Blessings from disaster

A community's generosity gives a Louisiana family, displaced by hurricanes, the chance to start over


Keith and Sandra Brown always answer even a cursory "How are you?" with "I am blessed." In Carroll County, the couple said, blessings are pouring on them.

The Browns, of Houma, La., and seven of their eight children fled back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and drove nearly 1,500 miles in a rickety pickup truck to the Taneytown home of their eldest son, Keith Brown Jr.

After two days on the road, they arrived cold and hungry in the middle of the night and crowded into their son's home, along with his family, which includes infant twins. Within a few days, however, the Browns were living next door to Firm Foundation Worship Center outside Westminster, in a newly refurbished farmhouse, with nearly new furniture and appliances.

"The house is so big that everybody fits," said Gabriel Brown, 16.

And more help has come to them from other churches, businesses and community organizations. A Westminster oil company has promised to install a new heating system in the farmhouse. A contractor is replacing the siding. A mechanic is repairing the 1988 pickup and inspecting a compact car just donated to them.

Two of the older sons, Josh and Elijah, have jobs as plumbers' apprentices, and the other children are enrolled in public schools. All nine evacuees had free dental check-ups Thursday, and eye appointments are scheduled.

"If you could see the joy on the children's faces, you would know the meaning of `A picture is worth a thousand words,'" said Brenda Dorsey, mother-in-law of Keith Brown Jr.

JoAnn DiMaggio, Firm Foundation's youth pastor, described the rushed buildup to the family's arrival at the church-owned farmhouse after hearing about their plight. Volunteers hastily cleaned the vacant home and moved in carpeting and appliances.

DiMaggio actually flagged down a passing truck and asked the driver and passenger to help move mattresses. They did. But she never got their names to thank them.

"The Lord works fast," said the Rev. Tom DiMaggio, pastor of the church. "We put the word out and we were blessed by help from so many. This family can stay here as long as they need."

What the church could not initially provide arrived with the Browns in a caravan of cars about 10 p.m. the night they took up residence, Dorsey said.

"It is all about helping," she said. "We had eight carloads following the family to the house. There was such an outpouring from the community."

The Browns thanked their benefactors with a gospel sing-in, intoning hymns in harmony late into the night.

"We wanted to bless these people with song - Southern gospel songs," said Sandra Brown, who has taught her children to "lift up their heads and sing."

Heidi Brown, 14, began classes Wednesday at Westminster High, one of the larger schools in the state with about 2,000 students.

"I got lost five times," she said. "When I first saw the building I thought it was another Superdome."

Josh Brown, 22, began working for a Westminster contractor Oct. 4.

"I am staying here to learn about plumbing and maybe go to college," he said. "Learning and working are what us Browns do best. I am not going back. There is nothing to go home to."

A tree, then water

A tree felled by Hurricane Katrina's high winds broke through the roof and bisected the family's three-bedroom trailer in the town of 32,000 southwest of New Orleans. They returned briefly to their 1-acre lot and pitched a tent, braving oppressive heat and humidity and ever-present mosquitoes. They hoped, with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to repair the home. Then came Hurricane Rita, flooding the trailer and destroying its brick foundation.

So they headed north to Taneytown.

"The children were so scared to stay that they didn't complain about the ride," said Sandra Brown, 41. "It was pouring rain and storming all the way to North Carolina."

Her 42-year-old husband did all the driving.

"Several police cars passed us on the highway, but they didn't stop us," said the elder Brown. "I think when they saw our tags, the kids and piles of clothes in the back of the truck, they decided not to bother us."

The Taneytown police did stop them, only to give the family an escort to their son's home.

The Browns have not asked for any of the bounty. Rachel, 10, the youngest Brown, said, "I don't need nothing more. They gave us everything."

But there was more.

Rosalind Blakey, a Westminster business owner who organized a countywide relief drive for hurricane victims, invited the Browns to shop through donations temporarily stored in a Westminster warehouse.

Heidi searched for a small black purse, while 13-year-old Cody looked for tennis shoes. She found a purse, stuffed animals and a few games. He sported a jacket with a college insignia and two baseball caps.

"I got me a letterman jacket," Cody said.

The more practical Josh was after work clothes.

"I brought everything I had, and it's not much," he said.

Athlete returns

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