Katrina victims trade Dixie for Candleheart at Christmas

December 22, 2005|By DON AINES


There will be no Christmas in Dixie for James Robertson and Wendy Riggs, an Alabama couple who traveled to Franklin County, Pa., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in search of a new beginning.

"I decided I didn't want to rebuild down there ... I want a new life up here among these Yankees," said Robertson, a carpenter whose Tuscaloosa, Ala., mobile home was smashed and whose pickup was damaged by the storm. "I think I can rest assured there'll be no hurricanes here."

"I feel at home here," said Riggs, whose mother and a married sister live in this area.

Robertson and Riggs are among the approximately 45 hurricane victims who have stayed at the Candleheart Facility, 3301 Lincoln Way East, since Katrina laid waste to much of the Gulf Coast, said Natalie Newcomer, the founder and executive director of Maranatha, a faith-based organization that runs the facility.


Within days of the hurricane, evacuees from the South began arriving in Franklin County. Candleheart, a former nursing home that Maranatha acquired to shelter people in its transitional housing program, was still being readied to accept residents, Newcomer said.

About 20 people, most of them related and from New Orleans, made their way to Pennsylvania and were sheltered at Candleheart shortly after Katrina, Newcomer said. Some of them have since returned to Louisiana, while others have found housing and jobs here, she said.

Others have come and gone, and of the 14 residents at Candleheart on Wednesday, only four are there because they lost their homes to Katrina, Newcomer said.

With Christmas decorations and more furnishings, the building offers a more homey atmosphere than the nearly barren building that opened its doors to evacuees in September. Donations, particularly from churches, helped with the transformation, Newcomer said.

"The storm brought us together," said Riggs, explaining that she and Robertson met at a Salvation Army center in Alabama. They remained in Alabama for several weeks after the storm, staying with relatives before loading their few possessions in Robertson's truck and heading to Pennsylvania in early November.

Riggs' family helped them for a time, but the couple moved to Candleheart about two weeks ago, they said. The staff helped her land a job in a restaurant the first day, said Riggs, who said she has associate's degrees in medical coding and business.

While they have received assistance through Maranatha, the couple said there are obstacles to overcome in establishing themselves here. They lost birth certificates and other records in the storm, and have had difficulty getting them replaced.

That has hampered Robertson's efforts in getting a job and delayed their plans to marry, the couple said.

Robertson lived all his 42 years in Alabama and said it is a lonely feeling to be away from his former home for Christmas. Because she just started working, Riggs said she has no money to shop for gifts.

Both said they are thankful, however, for the help they have received at Candleheart, which includes Bible study and a variety of counseling services.

"This place is a blessing to homeless people like us," Robertson said.

"The love is real," said Riggs.

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