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Church offers sanctuary to new parents and their infants

WALKER, La.—Rosezina Jefferson was ready to give birth any day when Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans.

She had to wade and swim through floodwaters to seek help, and the exertion induced labor. A Coast Guard boat found her struggling in the water and evacuated her to Woman's Hospital in Baton Rouge, where Keith was born Aug. 31.

The 26-year-old ended up at Judson Baptist Church, which has become a haven for parents and newborns left homeless by the hurricane.

"I don't know where to begin," Jefferson said, watching her 5-year-old son, Ashton, while holding Keith Hall Jr. in her arms. "I'm confused. I've never lost my home and everything before. I have nowhere to turn to but here."

The parishioners and the new parents staying at Judson Baptist, east of Baton Rouge, often exchange friendly arguments about who is really helping whom.

The moms and dads are grateful for a place to stay; the parishioners equally pleased to be able to help after the hurricane spared their homes and families, but not their feelings of helplessness toward those who had suffered.

Nearly three weeks after Katrina, homeless families now face the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. They must leave shelters that have provided not only food and a roof overhead, but also for some an alternative home that has filled the emotional void of destroyed neighborhoods, absent fathers and lost loved ones.

Just the idea of leaving the safe haven of the church after so much loss gives some of the families pause.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time, but I think I'll be out of here in a week," said Torrie Abram, 34. She passed her 3-week-old son, Jourdan, to a volunteer as she ate lunch in the brightly lit church cafeteria. She has been at the church since Sept. 11. "I'm going to stay in Walker. This is the place that took me in."

Jourdan was born in a New Orleans hospital just days before the hurricane struck. He and his mother were evacuated to Woman's Hospital on Sept. 9. When Abram sat down in the hospital waiting room, Jourdan asleep in her arms, she had no idea what to do next. She didn't know if her apartment near the French Quarter was still standing, where Jourdan's father was, or where she would go.

"I felt I was falling, sinking. I felt I'd never stop falling."

Shannon Easley, a secretary at Woman's Hospital and the wife of a Judson Baptist Church pastor, noticed Abram.

"She looked so sad," Easley said. "So lost. So much pain. I couldn't imagine so much pain. Then I saw all these moms, and I thought, the church needs to put aside an area for moms with babies."

Since then, church officials said they have taken as many as 80 families at one time. About a dozen have had babies between a week and 4 weeks old.

Today, five families with infants share the church with about 35 other families. A playroom has been set aside for the children. Volunteers watch the babies while the parents meet with FEMA, the Red Cross and job assistance agencies.

"We intend this as a temporary home," said Pastor Merelin Maccoon. "We are helping them to re-establish themselves either by traveling to other areas or going home."

Church classrooms along a narrow hall were converted into dormitory-style rooms with cots and heaps of donated clothes, baby supplies and toys. For some of the children, the shelter has taken on the characteristics of a playground. They run shouting down the halls, skirting around corners and opening doors to bathrooms and offices.

"This girl here could be a movie star," Maccoon said patting Sandra Rojas, 18, on her shoulders. "We may not let her leave."

Rojas smiled, but after Maccoon left her cafeteria table, she shook her head.

"This is not my home."

Her son, Kevin, was born Aug. 8. They left New Orleans after the hurricane with her father and mother, and stayed in several shelters near Baton Rouge before a nurse suggested Judson Baptist Church. She was separated from Kevin's father, who now lives in Atlanta.

"I want to go back to New Orleans and live. Maybe try to rebuild," she said. "I am grateful to be here, but it's very different than your own place."

Jefferson and her husband, Keith Hall, 50, have a little more hesitancy about leaving with 5-year-old Ashton and Keith Jr.

"Our children are safe—Keith won't even remember this," Hall said and laughed, looking at the sleeping baby. "You can't stop the will of God. This was not in our hands. I'm a little sad, but we're all living. We have a new son and new friends."


(Garcia reports for The Kansas City Star.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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