NEW ORLEANS – In a gutted building with no interior walls, exposed pipes and no air conditioning to stave off the Louisiana heat, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner and Cicely Tyson chatted with children who had lost their homes, then watched as they sang, danced and worked on art projects.
The movie stars were among a delegation of women touring devastated parts of the city Monday to meet with families and children trying to adjust to life after Hurricane Katrina.
"I don't think you get a real clear perspective unless you come down and see it," Witherspoon said after chatting with students at a "Freedom School" set up by the Children's Defense Fund to help young storm victims.
"The children need attention right now," said Witherspoon, this year's best actress Oscar winner for "Walk the Line."
The visit was part of an effort by the fund to bring attention to the needs of storm victims, particularly traumatized children. The group plans to open more than 20 such schools in communities along the Gulf Coast: 13 for Louisiana and nine for Mississippi.
The New Orleans school is in part of the city inundated with 5 feet of water after Katrina hit Aug. 29. Many homes sit empty and deteriorating, and piles of storm debris still line sidewalks.
About 1.2 million people younger than 18 are living in areas rendered disaster zones by Katrina, and as many as 8 percent, or 100,000, are expected to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to various estimates.
Some experts say the mental health toll may be much higher. Of the first 1,000 children screened by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, 27 percent displayed symptoms of trauma, including nightmares, flashbacks, heightened anxiety and bedwetting.
"I've been shocked and heartbroken," said Garner, star of TV's "Alias" and the film "Elektra," who cried when the children danced and sang "Something Inside So Strong" by South African singer Labi Siffre.
Tyson greeted the children, then read to them.
"Let me tell you how happy I am to be here with you today ... to see you ... to hug you," said Tyson, who starred in "Sounder" and "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."
The delegation of more than two dozen women from Hollywood, Washington and New Orleans chatted with students as they worked on art projects and read books in small groups. Listed participants included actresses Elisabeth Shue, Jane Kaczmarek, Holly Robinson Peete and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, wife of actor Samuel L. Jackson.
The delegation also met with displaced families living in a village of government trailers and took a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, a struggling part of the city even before it was devastated by the storm.
High school and college students are trained and hired to work in Freedom Schools, which provide children with three meals a day, cultural and developmental activities, and conflict-resolution exercises.