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Message of hope in book by Gulf Coast students

By Pat McCaughan
2/6/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Simple messages and collaborative collages depict Hurricane Katrina's devastation through the eyes of 30 Coast Episcopal School students in "Story of a Storm," a new book to be published in March.
 
"It's very simple, but very powerful" and also sends a hopeful message, said Reona Visser, a fifth grade teacher at the Long Beach school. "It began as a way to help the children deal with the trauma of the storm and their losses. We said goodbye to friends and faculty at the school that Friday. We said goodbye, we'll see you Monday, but some people never came back."
 
"We evacuated," says seventh grader Ashley Libys, 13, of her family's former home in Long Beach. "My house is a slab now. If we had stayed, we would have died. We went mainly to Alabama and came back about a month later and lived in a hotel."

"But," she added, "it makes me feel good that I helped with the book and through it, I can help other families, too."

Proceeds from the book will go to the Coast Episcopal School Relief Fund, which helps families rebuild their homes and replace necessities.

While returning parents sifted through mud and the rubble of their homes, Libys and other children camped out at Visser's home, which sustained minimal damage. They spent the time drawing, cutting and pasting and using newspapers, cotton balls and cardboard, paints and markers and even a recovered roof shingle and necklace to recreate memories of the hurricane in a multi-media collaborative collage.

One collage shows sad faces of passengers evacuating the city in a red automobile, below the words: "We left."

Another, illustrating the storm's aftermath, says: "Our city was a mess" above the rubble of cracked and broken buildings. There is also gratitude, in the likeness of a boat, stuck in a restaurant drive-through lane, bearing the message: "Thanks. Your boat saved 6 lives."

The collages include a range of student storm experiences, from preparing to evacuate, to leaving, and being displaced without knowing the whereabouts of loved ones or the condition of homes or belongings.

For Sarah Ann Boddie, 13, a seventh grader, making the collages helped restore a sense of normalcy. Trevor Courtney, 11, agreed. "I got to talk to some of my friends from the school and they told me how their houses were doing. Most of them had their houses gone. It's sad and just really makes me sad. Just why did this have to happen?"

The book is a vehicle to inform others that "it's worse here than they probably think," he added. "People probably think we're getting a lot back to normal but we're really not and people should know that it's still devastating down here on the coast. I feel good about money from the book going to the people who lost their homes. They need the money and they might not have insurance or the insurance might not be paying as they need it."

Fifth grader Lauren Liebkemann, 11, hopes the book will "help other people decide whether or not they want to come down here to help us from Katrina. It really does feel good. It really feels like I'm helping too."

The house was filled with papers during that time, Visser recalled. "No one picture was the work of a single child. It's all a collaborative effort and there's something in it for everyone. You don't have to be down here to experience and feel it."

The idea first occurred while she was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic when her own family evacuated, said Visser, originally from South Africa. She set it in motion when they returned a few days later, by inviting her own children, Lara, 12, and Enya, 13, to illustrate their experiences.
 
As more families and friends returned, Visser invited them over.

"Reona started home schooling students soon after the storm," said the Rev. Paul Stephens, school headmaster. Coast Episcopal School has about 150 students in pre-school through eighth grade classes. The gymnasium sustained major damage to roof and walls and about 85 percent of teachers lost their homes. Twenty-five percent of teachers didn't return.
 
"It's a wonderful project, it tells the good and the bad about the storm," Stephens said of the book. He added that the school is building a trailer park for faculty adjacent to the school buildings.
 
A month after the storm, teachers were able to return to school to prepare for students. Visser took the children's artwork to school to decorate an empty bulletin board in her class.
 
"I needed a fresh, happy look when the students returned later that week," Visser said. Those who saw the works were moved. "One man was moved to tears." She is no stranger to publishing; two years ago, her fifth grade class published, "Color for Thought," a collection of collages as part of the Kids as Authors series by Scholastic Inc.

Greg Griffith, a volunteer, showed them to his wife Stacey, a graphic designer who contributed her time for art direction and layout, and who contacted Quail Ridge Press. Local photographer Josh Hailey photographed the art for publication and Korean printer Sally Kim donated the cost of printing the book which will be available through bookstores, gift shops and directly from Quail Ridge Press.
 
Perhaps because her husband's company was destroyed, forcing the family to relocate to Connecticut at the end of the year, Visser decided to end the book on a hopeful note: "There's something in it for those who were here and can't come back."