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Meet Matthew Wheeler: Championing Community Resilience in Lake Charles, Louisiana

More extreme weather events are affecting more Americans each year, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. People living in small, low-income communities across the United States are often hardest hit by natural disasters and climate dangers. Without adequate resources, capacity, or expertise to navigate the complex recovery process, these communities are unable to effectively protect themselves from the worst effects of disasters—or access the federal disaster assistance they need. Delays in assistance can exacerbate the negative impacts of disasters, and cause prolonged devastation for individuals and communities.

To address these issues, SBP created the Resilience and Recovery Fellows Program--thanks to the generous, visionary support of our partners at the Walmart Foundation. The aim of the program, made possible by funding from the Walmart Foundation, is simple. We want to ensure that at-risk, under-resourced communities have an experienced resilience and recovery champion working alongside local leaders to navigate the complex disaster recovery system and help secure the assistance they need most—as quickly as possible.

SBP recruits, trains, and places qualified fellows in high-risk communities where they partner with local, state, and federal officials to support recovery and risk mitigation planning while also helping strengthen community resilience to future disasters. Ensuring that the voices of community members are centered and prioritized in the recovery process is critical to the Fellows’ approach to their work—and to its success.

Our Fellows are recruited from and placed in the communities in which they live. They collaborate with community leaders and local networks not only to secure vital recovery assistance when disasters strike, but also to empower communities to anticipate future climate threats, prepare, and strengthen their resilience for the long term.

Spotlight on local needs in Lake Charles: “I wanted to make sure every voice was heard”

SBP’s Fellows Program arrived not a moment too soon in Lake Charles, Louisiana, deemed the “most weather-battered city in America” by the Weather Channel. After being hit by four back-to-back natural disasters between August 2020 and May 2021, Lake Charles was already a priority for SBP—and an appropriate location in which to pilot our innovative new program.

Matthew Wheeler, a former police officer and special education teacher dedicated to public service, was one of SBP’s first Fellows. We sat down with Matthew recently to understand the impact of back-to-back hurricanes on the community of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and to celebrate his recent success in helping the Lake Charles Housing Authority secure a $40 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grant to support the city’s recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Matthew started his SBP fellowship in Lake Charles in July 2022, just as the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana had begun the process of applying for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods Grant. Applying for these grants—whose purpose is to revitalize and transform housing in severely distressed neighborhoods—is a difficult, tedious process. Matthew jumped right in and got to work.

He listened, supported, and worked in close collaboration with state, city, and local government officials and community leaders. They, in turn, secured the input of 2,500 Southwest Louisiana residents to help the Lake Charles Housing Authority identify priorities and draft the disaster redevelopment plan—for which the Lake Charles Housing Authority was successfully awarded a HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grant in August 2023. The project is expected to break ground in early 2024.

The grant will be used to transform severely damaged public housing units in the hard-hit Mid-City neighborhood into safe, sustainable, high-quality, mixed-income housing.

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Building trust in the process, one person at a time

Matthew Wheeler understands the meaning of community. He is one of nine siblings from a close-knit family and neighborhood. As he explained, “When you ate, you made sure everybody else around you ate. That's just how I grew up.” Wheeler built relationships with residents of Lake Charles, respecting their dignity while centering their voices, concerns, and experiences as he helped them chart pathways to recovery.

He began outreach in Lake Charles by asking residents what they wanted out of a new and improved neighborhood. Throughout the planning process, residents highlighted the importance of Lake Charles’ beloved green spaces and waterways to quality of life in the community, but they made it known that access to these spaces was not universal. In response, the HUD Choice Neighborhoods grant will include funding to establish two new parks: an on-site destination park that features a playground, public art and murals, and outdoor recreation space; and a kayak launch along the Contraband Bayou, the first and only safe waterway access point in the neighborhood.

Wheeler also respected people’s wariness about the project seeming too good to be true. After surviving the disasters and waiting for the assistance they urgently needed, he said, “they were tired of help never materializing.” Wheeler recalled, “Just talking with people, finding out what they needed, and convincing them their voices would be heard was a huge hurdle to overcome.”

By helping residents see the project as truly inclusive—designed based on their input in order to effectively serve their needs—Wheeler earned their trust, a crucial first step. Then he worked to make sure their wishes and needs would become realities.

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Unlocking potential and lasting impact

Lake Charles—a place that might have been bypassed otherwise—is now in the process of renewal, thanks, in part, to the efforts of SBP Fellow Matthew Wheeler.

The project will fund the following improvements to Lake Charles’ Mid-City neighborhood:

  • 562 sustainable, weather-resilient, mixed-income rental units built to FORTIFIED Gold standards;
  • case management for all Lloyd Oaks residents, regardless of whether they are currently living on-site or have relocated due to the storms;
  • services that connect adults with education and job opportunities;
  • and a brand new Equity Center that offers a business incubator and small business support, as well as homeownership resources.

The objective is to give Lake Charles’ Mid-City residents a more vibrant neighborhood that enhances quality of life, increases community infrastructure and engagement, and strengthens their resilience.

As Wheeler reflected on the potential ripple effects of the HUD grant on the future of Lake Charles, young people were on his mind. Especially young people like Travis, a seventh grader he met at a community meeting who spoke of wanting to be an engineer when he grew up.

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Wheeler summarized the importance of the Fellows program in Lake Charles—and of SBP’s focus on community-led recovery and resilience by sharing: “We're going to make sure we reach as many people as we can, that we're elevating voices that otherwise wouldn't be heard. Voices like Travis’s.”

Following his two-year term as an SBP Fellow, Wheeler plans to pursue opportunities to serve his community through a role in local or regional government. This is the hope—that committed, dedicated people like Matthew Wheeler will continue to be catalysts of change in their communities, maintaining the momentum and transformation for the long term.