Bringing joy this Christmas to the children most affected by hurricane Katrina through the charitable donation of gifts.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Chapter 2 - Ms. Johnson's Family

One thing missing from our drive and our New Orleans excursion on Saturday was seeing the effect that Katrina had on the people. We saw buildings and signage and streets. On Sunday, we would be able to focus on the people. Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to Gonzales to meet Ms. Johnson’s family. Ms. J is a sixty year-old black woman, New Orleans native, and feisty little grandma. When Katrina came, Ms. J packed up her family in the one car they could salvage and headed out of town. They set up camp at a Holiday Inn and have been there ever since. This is home for them now. Although we would not get to personally meet all the recipients of our gifts, we were surely going to meet Ms. J’s family.

We spent the better part of our morning trying to figure out what would be the first thing we would say. How do you even begin to tell a family whose life has just been swept away that you are there to bring them Christmas? Will they be insulted by being your charity case? Will they turn away the pity they think you have for them? Will they shed tears of joy for what little they are receiving? It took Ms. J a little over thirty minutes to answer the door. When she finally did open the door, things were awkward at first, but she eventually welcomed us into her home with open arms.

Her home. Room 113 at the Holiday Inn. Not a suite, not a penthouse, merely a hotel room with two double beds. Nicole was sitting on the bed nearest to us nursing 6 week old Cameron. The other bed, they call this “the hole”, was occupied by Ms. Blackwell. Ms. B is 95 years old, in diapers with a feeding tube. Standing around the room were the rest of the family: Colin is 10, Kevin is 12, Edith is 37 and Joanne is 38. In case you lost count: that is eight people. Eight people living in Room 113 at the Holiday Inn. They had a mini-fridge, a microwave, a short supply of food, and some clothing. Things were literally stacked up to the ceiling. They only brought with them the things they could fit in the trunk of the one car they could salvage. A car that was now broken down. Looking around the room, there was barely room for us to stand much less, for the gifts we brought. We had a lot of things for the baby, figuring this would help everyone. We had also made a special stop to get two matching bikes for Colin and Kevin. Ms. J teared up when she saw the bikes, saying “praise the Lord, now someone can go to the grocery store.” My heart sank. While I was glad some of Ms. J’s chores will be eased, I was saddened that these bicycles will not bring the joy to these two children that it will to others around the country. With these bikes, comes more responsibility laid upon their shoulders.

We stayed and spoke with Ms. J and her family for a while. They talked about how difficult it was to live in such close quarters, especially with a baby. They expressed their disgust at FEMA and others they feel are not helping them. They spoke of saving Ms. B so she didn’t “float away in the storm.” They talked about living day by day. They have a rental car now so Edith and Joanne can get to work, but that will have to go back on Monday. They have looked for apartments but just cannot afford anything. Post-Katrina, one bedroom apartments in Baton Rouge are going for $1500. Come January 7th (or February 7th depending on what Congress decides) Ms. Johnson and her family will have to leave. Nicole has a small amount of money saved and asked the manager at the hotel if they could stay in their room until they find somewhere else to live. They said no. The Holiday Inn is ready to get things at their hotel back to normal. Ms. Johnson balks at the word normal. She and her family won’t know normal for quite some time.