Stovern Wedding 3/03
A week after Hurricane Katrina struck, the Stovern family, who live on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, opened their home to two evacuees from New Orleans. Michelle Stovern wrote a journal for Beliefnet as her family tried to help the survivors recover--and restart their lives.

End of a Journey

Well, sorry it has taken me so long to write another article, but I have been sick and out of commission. The doctor said I had pneumonia and exhaustion. But I am back, and trying to recover.

As of Friday, September 16th, 2005 the family that was staying with me returned to the New Orleans area. They are now staying somewhere in Louisiana with another family. I have not talked to them since they left here. I figured they would have contacted me by now, as I still have their dog staying with me.

I wish I could say that I was sad and upset that they left, but I am not. Last week was a long week. The family was starting to become dishonest and disrespectful. My children and I were called nasty names, we were told that we were pigs and that the only reason we were even doing this is because we were getting paid by FEMA. By no means is that true--we have not and will not receive any kind of funding from FEMA. This affected not only me, but my children as well. I feel that I was taken advantage of. My family and I opened our homes, free of charge, fed these two people, gave them clothing, and had the community we live in donate stuff to them. They took this generosity and ran with it. Not once did I hear thank you, or a simple line of gratitude. This really bothers me.

Several people have told me I shouldn't be upset now that they've left. But I feel as if I failed, not only myself, but other people as well. I stated that I felt like this was a test from God, and if it was, I failed him as well. How could I not handle this situation? I am a mother of three and have a father who is dying of renal kidney failure, so stress is part of my daily life. But I just could not handle all that was dealt to me.

I had several people in my community calling my home and my work offering the evacuees employment, but they wouldn't talk to them. I don't know for a fact if they planned on staying here or not, so that could be the reason they weren't looking for employment in the area. My boss asked them if they were going to make Montana their home, and at that time they said they were not sure. But for the life of me I do not understand why when someone is given the chance to start over, to attempt to have a good life, and people who are willing to help you, why that person would not jump on the chance? How could you honestly be happy not working, living off the welfare system? What kind of life is that and why would you want to live that way?

A few people have commented that it is "un-Christian" for me to write this journal about the people staying with me. The ladies that were staying with me knew that I was writing this and have read it, and we did discuss some of the issues at hand. Second of all, the family that was staying with us WERE NOT African-American, as some of the people who made comments assumed. They were white. However, no matter what their race, that was never an issue. I do not believe in judging someone by the color of their skin.

Just as I don't judge people, I have been surprised that so many readers have judged me, without really knowing what my family and the two ladies staying with me went through. How can that be a Christian thing to do?

People have asked what I expected when this all came about. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. However, I did NOT expect to be lied to, stolen from, called foul names, or to have them be intoxicated and fighting with each other in front of my three children. Nor did I expect the ladies to be my housekeepers, my cooks, or my babysitters. They did help around the house, but only if they were asked to do so. They did cook supper. We (my family) did cook southern foods, and yes, they were told everything about my family before they came here. They knew we worked 40+ hours a week, had three kids, three dogs, and two cats. They did know they were coming to Northeast Montana, and knew that it would be a completely different lifestyle.

Someone stated that I should have had a preacher or a counselor speak with the ladies, and I tried that. A preacher went to my house to speak with them, and was completely ignored and was told that they didn't need to speak with him, that there was nothing to speak about. The counselor, who is a friend of mine, that contacted them, invited them to lunch, but at the end was asked to not contact them again.

In some ways, yes, I failed, but in other ways I achieved more then I set out to do. Do I require thanks for everything that I do in life? By all means, no. If that were the case I wouldn't be were I was at in life today. I have been taught to be patient, and doing so brought me my husband and my children. (Someone stated that my family looked new. Yes, we were married three years ago, have been together for 5, have been BEST FRIENDS for 15 years.) I do understand the stress that these ladies went through, I can't imagine it. If you recall in my first post, I stated that I am not sure I could something like that happening to me, and now I know I couldn't.

I have so much more to write, good and bad, that I could sit here all day and write everything, but this is my final entry. I would like to say thank you to the people who have offered me advice and support through these few weeks.

In Need of Answers

Well, the family I'm hosting received their grant from FEMA Monday, and I have never been so disgusted in my life. They expect a family of two to start over on $665.00. This money is supposed to help with the first and last months' rent, utility deposits, and anything else they may need to start over. How can they think that is going to cover the rent in most places? I know here in Montana it doesn't come close to covering first and last months' rent. What is wrong with our systems?

Yesterday (Tuesday) was Maggie's (the older of the pair I'm hosting) birthday. She turned 53. I searched for the perfect present but came up empty-handed. Trying to find a present for someone you have known for only one week is truly a task in itself. So I settled on a card and a nice cake. I hope she likes them.

It's getting very cold in Montana already--about 45 degrees and colder at night--and I know the family is already freezing. I hope it doesn't snow anytime soon. I think they are feeling homesick and want to go home. But they have no place to go, no home, no other family, nothing. I have tried to find them a place to live near New Orleans, but so far there isn't any place available for them.

It feels like the walls around me are squeezing together. Sometimes it feels like I just can't get away from anyone. When I go to work every morning, I feel so relieved to be able to just get away and not have to worry about everyone else. I had another lady call me last night, someone who works with Victoria, who I wrote about in a previous entry. It was good to be able to talk to someone who just sits and listens and doesn't tell me what to do or how to do it. She was very helpful by just listening and I hope she realizes that. She offered my family a vacation when this is all done--won't that be nice?

