Paynesville Press - January 4, 2006

Community Perspective

Hurricane Katrina provides life-changing experience

By Kay Spooner

As the saying goes "When God closes a door he opens a window." Three years ago this past October, my best friend and older brother Brian lost a brief but courageous battle with cancer. To be with him when he died is something I will never forget. He was so beautiful and left this world so gracefully. He is a true hero of mine. The door was closed. I was so sad.

The long phone conversations riddled with laughter were over. I miss him terribly. But a window was openedŠa window as beautiful as stained glass!

I was raised in a large family and the dynamics are such that you were not always close to all of your siblings. My baby sister Peggy and I have since found each other and long phone conversations riddled with laughter once again take place. While I always liked Peggy, there was enough age difference that I did not know her. She is now one of the treasures I hold closest to my heart. We have bonded on a level that will hold us together for eternity.

I tell you all of this to share my sister's story. Peggy is a nurse. Peggy is also a recovering alcoholic. Her life has not been easy. She is married and has a daughter in college and a 17-year-old son who has autism. Again, her life has not been easy. She, however, laughs more than anyone I know.

Peggy had been clean and sober for almost four years. She fell twice this summer. My heart aches when this happens. I wished we lived closer so I could just hug her. The last time she fell was at the end of August.

And then Katrina happened. Just new into recovery, she felt a need to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She signed up online and volunteered to help, not as a nurse but as a nursing assistant, her calling just to hold someone's hand. She felt others could do the nursing duties.

After a few days she received an e-mail saying she was selected to go to Louisiana. Over 35,000 people signed up on the Health and Human Services website, only 150 were picked. Fate!

Oh, the emotions she felt. She was excited, yet scared; weak from her illness, yet strong enough to respond to a calling to help others less fortunate. She flew from her home in Kalamazoo, Mich., to Houston, Texas. Arriving in Houston, she, along with others, was put on a bus and off to Lake Charles, La., they went.

They arrived at a medical evacuation unit which had been set up at a local college. There were a few dozen evacuees at this shelter. Most were African American; most had a hard time accepting help from strangers, especially white people. Cultural differences abound.

She spent the first few days in the center bonding with two other women who had also felt the calling to help - Naida from Alaska and Amy from New Hampshire. The three women told their superiors, they would do anything that was asked of them as long as they could work together. From that time on the three women were referred to by their superiors, co-volunteers, and evacuees as "The Trinity."

As they settled into life in the shelter, the winds of Hurricane Rita began to blow. Sure enough, they were in the eye of the next hurricane. Peggy became an evacuee. Hurricane Rita destroyed the site they had been evacuated from. They huddled up the evacuees and other local people and traveled to Bossier City, La. One can not imagine how the evacuees must have felt.

They were escorted to Bossier City by the local police. Many of the evacuees were transported by ambulance, the rest in buses. Their next "home" was in a convention center. There they worked and slept for the next 10 days. "The Trinity" worked hard helping in any way they could. The evacuees not knowing what was going to happen next. All were in a state of shock of what had happened and from what they saw.

One of the women in the shelter was named Tosha. Tosha had been swept out of her home by the rising Katrina waters. When she reached for something to hold on to she grabbed a live electrical wire. She was burned on the top half of her body. She spent two days in the waters waiting for help.

Tosha told Peggy she had counted 18 helicopters passing over her before she was finally rescued. Her good friend was taken under the waters by an alligator and never seen again.

Peggy told me that Tosha could not fall asleep. Peggy would just talk with Tosha all night long holding her hand. Tosha could not get the images of her friend and all the floating bodies out of her mind.

Peggy also recognized that Tosha suffered from the same disease she herself suffers from, that being alcoholism. She recently heard from Tosha. She called to say she had sought out treatment for her disease. Wow!

Another woman Peggy met in the shelter was an 85-year-old woman, Miss Barbara. Miss Barbara had been stranded in her home with her two adult children and one grandchild. They spent hours in the waters. As the flood waters started to rise, the family put Miss Barbara's chair on top of a table to try to keep her dry.

But the waters continued to rise. She then stood on her chair on top of the table. Under the weight of the four people, the table leg broke. Miss Barbara held onto a rope to keep from slipping under the water. Remember, Miss Barbara was 85 years old and barely able to get around on her own. There they stood in the waters for hours until they were finally rescued.

Miss Barbara would love to sit with Peggy and read the Bible. Peggy knows her Bible being a very strong Christian woman. As Peggy was leaving the shelter to return home, Miss Barbara gave Peggy an envelope. In the envelope Miss Barbara had written out, in her 85- year-old handwriting, her favorite Bible passages. No greater gift could Peggy ever receive.

