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

Fighting for Donald became a full-time job for Ashley all through September and October. Some good has come of it: Donald has been reunited with his aunt Nicole, Troy’s sister, a generous woman who immediately embraces Donald as an addition to her family. She, too, lost everything in Katrina. And in the wake of the storm, she struggled to provide for her two children, one of whom suffers from autism.

It takes a network of Ashley’s friends to help settle Donald and his aunt’s family in Dallas, where Donald is finally enrolled in school. But Nicole is struggling with another mouth to feed. And Donald’s most basic necessities — medical care and food — seem unobtainable. The government denies all of Ashley’s applications for food stamps and Social Security benefits, citing no proof Donald’s mother is dead.

For the same reason, Donald’s aunt is not allowed to become his legal guardian. Yet he’s not old enough to have a voice for himself, to speak up for the things he needs and should be entitled to receive.

Ashley is beside herself. How can she possibly prove Troy died if her body can’t be recovered? In the aftermath of Katrina’s media circus, politicians flood Ashley with empty promises of help. But soon the news cameras are turned off, Katrina fatigue becomes a buzzword, and state and federal officials shrug their shoulders when Ashley pleads for assistance.

She refuses to quit. Perhaps because Ashley knows, from her own health struggles, that a war is won only if you fight all the battles. Still, each rejection is a confirmation that Donald could so easily fall through the cracks — something she fears is already starting to happen.

Throughout November and December there are a series of heartbreaking false leads about Troy, including reports of her body being discovered. Ashley watches Donald spiral into a depression. He struggles with posttraumatic stress, grief and an inability to keep up academically. A counselor warns that he cannot fully accept his mother is gone.

By Christmas, Ashley knows she can’t give Donald the thing that would help most: closure. He’s struggling to come to terms with his motherless existence. Which is why she finds herself near tears when he asks, “Ashley, do you think my mom didn’t try real hard, you know, so I’d have a better life?”

Ashley wonders, How could a child ask such a question? Is it survivor’s guilt? Does Donald need to believe there is a reason his mother died in order to go on with his life?

She knows Donald’s fate would have been very different if he had stayed in New Orleans’s impoverished lower Ninth Ward — sometimes called America’s murder capital. Violence and drugs pervaded the neighborhood and its children. Members of Donald’s own family have been jailed for illegal possession of guns or drugs. And Donald fully believed he was destined to follow suit. “It’s like Katrina did something good and did something bad. It put me down the right road. It just took something really special away from me,” he says.

In early spring 2006, after six months of tirelessly fighting what seemed like an impossible battle, Ashley begins to see the dividends of her hard work. She garners the attention of Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, who helps get pro bono legal counsel. The lawyers arrange for Donald’s aunt to become his official custodian. Donald is finally able to get the medical care he needs, including antidepressants.

And then a turning point: Donald is accepted to a magnet school on the strength and talent of his recent drawings, including two illustrations remarkably unlike anything he’s ever done before: a tranquil lighthouse and a country church. Ashley believes Donald’s illustrations depict more than bucolic scenes. They offer a window into his internal landscape, a newfound inner peace.

By summer Donald graduates from sixth grade. Ashley gathers enough donations for Donald to attend the country’s oldest African American summer program, Camp Atwater in Massachusetts. It’s there, Ashley hopes, Donald will find something he’s yet to discover: pride in his heritage and, with that, a growing self-esteem.

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