Hometown Heroes: The Dirty Dozen

How a group of former sorority sisters found peace, purpose, and carpentry skills in New Orleans.

from Reader's Digest | June 2011

When Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the Baxters were forced to evacuate their ground-floor apartment with only the clothes on their backs. Two days later, they took refuge, along with thousands of others, in the Convention Center as the floodwaters rolled down Canal Street. For several days, there was no food except for what had been looted from abandoned stores. “I didn’t eat, but I took vitamins and made sure the kids ate,” says Baxter. “One day somebody gave me a tomato. After three days, the Louisiana National Guard came in with water and those rations in packs.”

The family began a two-month odyssey through Arkansas and Texas. Eventually, Baxter rented a car and drove back to her traumatized city to find that the only possessions she could salvage from her ruined home were three track medals Dominique had won in school. Baxter returned to her job as a custodian with the city’s building services, and her office helped arrange housing, first on a cruise ship docked in the Mississippi River, next in a FEMA trailer that turned out to have toxic levels of formaldehyde. Then she heard about the opportunity for an interest-free mortgage from Habitat for Humanity in return for 350 hours of “sweat equity.” It was pure serendipity that the women from Tulane were assigned to work on the new Baxter home and fell in love with the family.

The women helped out with the teenagers’ immediate needs — football uniforms for the boys, a calculator for math class, high school graduation photos for Dominique. “We’re just plugging up holes in the dike so Kewanda can keep her boat afloat,” says Cox. “It’s women helping women.”

A highlight of each trip to New Orleans is a celebratory dinner — party of 16, tables pushed together, with so much hugging that it’s hard to actually eat. Baxter always brings a little gift for everyone; this year, it was a photograph of the newest family member, Dominique’s baby girl, D’Jai Blackburn. Baxter herself became a mother at age 14, and the women quietly acknowledge their disappointment that this cycle of early pregnancy continues, but they are determined to help Dominique realize her ambitions. Last summer, she became the first in her family to graduate from high school, and Smythe and Cox flew to New Orleans for the ceremony. Dominique now says she’d like to be a medical assistant. Baxter attends classes for a high school equivalency diploma, despite the overwhelming responsibilities of keeping up house payments and caring for her family, including her new granddaughter. She had never been interested in reading, but the women encouraged her and sent books; now she carries a book everywhere she goes and loves to discuss her new interests. “I haven’t figured out what I’m good at yet,” she says. “That’s why I like to talk to these women.”

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