Cover Story

Helping hands

Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of residents on the Gulf Coast, but it also changed the lives of Christians partnered with them to help. Here's a story of individuals, a ministry, and a neighborhood forever altered

Issue: "Comfort and joy," Dec. 24, 2005

Tatania Riley, 26, sits on a child-sized chair in a classroom in Austin's JJ Pickle Elementary School and talks about the journey that put her on a Texas-bound plane at the New Orleans Airport a week after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Ms. Riley knew better than to try to ride out the storm at her duplex in the Algiers section of New Orleans. She'd had the forethought to reserve three rooms at a hotel on higher ground for herself, her three children, and neighbors. She had all her important papers in a box and several outfits for each child, including diapers for the baby, Jania.

As the storm raged, blowing out windows in the hotel and forcing the residents in the 15-story building to huddle in the hallways on the lower floors, they celebrated her 10-year-old daughter Breeon's birthday with a zebra cake. The next morning the sun came out, the nearby streets were dry, and Ms. Riley and her friends headed home. Their houses had survived but were without electricity and air conditioning.

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For three days they slept outside where it was cooler and grilled food from the deep freeze as it thawed. But when the food ran out, Ms. Riley and her friends scrounged gas and headed to Jefferson Parish to get in line for a bus to take them to the rescue point on Interstate 10. It took three more days of sleeping outside before a nurse saw Ms. Riley holding Jania, who'd been drinking nothing but water and was so dehydrated that she was wetting only one diaper a day.

Soon the family was on a helicopter to the airport, where Jania received "some Pedialyte and stuff" before they all boarded that Austin-bound plane and eventually ended up at the Hearthside, a former extended-stay hotel on the edge of Austin's St. John neighborhood, a poor one filled with ramshackle frame houses and trash-strewn lots.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, Karen Parchman began her fifth day on the job at Community New Start (CNS), a Christian community renewal ministry in St. John. That's when she learned about nonprofit Foundation Communities, which owns the Hearthside, welcoming on a temporary basis about 300 Katrina evacuees, including 43 children, into the hotel's 118 rooms. Ms. Parchman visited the hotel and told Foundation Communities, "We are a ministry in the neighborhood and want to help"-but she did not then know what that would entail.

Ms. Parchman's first thought was to connect the children to Smart Start, a free after-school program run by CNS in three neighborhood schools, including JJ Pickle, where most of the children from Hearthside, including Breeon, were enrolled (see sidebar). But evacuees needed much more than that: Most of the adults were poorly educated and had been unemployed in New Orleans. They needed longer-term help to get settled into Austin.

Foundation Communities set up a case-management plan for the residents to hook them up with services and asked CNS to provide basic material assistance such as backpacks, school supplies, household goods, and toiletries for residents-but many church contributors wanted to do more than just give stuff. CNS and various evangelical churches developed the Katrina Partners program, with groups throughout Austin using training materials pulled together by CNS community coordinator Allen Weeks.

A former missionary, high-school teacher, and track coach, Mr. Weeks moved into St. John five years ago, even though his best friend told him he could get killed or robbed in the neighborhood. Mr. Weeks, a soft-spoken marathon runner who then worked at Apple Computer as an educational consultant, could have afforded other neighborhoods, but he says, "I looked at the neighborhood as fun, in the sense that this is going to be a vibrant place to live."

He bought a run-down duplex to rehab, living in one half and renting out the other. Three years ago when CNS adopted a community renewal model that emphasized tackling poverty and crime a block at a time while building a network of relationships, it hired Mr. Weeks to be a community coordinator. Now he and his wife of two years, Julie, work closely with about 15 families. "It's hard to do things in big, giant pieces," Mr. Weeks said. "But if you break it down . . . it's really very effective."

In 2004, on the day their first baby, Ashley, was born, the Weekses closed on a modest limestone house on Meador Avenue, just down the block, and well within hearing range of the shrieks rising from the playground at Pickle Elementary. The house's small yard is bordered by flowerbeds and posted with a sign, "We Care."


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