“Don’t make it all about me,” Paula said. “Whatever
you write or say, don’t make it all about me. You can tell my story,
but make sure people understand that there are many others who are still struggling
to put their lives back together after Katrina.”
Denise and I first met Paula and her 17-year-old son in June. I had been
told about her situation by a FEMA worker in April and had made phone contact,
but did not meet Paula and Ashton until June, two days before Ashton would
graduate from high school.
Graduation – this was what Paula and her son had been working toward
for so many years and despite so many obstacles. It was finally going to happen!
Thanks to the generosity of people in our synod, Ashton had been able to
attend his senior prom. He also received a camera for graduation and a small
sum to develop the pictures.
Ashton thanked us profusely, then said that he had used the money instead
to buy a pair of pants so he could go to graduation. That’s when we
began to realize just how serious the needs of this family were.
Alone with Paula after lunch, we asked her directly whether she had food.
She reluctantly admitted she didn’t. At first, we weren’t sure
how we could help; then we remembered the gift cards donated by a congregation
at Christmas. “Christmas in June!” I told Paula as I handed these
“Another family in need! There are so many,” you might say. And you would
be right. But let me tell you a little more about Paula.
Paula graduated from college with a degree in political science and received
additional training in information systems. She married, they purchased a
home in New Orleans, and they had two children. Then, four years ago, Paula’s
husband died suddenly. The day after his funeral, their daughter left to serve
After her husband died, Paula's major goal was to see that Ashton graduated
from high school. Then Katrina hit New Orleans.
Paula and Ashton escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The
only thing Paula has by which to remember her house is a picture of its rubble,
shoved blocks away from where it originally stood. The neighborhood – not
just the houses, but the community – is gone forever.
During the fall of 2005, Paula and Ashton made their way to Baton Rouge,
then to a motel in Mississippi, where they eventually discovered they could
get a free plane ticket to anywhere they had someone who would help them.
Somehow they connected with a group that brought them to the Lehigh Valley.
It has been a very difficult struggle for Paula and Ashton. Even when a
flood washes away everything you own, you still have the debts and obligations
you had when you possessed a house, clothes, and a job.
Not only did Paula and Ashton have only a change of clothes and three dollars
when they got here, but their whole way of life had changed. There was no
close-knit community of lifelong friends who supported one another emotionally.
And it was cold, much colder than New Orleans.
In addition, the salary Paula earned at temporary jobs was technically “too
high” for them to qualify for medical assistance or food stamps, so
they could not afford medical care.
People and organizations who know the situation have helped as they can,
but the needs go beyond the tangible. One important dimension in helping survivors
is honoring their need to maintain as much control over their lives as possible.
As your Lutheran Disaster Response representatives at
Services, we had the privilege of sitting with Paula and listening to her
story, supporting her as she clarifies and prioritizes needs, and brainstorming
ways to address some issues. We are also able to link her to services and
to advocate for her.
Many individuals have assisted Paula with items they knew or thought she
needed (some even handed her money), but Paula seemed relieved when LCS offered
to serve as the collection point for materials and, particularly, funds to
help her with medication and food.
She also asked me to help her prepare for interviews if newspapers and
TV reporters want to talk to her around the second anniversary of Katrina,
the way they did a year ago. She doesn’t feel she can give them the “success” story
they might be looking for and wants to “tell it like it is” without
seeming ungrateful for all the assistance she has received
Paula is a hard worker and follows through on every lead she gets. She
has a college degree plus additional training and a lot of experience in information
systems. We would be happy to share her impressive resume detailing 16 years
of work for an energy company in Louisiana and the development of her own
business, Miss Paula’s Candies. Since moving to Allentown, Paula has
worked three temporary jobs while searching for a permanent position with
benefits. In addition, she is working to reestablish her pie and candy business.
Through contributions to Disaster Response at Lutheran Congregational Services,
you have already helped Paula by enabling LCS to provide additional cards
for food and, when she was between jobs, pay a few essential bills.
You can help even further by—
- identifying other Katrina survivors in need;
- telling us about opportunities for Paula to sell her pies and candy;
- letting us know about a possible local job with good benefits; and
- replenishing our funds so we can continue to help with medication and ther basic necessities.
Funds will be shared with other struggling Katrina survivors in our synod.
Any excess will be channeled to assist survivors in another territory.
No, it’s not all about Paula. Hopefully, however, Paula’s story
helps all of us to better understand what survivors of disaster face and how
we can help.
Donations should be made out to Lutheran Congregational Services and the
memo should designate: “Local Katrina Survivors’ Fund.”