Ties are broken when a vacant home offered to a displaced Katrina family is left in disarray

A gift of generosity goes awry

December 02, 2005|By RONA MARECH AND MARY GAIL HARE | RONA MARECH AND MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTERS

The Brown family of Louisiana fled Hurricane Katrina with nothing. The DiMaggio family and its Westminster church, the Firm Foundation Worship Center, had a vacant home and the desire to help.

But what seemed like a fortunate connection gradually dissolved into a flurry of accusations and bruised feelings.

Sandra and Keith Brown, who drove to Carroll County after the hurricane with seven of their eight children, say their hosts were patronizing and disrespectful. The DiMaggios said the Browns left the house in disarray and didn't appreciate all the community had done for them. The DiMaggios were stunned, they said, when they found the words "MD sucks" spray-painted on the new white siding on the home's exterior.

While cases of generosity gone awry are in the minority, disaster-relief experts say some misunderstanding and frustration are practically inevitable as people - even those with the best intentions - come to terms with what it means to help and be helped.

A man from Nashville, Tenn., who had opened his vacant retirement home to a family of Katrina evacuees said the family left the property damaged and filled with trash, an experience that he said "left a bad taste in my mouth."

In a Minnesota town, the story of two women who took in a family displaced by Katrina - highlighted on Good Morning America - ended unhappily, after tensions in the household led to the Louisiana family leaving.

"There are times when people expect a grateful victim," said Ande Miller, the executive director of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a Virginia association of faith-based institutions and other disaster relief agencies.

"We don't always pay attention to the fact that they've had a terrible thing happen to them, and it's hard to be grateful when your home was just destroyed. You have to put in perspective what we're asking them to be grateful for."

It's unclear exactly how and when the relationship between the DiMaggios and the Browns unraveled. But most of the Brown family left for Louisiana on Sunday without so much as a "thank you" to the congregation, church members said.

When Firm Foundation Worship Center pastors and several members of the congregation visited the home shortly after the Sunday service, they found piles of donated clothing littering the porch. A trampoline lent to the children was slashed. A small hole around the electrical socket in the bathroom is now much larger. Trash, broken glass and clutter filled the house, said the DiMaggios, who have since cleaned up with help from volunteers.

"We gave them a house to live in for free, so that they could work and save their money to get back on their feet," said Marge DiMaggio. "They had nothing when they came, and we were happy to help them. We passed on donations that came to us for them." Donations included a car, a refrigerator, washing machine and clothing for the family.

Keith and Sandra Brown said two of their sons, who have found jobs and remained in Westminster, were planning to clean the house once the remaining family had moved out.

Elijah Brown, 19, helped with the cleaning Monday. Josh Brown, 22, who admitted spray painting the words on the house, has promised to remove the graffiti. It's unclear whether the two brothers, who are living with other volunteers, are going to stay in town.

"I am more grateful than anyone will ever know. People we hardly knew gave us so many things. I have thank-you cards ready. ... I really thought Maryland was beautiful, and I felt truly blessed," Sandra Brown said in a phone interview yesterday. But she said some church members continued to act like the house was their own and "treated my husband and me like children."

Rosalind Blakey, who connected the two families through her grassroots organization, Home Resources Services, said church members would "come into their house and not knock and tell them it was time to get up and not to sleep so late. ... Treating them as if they were their project or their assignment."

Paul Wilson, the executive director of Katrinahous ing.org, a Salt Lake City-based organization that helped connect thousands of donors with evacuees in need of housing, said he has received all-too-many after-the-fact e-mails from exasperated survivors and benefactors.

"You're going to have conflicts like this arise when people open their homes," Wilson said. "It's not fun to see the ugly side of humanity. It hasn't soured me, but it's not easy to bear a lot of this."

Carroll County's tempest has at least partially cooled, however. Most of the Browns, who didn't intend to stay in Maryland, are back home trying to rebuild. "You can try to make it as cozy as you can here for them, but their home was in Louisiana," Blakey said.

The DiMaggios said they're moving on.

"We are not discouraged, and this won't stop us from helping other people in need," said Marge DiMaggio.

"If you help 100 people and three of them don't treat you right," her husband said, "it doesn't stop you from helping."

rona.marech@baltsun.com mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The Orlando Sentinel and The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tenn.) contributed to this article.

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