Homecoming on Hold

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on October 18, 2005

(by Jamie Dean, WorldMag.com) NEW ORLEANS, La., and NICEVILLE, Fla. — When 16-year-old Kerry Matthews stepped onto the trim football field at St. Martin’s Episcopal School just west of New Orleans, the starting quarterback was near the end of a long day of firsts: It was the first day his team—the Desire Street Academy Lions—played a game in a league. It was the first day that he officially donned his No. 3 black and burgundy uniform. And it was the first day that the 11th-grader and his teammates had been back to New Orleans since the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood they grew up in was all but destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Like the rest of the Lions, Mr. Matthews wanted badly to win the team’s opening game on Oct. 10 against Crescent City Baptist School, but early in the evening he said losing everything to Katrina had taught him what he should want most: “To get closer to God, and to help out the other kids at the school, especially the younger ones . . . to be a role model.”

Desire Street Academy (DSA) had just begun its fourth year when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. For the low-income Christian school enrolling 7th- to 12th-grade boys, the storm “scattered to the four winds” the school’s 190 students and 40 staff members, said Mo Leverett, a Presbyterian minister, former football coach, and founder of Desire Street Ministries (DSM). The next two weeks were filled with frantic attempts to track them down (see “Katrina: the sequel,” Sept. 17). Within a month DSA had located all of its staff and 145 of its students, and is hoping to hear from the remaining 45 students as well.

While searching out students in shelters and temporary housing situations across the country, Mr. Leverett also was searching for a way to keep the school open. “I didn’t want to lose a whole year with the boys,” he said. After scouting locations across the South, Mr. Leverett found Camp Timpoochee, a 4-H camp in Niceville, Fla., and quickly came to an agreement with the camp leadership: DSA would lease Camp Timpoochee as a boarding school.

Then staff began a “mass transportation effort,” said Mr. Leverett, arranging pickup points for students in major cities across the South. Faculty delivered the boys to the Florida panhandle in “buses, cars, vans, you name it,” said Mr. Leverett. By Oct. 2, 75 students filled the small camp on the Gulf Coast, and DSA held its second first day of school Oct. 3.

Textbook companies provided new books at reduced rates. Donors provided school supplies for all the students. Members of local churches “adopted” individual students, committing to doing their laundry for the year. Local volunteers also fix meals.

All school staff except for three teachers moved to Florida, and more students called to say they want to come to Niceville as well.

After nearly a month of no school, things went “OK” the first week, according to dean of students Heather Holdsworth. “We’ve definitely got our challenges. . . . The school part is easy. It’s when you add the boarding school part that things get complicated.”

Handling complications falls to Al Jones, the academy’s principal and chief disciplinarian. “I’m a problem solver,” says the 6-foot-4-inch former Tulane University football player. “It’s what I love to do.” Mr. Jones, 47, enjoyed a successful career as a teacher (he was named New Orleans Public School Teacher of the Year in 1993), a coach, and an assistant principal before joining the DSA staff just 3 1/2 weeks before Katrina hit.

In the days after the hurricane, Mr. Jones and his wife agreed that he would go wherever the school relocated. His wife remains in Baton Rouge with their teenage son. “The separation is tough,” he said, “but my wife and I made a commitment to the school, and we want to keep it.”

Mr. Jones says the biggest challenge right now is homesickness: “Some of the boys cried and cried for days.” But students are adjusting, and the staff is helping them cope with their losses, even while dealing with their own.

Part of coping is coming back to New Orleans, said Mr. Jones. When faculty, students, and the football team made the five-hour trip to New Orleans for the team’s first game, they also took a tour of the Ninth Ward and the DSM campus: “As painful it was, we wanted them to see that there’s really no New Orleans to go back to. . . . I hope it will give them some closure and ease their pain of being away from home,” said Mr. Jones.

A tour through the Lower Ninth Ward is sobering these days. At the corner of Abundance and Piety streets, the sanctuary of Macedonia Church of God in Christ lies crumpled and mildewing beneath its small, crushed roof. The church sign still stands out front and reads: “We Believe in Miracles.” Six weeks after broken levees poured 12 feet of water into most houses here, restoring the neighborhood will take a miracle.

Though the floodwaters are gone and the streets are dry, what remains of the Ninth Ward is an eerie wasteland: A thin layer of ashy dust covers deserted streets inhabited only by starving dogs. Blocks of ruined homes sit crumbling and rotting in the hot sun, their doors and windows stripped away, some sliding off their foundations. Personal possessions litter the streets, dislocated by floodwaters: mattresses, small appliances, baby furniture, and photo albums.