Peggy also told of a young lady who was born with cerebral palsy. Tamara was the young lady's name. Peggy had told me that Tamara was the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. I felt like I had to do something for Tamara. I asked Peggy if it was okay to make her a quilt. "Tamara would love it" was Peggy's response. I needed to know what Tamara's favorite color was to figure out what quilt to make. Tamara's favorite color is purple. A quilt with various shades of purple and yellow stars has been made. It looks like a night sky. We all see the same sky, I decided.

Peggy called one day from the evacuation center. She told me to get the recent People magazine. In it were many pictures of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. There was a picture of Tamara.

Tamara, her parents, and several other people were shown in a boat as they were being rescued. Peggy explained: Tamara was looking back at their car that was partially under water. Peggy was right, Tamara was beautiful! There was another woman in the back of the boat, Peggy shared, and as they reached dry land the woman suffered a massive heart attack and died right there. The ongoing effects from the disaster beyond our comprehension. Talk at the shelter led Peggy, Naida, and Amy to start a nonprofit organization to help those in need. The name of the organization? "The Trinity." Peggy explains it stands for you, me, and the world.

Peggy left Louisiana returning to her family. Now to decompress and reflect on all the things she saw. And, oh, the pain of longing for the rest of the Trinity.

The Trinity recently reunited. They, along with a few hundred other Katrina volunteers, were invited to be in the audience of the Oprah Winfrey Show as Oprah talked about the people who heard the call to help. Peggy was excited to be together with her new found friends for life - Naida and Amy. They would meet in Chicago, where Oprah is taped, and get to spend the weekend together.

While I wanted to go to Chicago and share in this experience with Peggy, I knew it was not my place. I would be a third wheel. Peggy did not argue with me. I knew I had made the right choice.

The Oprah filming took place on Nov. 12. They also had the opportunity to stay for a second taping, this with Jamie Foxx as Oprah's guest.

Peggy called after "her day spent with Oprah." After a few phone conversations, I felt there was something Peggy wasn't telling me. She told me the Katrina show with Oprah would be shown on Monday, Nov. 21. I called some friends to organize an "Oprah Party."

A few days before the show aired, while watching Oprah at home, the advertisement came on telling of the show set to air on Nov. 21. But wait, it was going to be "Oprah's Favorite Things Show." This show, which in the past, Oprah had shared with those lucky enough to be in the audience a few of "her favorite things." I was confused Šthat was the date for the Katrina showŠ could it beŠcould Peggy have been in the audienceŠwas this the something I felt she was not telling me???

Of course, not really believing that it could be, I called Peggy to find out if something else happened on the show she was on. "I don't know what you are talking about," was Peggy's response. When I pressed a bit further she again said, "I don't know what you are talking about." I finally said, "If your show is not on Monday, I will need to reschedule my 'Oprah Party.' "

I will only tell you after a moment of utter silence (which never happens with me and my sister). Well her reaction wasŠwell, how do I say thisŠwell, okay it was colorful!!!

Peggy could only tell me was yes, she was on that show, but because she was required to sign a confidentiality agreement, Peggy could not tell me any more about it. Now I knew. I decided not to tell any of those coming to watch the show with me. I was going to be able to surprise them! And they were surprised!

The show was very emotional. Let me tell you how very proud I was, knowing my sister was part of this special audience. According to Oprah, an audience of "True American Heroes." Everyone in the audience received thousands of dollars worth of gifts from Oprah. Peggy, along with many of those in the audience, had mixed emotions about receiving the goodies from Oprah. Oprah assured them during the commercial breaks that her Angel network was building homes for the hurricane victims. The gifts were just her way of saying thank you. Peggy has since sold some of the items. The money she received will be sent to Tosha. Peggy and her family feel that maybe this will give Tosha and her children a merrier Christmas.

The entire experience has changed my baby sister's life. I told her recently that I sense how much she has changed. I told her, even her laugh is different. I think Peggy has seen life so differently, I doubt if she will ever relapse again. She recently started a new job fresh starts all around for her. She is such an amazing woman. I believe her to be a "True American Hero."

I know her big brother Brian would be so incredibly proud of her. I know he, along with my dad, were there with her the entire time. Giving her the strength she so needed to help those who needed her. I have not seen Peggy since early this summer. I cannot wait to see her, to give her the huge hug I have for her. She gets to Minnesota a few times a year. Recently, I asked her to speak at a Chamber luncheon meeting. I hope it works out.

As we look forward to this Christmas and the New Year, I hope we all can learn from those who helped out in Louisiana, Mississippi and all places where there is such a need for humanity.

Spooner is the secretary for the Paynesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

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