When Valdemetreia McCollum drove 19 hours from Milwaukee to Texas to bring 11 survivors of Hurricane Katrina back home with her, she was powered by pure love. McCollum’s heart was in New Orleans long before Katrina brought the city to national attention—her cell phone even carries the New Orleans area code.
Demetria McCollum and (from left) her goddaughter Crishan Bender, godson Yosef Bender and Anika Bender.
So when she found out that her close friend, Anita Bender, hadn’t evacuated, McCollum was concerned.
“I was unfortunately one of those who tried to ride it out at home,” said Bender, a mother of three who lived in a second-floor apartment in New Orleans. “I woke up at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday (after Katrina had passed), and we said a prayer of thanks that we made it.”
Shortly after that prayer, McCollum called with bad news. “I knew before they knew,” said McCollum, a former New Orleans police officer and godmother to Bender’s son. “I called her to say, ‘You have got to get out of there!’ ”
Due to McCollum’s frantic call, Bender went to get the car. It was already partially under water. “That’s when I got scared,” Bender said.
McCollum told Bender to take a rope and tie it to her children and their 77-year-old neighbor. Carrying her 4-year-old son Yosef on her back and accompanied by her teenage daughter Anitra, who carried her 7-year-old sister Anika, they waded several blocks through knee-deep waters to the safety of the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter. The mother and eldest daughter went back to get luggage and an ice chest. By the time they left the apartment the waist-deep water had entered the stairwell. “We knew then it was getting serious,” Bender said.
The Benders stayed at the Monteleone with Anita’s three sisters and their children until Wednesday. When the hotel ran out of food and water, the 13 of them piled into two cars and headed for Texas. They stopped in Donaldsonville, La., for prayers, a meal and a night’s rest at a church. Anitra Bender, 14, recounts: “We had a service at the church and everybody was praying, praying so hard. We were all crying, even my 5-year-old cousin.”
Meanwhile, McCollum was busy pooling resources so her friends could come to Milwaukee. A member of Cross Lutheran Church there, McCollum made contacts throughout the city’s African American community, partnering with Greater Galilee Baptist Church and Ebenezer Church of God in Christ. Greater Galilee arranged for three short-term apartments in the same block, so the families could remain close.
“They only have each other at this point,” McCollum said. Although she received dozens of offers from people who had room in their homes for Katrina evacuees, she worked to get them their own places. “If you really want to help people, you need to get them in a situation as close to how they lived before,” she said.
McCollum drove to Grand Prairie, Texas, with a rented 15-passenger van and trailer. When she got to her adopted family, recalled 10-year-old Kevin Viltz, “she hugged everyone so tight.”
For “Auntie D,” as the Bender kids call McCollum, there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing them safe and together. “Those are the things that make me keep going,” she said. “These kids are my heart.”
Members of Cross received the four families at a special service Sept. 25, showering them with household items and gift cards to help them feel more at home in Milwaukee.
Ken Wheeler, interim pastor of Cross, helped set up a special account for the families to assist them down the road. “It will take a tremendous amount of support for those who have lost everything,” he said. “They’ve had their lives turned upside down.”
In his sermon, Wheeler emphasized that “when we reach out to those 500,000 in New Orleans, we are embracing Jesus. When we gathered up the dead bodies, we were caring for the body of Jesus.”
McCollum sees many challenges ahead for the Benders. “There will come a time when the American Red Cross funds aren’t there,” she said. “And if heat assistance doesn’t come through, I’m afraid they won’t be able to pay bills this winter.” For now, they’re focusing on the basics: phone hookups, jobs, transportation and clothes.
“It’s been hard,” McCollum said. “It’s stressful for all of us. If there’s any small blessing in all of this, [it’s that] I was just put on disability for ACL reconstructive surgery on my leg the week before the storm.” Therefore, she has been able to dedicate herself full-time to resettling the families.
McCollum said the response in the first weeks has been wonderful, adding, “We’ve been so blessed up to this point. But we have no idea how long it will be before these people can go back home. I hope this doesn’t turn out like a funeral, where after three weeks you’re on your own.
“My mustard seed of faith is what keeps me going. It’s about me trusting that God will make people do what’s proper, what’s right, what’s just.”
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers