At the week’s end, the women exchanged their mud-splattered clothes for clean outfits and made their annual pilgrimage to meet with the family who live in the first house they had helped build: Kewanda Baxter, 35, and her three children, who had lost their home in the hurricane but who had, with amazing grace and strength, endured. Every year since Katrina, there has been a festive get-together with 20-year-old Dominique, 17-year-old Jeremy, 13-year-old Rodney, and their mother. Surrounded by his 12 guardian angels in a local restaurant that night, Rodney beamed. “It feels like my birthday,” he said.
Who are these women? They are middle-class mothers, wives, career women, and sorority sisters, now sixty-somethings who happened to see a photo and bio of the Baxters tacked to a board in a yard during their first stint with Habitat in 2006. “I was a single mom for ten years,” says Carolyn Brown Cox, a social worker and an actress in Seattle, remembering her emotional reaction. “I just felt like a kindred spirit to this woman. I know what it’s like to go to the grocery store and tell your kids that you can’t afford soda or candy.”
The family coordinator at Habitat arranged for Cox to speak with Kewanda Baxter, who didn’t quite know what to think. “I was kind of shocked. I told her, ‘You don’t have to send me any money, but my kids aren’t doing too well in school. It would help to have a computer.’ And then I just thought, If it happens, it happens.”
Baxter was stunned when a new PC was delivered. Then the women arranged tutoring to help with the children’s schooling, which had been disrupted in the aftermath of the storm. That was followed by the uniforms required by the kids’ new charter school. “Kewanda only asked for two sets of clothing for the kids,” says Cox. “She gets every drop out of every nickel.” But even more important than the financial aid was, and is, the emotional support.
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