Past and current residents of the New Orleans Women’s Shelter recently joined together with board members at City Park for the organization’s annual picnic.

“This isn’t a fundraiser,” NOWS Executive Director Dawn Fletcher said. “All of this, the ice cream bar, the face painting, the food and activities, this is all a way to bring our board and residents together and help us keep in touch with former residents.”

Among the former residents present, Wanda Washington has since February, served as the shelter’s full-time cook. While watching her 6-year-old son Jaremiah enjoying the festivities, she recalled life before she found the shelter.

“I was staying with a family member when my house was messed up after Hurricane Isaac,” she said. “For a while, I had my own apartment, but then my hours got cut back and I couldn’t afford it anymore. Me and my baby had nowhere to go.”

NOWS has a twofold mission: get women and children off the streets and transition them into independent living. Since opening in 2007 with a small facility in the Upper 9th Ward, the shelter has helped more than 250 women and 375 children achieve both these goals.

Unlike many local shelters, residents of NOWS are never charged a fee and are welcome to stay as long as they need.

“A typical stay averages around three to four months, but have reached as long as 18 months,” said Dan Silverman, chairman of the NOWS board.

Four months ago, NOWS relocated to a larger facility in Central City. The shelter can house up to 40 women and children: twice the number of the previous facility.

Silverman said the move was necessary to try to keep up with constant demand.

“We are always operating at capacity,” he said. “If you’re a woman with small children, we are where you want to go.”

Part of what makes NOWS so special, Wanda said, is the feeling of community, fostered in part by a very homelike living environment. Each family enjoys the privacy of their own room, along with access to a common living room, dining room and kitchen.

“Everybody was so nice and made us feel so comfortable,” Wanda said. “It was like a family. We’d even watch each other’s kids sometimes. I met a lot of good friends there, and we’re still close.”

While residing, women and children are offered three daily meals, along with free clothing and personal items as needed. They also receive individualized care that ranges from help opening a bank account, to parenting classes, to job and education assistance.

“We collaborate with some 40 organizations around town to provide a wide range of assistance,” Silverman said.

Resident Ro’Tanya, 25, and her three young daughters were among the revelers at the NOWS picnic.

“Six months ago, things had gotten so bad that my girls and I ended up sleeping at a bus stop,” she said. “I took them to school the next day and their clothes were so dirty that the teachers asked me what was going on. I ended up spending the rest of that day with a social worker who finally found us a spot at the New Orleans Women’s Shelter.”

Ro’Tanya has since taken advantage of NOWS help to attend culinary school. She graduates this month and is busy searching for a job to support herself and her three young daughters. In the meantime, though, she knows her family is safe, and the future, for the first time, looks bright.

“I couldn’t ask to be in a better place,” she said.