Katrina's victims thankful for the gift of family

By Paul Frysh and Johnny Jackson

Meet The Benoits.

When Lashonda Benoit came to McDonough from the west bank of New Orleans with her husband and five daughters to escape Hurricane Katrina, she thought they would be back before the holidays.

But three months later, the family is still here. They just spent Thanksgiving with Mary and Doug Malcomb of McDonough. The Malcombs were volunteers with the Henry County American Red Cross where the Benoits first came to escape the storm and where the two families became friendly. “We are just so grateful that we were able to spend it (Thanksgiving) together and that we had somewhere to go,” said Benoit.

Benoit would like see her mother, brothers and sisters for the holidays, but they are in Oklahoma and there are other priorities for the family right now. “Money is tight ... we are cramped in a five-seater car and we need a seven-seater,” says Benoit who is working while her husband, who is still searching for work, cares for the children. To make matters worse, the Benoit car was recently damaged when it collided with a deer.

But some things are going well. Ms. Benoit has found employment and her five girls ages 13, 11, 8, 7, and 6 have settled nicely into Luella middle and elementary schools in Locust Grove. The family has rented a house and the community has welcomed them with open arms. “There are a lotta good people here, we have made a lotta good friends,” said Benoit. The Benoits like it so much, in fact, that in spite of the obstacles, they are planning to stay.

Asked about her plans for the Christmas holidays, Benoit said “I don't know what we're gonna do for Christmas, but I know it'll be here.” She added, “It just feels like home here.”

Meet The Baptistes.

Romona Baptiste had not spoken to her mother since Aug. 28, when she evacuated to Atlanta from her New Orleans home with her two sons Paul, 13, and Cody, 5. When she finally got her mother on the phone about two weeks ago, Baptiste was overcome with emotion. Baptiste's mother arrived at her new Forest Park home this week for a huge Thanksgiving dinner, along with more than 15 other native New Orleans family members, now scattered all over the country.

“We had a beautiful Thanksgiving. It was something to remember,” Baptiste said. In addition to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey, family members brought hard to find ingredients to make Creole specialties like New Orleans style sea food gumbo.

Baptiste considers herself fortunate because the company that employed her in New Orleans transferred her to the Atlanta area. Her children currently attend Forest Park Middle and Edmonds Elementary schools in Clayton County and the family has settled easily into their new community. She has done better than many in her position, but she does not take personal credit.

“The thing about it is I trust in my savior Jesus Christ, and that was my strength and my back bone,” she said. “That's what made being here in Georgia a second home to us. We wound up getting out of New Orleans by the grace of God. He put us here.”

And here, said Baptiste, is where she plans to stay.