Glaring overhead fluorescents eclipse the time of day inside Houston’s Reliant Center this midmorning, Tuesday, September 6, 2005, eight days after Katrina devastated New Orleans. Part of the Astrodome complex, once home to sporting events and rodeos, the center is now a sea of green cots — makeshift beds for 8,000 devastated Katrina evacuees.
Into the crowd of displaced people, Ashley Bryan rolls her wheelchair, calling for the youngest ones to join her, offering Hershey’s Kisses along with a welcoming smile. “Do you like to draw? Come on with me! We’ve got paper, crayons, markers!”
Ashley and three other Houston moms have created Katrina’s Kids Project, an art program for the children. Their motto: Hope, One Crayon at a Time. Hope is something Ashley knows a lot about. On a daily basis, it gives her the will to fight the fiery pain in her muscles, a result of the muscular dystrophy that afflicted her almost 15 years ago. The disease has turned her life upside down — causing this once athletic woman to spend more days than she would like in a wheelchair.
She ferries five of the youngest children back to the art table. They follow her in a line, giggling. Dubbed the Pied Piper of the Reliant Center, Ashley says it’s the chocolate that attracts the kids. But her friends know it’s her bright smile, her laughter. Her warmth encourages a shy, thin boy to approach her now with hesitation.
“What y’all doing?” he asks.
He speaks softly, eyes downcast. Ashley notices his single stud earring and the knobby shoulders poking above straps of a white, sleeveless undershirt. A pair of long shorts fall past his knees — big and baggy — undoubtedly something he’s been given from the donations pile. Ashley thinks they look like socks on a rooster, he’s so little and skinny.
“We’re making pictures,” she tells him. “Say, can you draw?”
The boy puffs himself up and boasts, “You bet I can! Want to see?” He looks directly into Ashley’s eyes, a moment of trust fueled by bravado.
“Okay! So, what’s your name?” she asks, catching sadness in his eyes as he looks away.
“I’m Donald,” he says in a whisper.
Donald shows up at the art table again on Wednesday and hands Ashley a picture. “Oh, my gosh,” Ashley says, “you really can draw!”