to organize trips during school breaks to gut houses with the Common Ground relief group. The first trip included six other students, and the second trip expanded to include 23 and was backed by more grants from the school.
After a few house-gutting visits, Davis shifted her focus. She spent last summer in New Orleans as dean of the Gulf South Summer Youth Action camp, which had a site in Cut Off. She established relationships with the manager and the kids of the Cut Off Community Center, which prompted her to return to this area of lower Algiers during spring break, this time with fellow Swarthmore students.
The group organized the Cut Off Comeback Project, a weeklong session at the community center that included arts and crafts workshops, tutoring sessions and dance classes for area kids.
"It was fantastic," she says of the project, "but it wasn't anything long term."
She wanted to find a way to make a more lasting contribution and eventually decided on creating a Cut Off Youth Library.
"We did a book drive at Swarthmore. I wasn't even thinking about doing a library at the time, but we collected 16 boxes of books," she says. "I thought, 'What better thing to do than to get a library together?'"
The Cut Off Community Center designated a room to become the library.
"Kids over there don't have a positive outlook," Davis says. "Reading and writing levels are not at their best. [Cut Off] is predominately black, and it's not one of the wealthiest neighborhoods," she says.
She describes the library as "a comfortable space to engage their creative minds." Most importantly, she hopes it will positively impact the kids' outlook and excite their creativity.
"People here see sports as the only way out," she says. "But you can also go to school, have a profession and not be restricted to working in a fast-food joint or trying to be a rap star."
The library opened its doors in mid-August and drew a crowd of more than 40 parents, children and community members as well as City Councilman James Carter, who represents Algiers. On behalf of the City Council, Carter presented Davis with a certificate of recognition.
"It was a really good feeling," Davis says about being recognized. "I'm not really one to show myself off or boast about what I do. I just let my actions speak for themselves and hope people respond in a good way.
"It was a really beautiful moment."
- Councilmember James Carter honored Marissa Davis (center) at the opening of the Cut Off Community Center Youth Library.