People have asked me what the family does while I am work. Basically, they sit and watch TV or go downtown. They are not seeking employment at this time, which is very frustrating to me. I can't understand why they seem to have no desire to work. My mother and father always taught me to work hard--I was never just handed anything, I had to earn it or work for it. So to see these two people who are able to work not working is really hard for me to understand. Maggie, the mother, says she has carpal tunnel in her hands, but she does not receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income benefits), and she has told me that she has worked before. Jobs are available here, as cashiers, waitresses, or office workers.

The family also has not sought counseling. They keep everything bottled up inside. I have offered to take them to counseling, or to look for a job, and they don't want to do that. So, I just let them do as they please.

This weekend is going to be hard. My family and I have a meeting that we have been planning on attending for the last year. My husband is being inducted into an association he has been involved with. The family does not want to go, so they are just going to stay home. Is it impolite of me to leave them alone? I don't know. I do know that I cannot stop living my life and doing the things I enjoy just to make someone else happy.

I am a religious person, however I don't attend church on a regular basis. But lately I have found myself praying to the Lord for answers, guidance, and support through this whole situation. I hope He is hearing me, because right now I need Him more then anything. I need answers to all my questions. I hope He shows me the way, I am truly afraid I am going to get so lost, and not be able to find my way back.

I will write more later. Thank you to all those who have offered prayers. It truly means a lot to me.

Is This a Test from God?

As I write this, I am starting to wonder if this is a test from God. It has been a incredibly long weekend. See, not only do my husband and I work full-time, we are also volunteer EMT's, and this weekend seemed to be the weekend everyone got hurt. Which means the family that is staying with me was home alone, mostly watching TV, for majority of the weekend. I know they were bored and wanted to do something but I just didn't have the time. There were comments made that upset me, such as "Oh boy this is fun" or "I had more fun in the Astrodome." I wasn't sure on what to do about them, so I just blew the nasty comments off.

Last night (Sunday), tension was high. I came home from yet another ambulance call and all my children were crying. They are so stressed and unsure of what to do or who to listen to at this moment, and that is rough on them. I had finally had enough, and my kids got in trouble for eating something and for making a mess. So, I spoke my piece. I told the family staying with me that a lot of the donations that come in--including food, towels, dishes, etc.--are not only for them, but for all of us. After that, everyone seemed to calm down.

The other day I talked to a woman named Victoria who is responsible for helping families who are helping other families displaced by the hurricane. I just broke down and cried on the phone. I think I needed this, and I just let all my thoughts and feelings go. I am just so stressed lately, and starting to wonder if maybe my heart is bigger then my brain. Victoria said something to me that made me stop and think. She told me, "he who opens his door to strangers, will be opening his heart to the Lord." Is this true? I don't know right at the moment. As I said earlier, I think the Lord is testing me, and it's the hardest test of my life.

I know everything will work out in the end, but when is the end? I am not used to having so much stress in my life. But there are good things happening, too. My children are learning to help complete strangers. My family is learning not to take things for granted, and learning that the saying "live each day like there is no tomorrow" is a true motto. Because one day you have it all, and the within a matter of minutes it can be taken away from you. Myself, I have always lived by this motto and take nothing for granted, because I have lost so many people and so much in my 32 years. I am also learning that the Lord works in mysterious ways, and this is just his way of telling me, "Hey I am here," and that I should just be patient and that I'm not the only one having troubles in life.

Well, I think I am done laying all my feelings out. I will write more tomorrow. Please pray for my family and the family that is staying with me, we need all the prayers you have to offer.

Opening Our Home

We are a family of 5 that live in rural Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation--a small area, but warm in heart. We live in a 4-bedroom house and have three children. We're not rich; we're a simple middle-class family. My husband and I work full-time at the local Dodge dealership to make a living in hard times.

We are currently hosting a mother and daughter family from the Eastern Banks of New Orleans. The daughter is 31, and the mother is 52. The daughter is able to work--she was a cashier at a T-shirt shop in the French Quarter--but the mother is disabled and can't work. With a bad knee and carpal tunnel syndrome, she swam with her daughter in twenty feet of toxic water and stood on the interstate for two days waiting for a bus to take them to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.

When I first heard about Hurricane Katrina, it seemed like no big deal. Then we watched CNN and our hearts went out to the survivors. The day after the hurricane, I logged onto NOLA.com and posted a message, stating that we would open our homes to evacuees from New Orleans or surrounding areas.

A lady called Ruby emailed me. Ruby actually goes into the shelters and finds people who want to start over. I spoke with her on the phone several times. On Labor Day, I checked my email and had a message to call her, so I did. She told me about this family, and two hours later, my husband and I were in the van driving 300 miles to the nearest airport to pick them up. A generous lady from New Mexico had purchased the airline tickets for the family to travel to Billings, Montana.

Boy, are my three childen--ages 13,10, and 8--curious about what happened to these people. They are continually asking them questions: my youngest son asked "if they felt a shark by their feet, since the hurricane came from the ocean." We were all laughing so hard.

I am proud of the kids, though; they went out and spoke to people in the neighborhood, asking them to help this family start over by donating a simple blanket, clothes, or whatever they could offer.

We are a Baptist family and my daughter told me "these people were brought to us for a reason." I strongly believe that.

But I expect a lot of struggles in the months to come, such as trying to find a house for the family to move into, figuring out how to provide food for all of us, and living in a confined space with complete strangers. I also see a lot of good things happening, too. We have already grown close to this family, and I'm sure that bond will grow stronger in the coming months.

I've been asked why I'm doing this. The simple reason is that if something like this ever happened in Montana, I would hope that someone would do the same for my family and me. I can't imagine what it was like to go through such devastation and imagine that I will never know or understand their hardships. To go from having a home and all the things we take for granted to not having a thing, do you think you would be able to handle it? I don't think I could.

I'll write more in the days to come. Please pray for this family--they are struggling very hard to start over.

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