When the Williams family moved into their new home on North Humphrey Avenue on Nov. 3, they received more than the usual coffeecake welcome from the neighborhood. They found a fully decorated house complete with everything from furniture in the rooms to sandwich baggies and peanut butter in the pantry.
"The neighbors came over with three snow shovels, one for me, my mama and my niece," Kimberly Williams said, laughing. "They said the one thing they don't do is shovel snow." And as survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the Williams can probably count snow as one of the few things they haven't experienced.
Her mother, Sandra Williams, thought she'd already experienced the worst thing imaginable‚Ä"the death of her adult daughter from a car accident. Her eldest died three years ago, leaving behind a young daughter, Calvyonna, then 5. At the age of 60, Sandra adopted her granddaughter. But Sandra's strength was tested again when her hometown of New Orleans was under siege from Hurricane Katrina, forcing her to leave her home, job and everything she knew behind.
The family's new home at 416 N. Humphrey Ave. formerly had been a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA) or small group home owned by Seguin Services for disabled residents. It had been undergoing renovation through an arrangement with St. John Of The Cross Church in Western Springs. "Many parishioners really wanted to do a hands on project‚Ä"not just a monetary donation‚Ä"so when a volunteer from Seguin contacted us asking us to help with their houses, it was a good fit," said Nancy Lynch, volunteer outreach coordinator for St. John Of The Cross.
Seguin Services is a Cicero-based social services agency working on behalf of people with developmental disabilities and other special needs. It owns several residences in the area. Seguin Services and St. John Of The Cross are providing homes in Summit and Elmhurst, as well as Oak Park, for three families left homeless by the hurricane.
"A friend of Kimberly's saw a news report on another New Orleans family who we helped settle into a Seguin home with St. John Of The Cross' help, and told her about our offer to any displaced families to help," explained Joe Mengoni, vice president of residential services at Seguin Services. "And Kimberly called."
Once Seguin heard of the Williams family plight, they hurried to finish the work at the Oak Park property. "We had already completed an initial cleaning and renovation of the house. After we learned of the Williams family, we completed it," said Lynch.
Grace Lutheran Church of LaGrange also assisted in the effort, providing volunteers and donations. The tidy pink stucco home on Humphrey had been vacant, pending assignment. Three weeks after Kimberly contacted the agency, the Williams family moved in. They've been invited to stay for up to 18 months and possibly longer, depending on their needs.
"This was not a house, this was a home," stressed Kimberly. "Someone had lovingly thought of everything and put it in. I was just overwhelmed at all the signs of real love."
"We selected everything that went into the home so carefully," emphasized Lynch. "We wanted the Williams family to feel like this truly was a real home and that they were very special."
The Williams received their keys to the house in an expansive house-warming party. All volunteers and neighbors were invited. "It was so wonderful to see Calvyonna discover her bedroom and then invite all the neighborhood children to come up and play there," said Lynch. The bedroom is pink and filled with new Barbie dolls, Bratz bedding and a sign that says "Princess."
Volunteers even selected framed sketches of New Orleans to hang in the living room, to make the Williams feel that this was truly their home.
Fleeing the hurricane
Initially, the family thought the hurricane warning was just another false alarm. "We had been through an evacuation four months earlier and thought this was just another runaround," said Kimberly. She'd come home to live with her mother shortly after the death of her sister to help raise Calvyonna.
But when the storm's severity became clear, Sandra gathered up her courage and her family. "We all loaded up in my car after we saw the mayor on TV saying evacuation was mandatory," she said.
Kimberly logged on to her computer and tracked the storm, to best figure out where to drive. "I looked at it as a holiday," Kimberly recalled. "We'd have some pool time, room service‚Ä"just relax." The family packed a few possessions, including the family dog, Kiki. "We almost left the dog with a neighbor," said Sandra. "Thank goodness we didn't."
The initial plan was to go to Florida, but all accommodations were booked, so they decided to drive to Georgia. A trip that would normally be two hours stretched into eight. "We were starving. We'd get excited and see a Burger King or something but everything was boarded up," said Kimberly.
The family had intended to drive straight to Valdosta but ran out of energy. Instead, they holed up in Columbus. Ga. for two nights. Glued to the news, they watched with desperation.
When it became apparent they weren't going to be able to return home any time soon, Sandra decided to change course. "Shoot, why not just go all the way and head to Chicago," she reasoned. "My brother-in-law lives there and he wanted us to come." More than 13 hours later, the three arrived on Chicago's South Side.
While her uncle's generosity was large, his South Chicago residence was not. The two bedroom apartment was cramped for three adults and one child. And once the shock wore off and their situation became more real to them, the Williams knew they would have to rebuild their lives here.
"Nothing in New Orleans for us to go back to," said Kimberly, with a sigh. A canal ran behind their neighborhood in the 19th Ward of the city. When the levees flooded, so did their home. Sandra's job at the local Wal-Mart was gone, as was Kimberly's teaching position. Calvyonna's school also had been destroyed.
When the prospect of moving into the home in Oak Park was first suggested, the family was hesitant. They'd just started getting acclimated to the South Side and, most importantly, Calvyonna was enrolled in school. "In New Orleans, we were five minutes from everywhere we needed to be," explained Kimberly. "When I heard the house was west, I thought it would be [far] away."
"I had the family meet me at our offices in Cicero," explained Mengoni. "I then drove them to Oak Park so they could see how close it was. One step in the house and they started crying; they couldn't believe this was all ready for them to move in."
Since their official arrival, the family has settled into some new routines. Sandra has applied for a transfer to the Wal-Mart on Roosevelt Road in Forest Park. Kimberly will start at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights in January on a full scholarship, in order to get her Illinois teacher's certification. And Calvyonna is attending second grade at St. Edmund School in Oak Park, also on full scholarship.
There is still much to learn about their new home. "One day I received a frantic call from them, asking where a Bank One was located," recalled Mengoni. "They are learning their grocery store routes and neighborhood bank hours just like any other new family."
The Williams continue to be overwhelmed by the generosity of Chicagoans. Just recently, Kimberly received a Toyota Camry, donated by a Schaumburg resident. And a neighborhood child greeted Calvyonna with a spare bicycle for the little girl to ride.
With all they've been through, the family figures they can withstand anything‚Ä"even a Chicago winter. "It's snowing; I love it!" Kimberly enthused last week. "Someone was saying how cold it gets here and I said, "Bring it on!'"