By Debbie Shelley
Catholic News Service
BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) — After the devastating impact of Katrina, many of the most vulnerable victims — newborns and elderly from New Orleans — found refuge at parishes in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
St. Patrick Church in Baton Rouge provided one of only a few shelters in the area specifically for evacuee families of newborn babies, according to volunteers there at the time.
Dr. Stephanie Cave, who practices family medicine and is a longtime St. Patrick parishioner, said the local hospital delivered as many babies as possible but could not keep them as long as they needed to be kept. Babies in stable condition, even if born premature, were sent to St. Patrick and the other baby shelters.
"These tiny babies were coming into the shelter," Cave recalled. "We went and talked to the mothers. We had a number of women who offered to help the moms who were trying to breast-feed their babies — some for the first time."
She said there were many first-time mothers who were unsure of what to do. Their difficulty was compounded by the fact they had been forced from their homes and were in an unfamiliar place sleeping on cots.
The mothers were also worried about their loved ones. Because there was limited space, families sometimes had to be split and siblings went to other shelters to stay with extended family members.
The willingness of St. Patrick parishioners to pull together to help the moms — especially seasoned mothers giving advice to new moms — impressed Cave.
Don "Speedy" Gonzales, who helped coordinate supplies for the shelter, said even in the crowded conditions and with crying from newborns, the evacuees made the best of their circumstances.
"No one complained," he said. "They appreciated the help."
Donations came from parishioners and across the United States.
"The 18-wheelers just kept coming," Gonzales said. "I never knew there were so many different baby formulas, and there were sheets, towels, pillowcases."
The volunteers also helped the evacuees rebuild their lives, even as they welcomed a new life. They helped them obtain cars, jobs and places to live.
Jennifer Kleinpeter said her daughter, Rebecca, and son Craig, enjoyed working with the children.
"My son was not one to feed, rock and change the babies, but my daughter was eager to do it," she said. Her son made sure the older children had fun by putting them in empty cardboard boxes and pushing them all around.
At Sts. Anthony of Padua and Emmanuel Le Van Phung Parish in Baton Rouge, the scene was quite different as the parish took 200 residents from New Orleans nursing homes.
"They were terrified," said Alice Reine, then-secretary at St. Anthony, who had worked at the parish for 35 years.
About 60 volunteers from St. Anthony were on hand to greet the evacuees. Some people took an elderly evacuee under their wings. Volunteer doctors also were on hand.
The supply truck that was supposed to have accompanied the nursing home residents was delayed, creating hardships. In addition to the nursing home residents, 300 Vietnamese people from New Orleans arrived.
After a call for help was issued, supplies arrived from the neighborhood and elsewhere. Volunteers from other parishes cooked meals or took evacuees to the hospital.
Reine said she had never seen people pull together as they had during that time. St. Anthony parishioners helped the evacuees until the elderly were placed in homes and the Vietnamese were back on their feet.
"We prayed together, ate together, laughed together and cried together," Reine said.
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Shelley is the assistant editor of The Catholic Commentator, diocesan newspaper of Baton Rouge.
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