Best New Beginning

A homeless boy. A woman determined to help. And a stack of drawings that changed two lives.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2007

His illustrations are complex and sophisticated — pictures of trains, trucks and helicopters — as professional as any from a book or magazine. Crowds gather to watch Donald at work.

But unlike the other kids who draw the horrors they experienced escaping their flooded homes, Donald refuses to divulge any personal information. He uses his art to avoid the subject. It’s only as the hours pass and he learns Ashley can access a computer that he sets down his pencil, looks straight at her and says: “Would you help me look for my mom? Her name is Troy. Troy Expose.” He tells Ashley his mother’s date of birth and address.

Ashley says yes, but it’s a promise rife with potential heartbreak. Before Katrina’s Kids Project, Ashley spent days volunteering in the computer room, searching for information about the people who’d been lost during the storm. Most of them were never found. Donald, she will soon learn, lived at ground zero of the deadly flood, just a few blocks from where the levee broke.

As Ashley leaves, she notices Donald chewing on his index finger, skin raw and bleeding. “Don’t do that to yourself,” she tells him. But it’s a nervous habit that grows more intense with each passing day.

That night, Ashley drives home past the huge live oaks that shade the streets of her secluded neighborhood. She pulls into the driveway of her family’s 1930s renovated cottage — a world away from the chaos where she’s left Donald.

As she walks up the ramp to her front door, Ashley can see Henri, their cavalier King Charles spaniel, searching for her from the kitchen window. Her husband, Steven, is waiting at the door. He folds Ashley into his arms and kisses her. Nothing is said, but she can see Steven is worried. Ashley doesn’t want another lecture about taking care of herself. She hurries to tuck their five-year-old daughter into bed.

“You look exhausted,” Steven says when at last they have a moment together and she’s told him all about Donald. His tone is part compassion, part frustration. Ashley is in pain; it’s obvious from the way she’s holding herself. But Steven knows there’s no stopping his wife once she gets involved, even if she’s putting her own health at risk.

He reminds Ashley that doctors repeatedly warn her to conserve energy. He runs through the litany of reasons she should be cautious, not the least of which is their daughter. It was against the odds that they managed to have Audrey, the bright-eyed ball of energy who brings joy to every day of Ashley’s life. Being a mom and taking care of herself are the only things she needs to focus on right now, he tells her. Then, convinced he’s given a persuasive argument, Steven turns and holds out a hand. “Come to bed.”

But Ashley can’t rest. She’s made a promise she has to keep. She switches on the computer and begins her search on the missing-person websites, knowing she can kiss sleep goodbye.

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