Celebrating its 50th anniversary in October, Southern Mutual Help Association (SMHA), has not wavered from its mission to help people develop strong, healthy, prosperous rural communities in Louisiana. Based in New Iberia, the not-for-profit has evolved into a nationally-recognized, award-winning community development corporation. Over the years, SMHA has broadened their perspective to meet new needs in all segments of the community. While you probably recognize the name, here are seven things you may not know about the organization.
1. How it all Started
The year was 1969, when a nun, a sugar cane mill worker and a teacher were trying to make a difference in an oppressive system, during poverty-stricken times. Sister Anne Catherine Bizalion, a French Dominican nun, created the first social worker position at Charity Hospital, working with patients who had lung disease. Lorna Bourg was taking her civic students on field trips to see how they could apply their Catholic faith to what was happening in the community. Henry Pelet’s concern for the rights of cane workers eventually lead him to becoming the president of the local union of sugar cane refinery workers.
Through their shared convictions for civil rights and a passion for justice, Bizalion, Bourg and Pelet came together and formed SMHA. Their first mission in helping the most underprivileged lead them to interviewing workers in the sugar cane fields of 17 parishes. Poor health, unfair labor conditions and inadequate pay were quickly uncovered. That experience formed the foundation for the way SMHA still works today: meeting with people where they are, listening and learning, and bringing all sides to the table.
2. Innovation & Sustainability
They’ve helped fishing communities access new markets for their seafood using innovative approaches. And, through SMHA, sugarcane farmers have learned more sustainable ways of caring for the land and identifying environmentally friendly ways to harvest. Over the past 50 years, SMHA has developed 1,421 new or renovated affordable homes in rural Louisiana.
3. Relief Efforts
While for many, SMHA’s relief efforts have gone under the radar, for those on the receiving end, they have made new beginnings possible. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, SMHA recovered 1,064 homes, businesses and churches across coastal Louisiana. When the fishing industry was devastated by the BP Oil Spill, SMHA created an “honor loan” program for fisher families that is now the Gulf Coast Fishers Loan Fund with approximately $250,000 in funds - and growing. After the 2016 flood, SMHA partnered with the community to repair flood-damaged homes in New Iberia’s West End.
4. Neighborhood Revitalization
One of the best examples of residents investing in their own community is in the West End, the oldest part of New Iberia comprised of approximately 10,000 people. “We go where people would want to fight for their neighborhoods,” Bourg says. “We asked them, ‘What do you want for your community and why should we invest in it?’ For seven days we listened to the answers of current (and former) residents, from teachers of the area’s schools, state representatives, even area physicians.”
In the end, the people of the West End established their own neighborhood and neighborhood leadership to revitalize the area. The West End Council of Neighborhood Associations (WECNA) grew from this early work and is now a 501c3 nonprofit. WECNA creates and implements programs in housing, education, safety and employment. Their summer program for kids, at nearly 150 children now, serves as a model for other neighborhoods, demonstrating what can be accomplished from raising your own funds, staffing with volunteers and donating meals and snacks. Bourg explains that SMHA invests in people who are willing to invest in themselves first.
“We’ve always looked at people as the strongest assets in any community. Once they begin to recognize their own strengths and what they have among them and within them, then they begin to make things change, and Southern Mutual Help invests in what they want to do for themselves. That gives the people in the community confidence, but also attracts investments from us, banking partners and others because they see the possibilities created in the area.”
5. Investing & Funding
This approach of investing in residents who help themselves proved there was a responsible market to pay back loans - small loans that had different qualifications from the banks. To fill the need for affordable loan dollars for low-wealth families and communities SMHA created Southern Mutual Financial Services. In 2,000, The U.S. Treasury Department certified Southern Mutual Financial Services as the first community development financial institute located in and serving rural Louisiana, making consumer, housing and business loans. “Banks accepted Southern Mutual Financial’s loan policies and made money on millions in good loans,” Bourg says.
Long-time partner IberiaBank invested in the creation of the CDFI in 2000 and committed to purchase up to $100 million in home loans made by Southern Mutual Financial Services. Together, IberiaBank and Southern Mutual Financial moved $22 million in mortgage loans to low and moderate wealth families in Louisiana, including loans that helped rebuild New Orleans post-Katrina.
As to the source of SMHA’s funding, Bourg says the money comes from donations and foundations, not from government. “We’re plugged into a not-for-profit national structure for loans and personal donations. Just last month, we received a $50,000 pledge from a long-time donor in California.”
6. New Iberia’s First Traditional Neighborhood Development
Focused on the quality of life for all residents, SMHA stepped outside of the box and developed New Iberia’s first traditional neighborhood development, Teche Ridge. The $150-million project is a mix-use walkable community designed by the same architect of Youngsville’s Sugar Mill Pond and River Ranch in Lafayette. Once finished, Teche Ridge will have a total of 600 homes and commercial developments.
Former long-time New Iberia Mayor Hilda Daigre-Curry, has been involved with the development from the start, having served as an advisor for SMHA. “One of the first misconceptions about Teche Ridge was that it was thought to be low-income housing,” she says. Daigre-Curry has worked to bring local and regional awareness of SMHA and connect it with private funding.
7. What’s Next for SMHA
Daigre-Curry’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed, as she will become SMHA’s new Chief Executive Officer on January 1, 2020 - with Bourg remaining as president.
Speaking about her future plans for SMHA Daigre-Curry says, “Of course, in this line of work you address issues as they come up. But I will continue to work against injustices and assure that fair practices are upheld. Our partnerships with banks are vital in making loans to individuals. I will also continue to work closely with the leadership of the West End. Impact investing - offered by religious congregations for decades - has not been used in this community and I’d like to pursue that avenue. And, it’s my goal to build funds for fisher families to $1 million to keep our seafood industry thriving. I look forward to working with Southern Mutual Help in this new role; every day is an adventure that I embrace for the common good of so many.”