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Louisiana children?s homes give thanks for support

Children play kickball at the Methodist Children's Home in Ruston, La., which became a temporary home to children evacuated from the Methodist Children's Home in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Most have since returned to the New Orleans shelter. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Aug. 22, 2007

Keith Rhodes, who was director of the New Orleans home, plays basketball with a young resident.

Louisiana children scarred by a "wicked society" are welcomed and raised in grace at two United Methodist children's shelters.

Hundreds of children ages 10 to 17 become wards of the state each year and are removed from their homes because of life-threatening situations. If they are lucky, they find a safe haven in the shelters in Ruston or New Orleans.

For children already coping with a lifetime of trauma, Hurricane Katrina was an especially hard blow.

"These are children who have been impacted by the horrors of a wicked society," said Keith Rhodes, who was director of the Methodist Children's Home in New Orleans when Katrina hit. "Children who have, for no reason, had to endure more traumatic stress due to Hurricane Katrina ... children that are in need of support and love."

Disaster strikes

On Aug. 28, 2005, as Katrina was projected to land soon, 36 children and a half dozen staff members from the New Orleans children's home arrived in Ruston prepared to stay "three days max," according to Rhodes. They ended up living there for several months.

By the second day of their stay, "reality began setting in for both the staff and the children, but mostly for the children," said Rhodes. "They actually began to change before our eyes as they watched the news broadcasts. These children had minimal relationships with family, and what family they did have lived in the hardest hit areas. The reports of death and destruction began to take their toll on our kids.

"It was almost as if a cloud of sadness and doom had just passed across their hearts."

Twelve-year-old LeJon remembers the day he left New Orleans in vivid detail.

"They told us to get all of our stuff," he said. "And I was trying to get all the rest of my stuff, but that’s when the bus came. And the bus drove past us and it went to the front and they said, 'Let’s go.' And the next thing, we go to Baton Rouge and they said we was going to stay there and go back to New Orleans."

LeJon is one of six evacuees who are still at Ruston as the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches. He is sad he has lost touch with friends and that he didn't get to gather a lot of his "stuff" before leaving. But he is not afraid of another storm hitting.

"All I have to do is pray ... and I just have to get ready," he said. "... If I have to pack my clothes, this time I will take everything."

Horseback riding is a recreational activity at the Ruston home.

Alexander, who is also 12, misses "home" as well.

"I was afraid when it (Katrina) hit. After, I was afraid and before I was afraid. So I was kind of afraid the whole time," said the soft-spoken boy, adding that leaving New Orleans meant that "I wouldn’t be able to see my mom for a long time."

Children in solidarity

United Methodists from around the world sent money, prayers and messages of support to the two children's homes. One special gift came from African children at Reeves Memorial United Methodist Church in Monrovia, Liberia.

At Reeves, children far outnumber the adults, and they know something about loss. Many lost their parents and family during Liberia’s 14-year-old civil war or from another enemy—AIDS. Like the people in New Orleans after the storm, they live without electricity and running water. Their homes have been wrecked by war.

In a country where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, these children offered up pennies so they could donate $20 to "the children of Louisiana."

Louisiana United Methodist Bishop William Hutchinson received the money a few months after Katrina. The hand-written message scrawled on the edge of the Sept. 4, 2005, church bulletin said, "Donation of U.S. $20 from the children of Reeves Memorial United Methodist Church to the children of Louisiana, USA, in solidarity with their plight in the wake of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina."

Hutchinson presented the gift to both directors of the children's homes.

"We were thrilled when the bishop selected us, knowing our special need," said Terrel DeVille, president and CEO of the Ruston ministry, which cares for 106 children. The gift was symbolic from children also in desperate need.

Terrel DeVille, who heads the Ruston children's home, holds a $20 bill donated by the children of Reeves Memorial United Methodist Church in Monrovia, Liberia.

"For our kids, it’s a daily war, surviving, you know, the things that they’ve had to survive. But realizing what these children over there have gone through and the willingness to do that, that’s a tremendous witness, it really is," DeVille said.

Rhodes, who has since taken another job in California, recalls that he was moved to tears by the gift. "… That touched me so that that $20, in my opinion, was $2 million," he said.

'Thank you'

The children were overwhelmed by the support they received from strangers, according to Rhodes.

"They didn’t think that a person in Texas or Kentucky or Georgia cared anything about them or what happened to them. Their lives and their hearts were touched by the response that we received from The United Methodist Church during this crisis," he said.

The New Orleans home is scheduled in February to move to a newer, safer facility in nearby Mandeville.

At Ruston, Deville and his staff figure the $20 from the Liberian children would be worth at least $1,000 in the United States. The children plan to raise that amount to give to the children in Liberia who came to their aid.

Alexander and LeJon have a special message for their new Liberian friends.

"Thank you, and I hope that you’ll have a safe life," said Alexander.

"It was nice for them, of them to do that," said LeJon. "I hope they could have a blessed life."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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