New Orleans officials are grappling with how to confront the Lower Ninth Ward’s devastation, and while Mayor Ray Nagin says there is no “ulterior plan” to demolish the area, some say demolition might be the only safe solution for scores of homes supported by severely damaged structures and caked with filthy sludge. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson has questioned the wisdom of rebuilding in an area so prone to flooding, noting that hurricanes have brought significant floods to the area three times in the last 40 years.

The Lower Ninth has long been a cauldron of hardship, with more than a third of its 14,000-plus residents living in poverty, and drug and crime rates high. Still, multigenerational families and deep-rooted neighborhood camaraderie have formed a culture of tight-knit community to which many hope to return.

Situated among some of the neighborhood’s worst damage, the campus of DSM stands—surprisingly—structurally intact. Its steel-framed multipurpose building, home to the academy, a church, and a recreational complex dedicated to a gospel-based discipleship and urban renewal program for children and teenagers, withstood major exterior damage with only a few broken windows and a missing door.

Inside, however, floodwaters left severe damage: Floors suffocate under a thick layer of dried, cracked muck; once-white walls are smeared with mud, mildew, and corrosion; computer monitors and overturned desks lie scattered in puddles down a dark, dingy hall. Mr. Leverett says the building will have to be gutted, but “the structure is salvageable.” But with most homes for miles around ruined, the question is, salvageable to what end?

Deangelo Peterson, a 10th-grader at the academy and a wide receiver, says going back to the Ninth Ward “was tough . . . I didn’t want to see that.”

Deangelo’s family remains in Texas where they evacuated after the storm, and he says he misses his mother: “I talk to her every day.” (Deangelo’s heroism may have saved his mother’s life. As the floodwaters rose in their home, he helped his mother and two nieces swim to safety: “I’m the only one in my family who can swim.”)

Deangelo says that though he misses home, he likes the boarding school and finds comfort in football. “It helps them when they can still play football,” said assistant coach Mickey Joseph before the team’s first game, “and achieve goals they set before the storm.”

On this night, however, the team wouldn’t achieve its goal of winning, instead suffering a disappointing 50-14 loss. Beneath the goal post after the game, Mr. Leverett told the dejected players to drop bad attitudes and persevere: “In times of adversity you don’t give up. You put your hand to the plow and you keep going.”

Also encouraging the young players from the sidelines was Danny Wuerffel, 1996 Florida Gators champion, Heisman Trophy winner, and former NFL pro. Mr. Wuerffel retired from the NFL last year to take a full-time position as DSM director of development and has brought national attention to the ministry’s plight in the days since Hurricane Katrina.

By the next afternoon, the players seemed to have shaken off their losses, helped by sleeping in and eating a hearty lunch back at Camp Timpoochee. In a lounge over the dining hall, the boys can watch television and play Ping-Pong or foosball after completing chores on assigned work crews. On weekends, staff take the boys on outings around town and hold church in the dining hall.

Next to the dining hall, a row of log cabins faces the ocean. Ten boys sleep in bunk beds in each cabin, sharing two showers and two sinks. “Dorm dads” stay with the boys at night, while most teachers stay in hotel rooms or rented houses in town.

Two large buildings on either side of the camp house eight small classrooms, and a cabin near the shore serves as the science building, where teacher Daniel Ballard has started a unit on marine biology. On a sunny afternoon he takes his ninth-graders down to the shore where the students rush into the water with nets and goggles, eager to catch crabs or fish. Mr. Ballard then helps identify each creature and its parts.

“Learning is about where you are, and being here is all the better for learning about biology,” he says. “Books are a good tool, but it’s great for boys to be able to get out here, dig around, and discover what God has created.”

At the end of each class, the principal rings the “bell,” an air horn he blows from the middle of the camp. During second period, Mr. Jones sits on a bench outside a cabin, wiping sweat from his forehead and talking with a boy who wants to go home.

“I can’t take this anymore,” says 13-year-old Brandon. “I want to go home. . . . I need to see my mama.” Mr. Jones tells Brandon he’ll work on arranging a visit with his mother, and in the meantime, he tells Brandon, who has had discipline problems, “If you miss your mama, act like it. . . . Do what you know she’d want you to do even though she’s not here.”

Mr. Jones says maintaining discipline in a chaotic setting has been a challenge, but “we’re going to get there again.” And despite the challenges, he is enthusiastic about the boarding school setting: “Here’s an opportunity to educate them 24/7 . . . to truly educate and disciple the whole person.”

Copyright 2005 WORLD Magazine, Oct. 22, 2005.  Reprinted here with permisssion from World Magazine.  Visit the website at www.worldmag.com.