A Place of Their Own Again

The Baltimore Sun

Reynoud Duplessis and three of his children recently sat in M&T; Bank Stadium, rooting for their home team. As they watched the Ravens play the Carolina Panthers, they kept a close watch on the ticker of scores under the scoreboard.

"Let's go, Saints," screamed Nicholas Duplessis, 20.

"Way to go, Joe [Horn]," yelled his sister Phylissa, 19.

There was a time when they would be in the Superdome watching the New Orleans Saints play. But not anymore.

During the Ravens' game in October, a picture of the Duplessis family appeared on the JumboTron, reminding the members of why they were in Baltimore.

"A family of nine displaced by Hurricane Katrina," the accompanying text said. It went on to say how the Baltimore Ravens and Sandtown Habitat for Humanity had helped the family renovate a new home.

This Christmas, the Duplessises have something to celebrate. They are home for the holidays.

Life has seemingly settled down from a year ago, when there were days of life-wrenching challenges and obstacles.

A storm wiped out their lives in New Orleans, taking them on a journey from the Crescent City to Lake Charles, La., to Baton Rouge, La., and, finally, to Baltimore.

When they arrived, they were homeless. They received temporary housing here with the help of a church and a federal disaster assistance voucher that has since been used up.

Today, the family is experiencing a new normalcy. Reynoud and Helen Duplessis are working, and they became grandparents in the summer to Dontae, who was born in Baltimore.

Their children - Roza, 26, Jennifer, 25, Brittany, 21, twins Alysia and Phylissa and Nicholas - are in school or working and have made new friends.

Still, it's not New Orleans.

"It's different," says Helen, 42, who works for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "I was just an everyday Joe in New Orleans. I paid my bills, and I was a law-abiding citizen.

"My city is not the city I knew it to be. As of Aug. 29, 2005, it will never be again. Home is where the heart is - that's the bottom line."

A long road

Reynoud, 49, and his family talk about their lives in two terms: pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

Before Katrina, Reynoud worked for a granite/marble company in Jefferson Parish. His wife worked in a mailroom, and they did their best to take care of their children.

They paid $600 a month for a four-bedroom house they rented in the Sixth Ward, about 10 blocks from the French Quarter.

Their life, though, was not without troubles. Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 28, 2005. A month later she had surgery, and her first chemotherapy treatment was on Aug. 18.

Nearly two weeks later, the hurricane would cause even more turbulence in their lives. Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

The levees broke the next day, heavily damaging the place they called home.

Unlike many of their neighbors, the family heeded warnings to leave the area before Katrina hit.

With three days' worth of clothes and other belongings loaded up in Reynoud's Ford F-350 truck, they headed west to Lake Charles.

Those who couldn't fit in the cab sat in the back, holding a tarp over their heads. What should have been a four-hour drive on Interstate 10 took 17 hours.

"The thing I remember the most was seeing a bunch of cars with one person," says Reynoud, reflecting on those left behind.

The family's stay at a shelter in Lake Charles was short. While there, Hurricane Rita hit, forcing the Duplessis family to evacuate again.

The members bounced from shelter to shelter and ended up in Baton Rouge, bonding with evacuees from all points.

All the while, Helen continued her chemotherapy at other hospitals, and the family dealt with its rootless existence.

"I only had four units of chemo before the storm," Helen says. "I finished chemo in shelters and on the road. What else could you do?"

Her husband, who now works for UPS, remembers watching and listening to the news reports about the devastation and heard how the media referred to people like them as refugees.

"We never called ourselves refugees," Reynoud says. "We called ourselves survivors."

Meeting an angel

It was in Baton Rouge that the stars began to align for the Duplessises.

There, they met their angel, Scott Adams, a minister at Messiah Community Church in Reisterstown, who was looking for Katrina families who were willing to relocate.

"It was Kansas City or Baltimore," says Reynoud of their relocation options. "My wife is from Massachusetts. Baltimore is in the Northeast. So we went with that."

They gave their belongings away and didn't turn back.

"I walked to the Greyhound bus station and bought one-way tickets to Baltimore," Reynoud says. "It took us two days to get from Louisiana to Baltimore."

When they got off the bus in Baltimore on Oct. 5, 2005, Adams was waiting for them with a smile.

"We have to be our brother's keeper," says Adams, recalling that day. "I am committed to the Duplessis family. They are my family now."

Their first stop was a Ramada Inn at Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road.

"That's how I learned Baltimore," Reynoud says. "I walked from Joppa to Loch Raven. Then, I found something familiar: Wal-Mart."

As much as he is happy to be in Baltimore, Reynoud says he still longs for home.

"Oooh, I miss eating hot boiled crawfish while sitting on the lake [Pontchartrain]," he says with a smile. "And watching the Mardi Gras parade under the bridge at Claiborne and Orleans."

There have been other things he and his family have had to adjust to here, including the taste of food, the music and the lingo.

The family misses the sound of zydeco music and watching second line dances, which are part of parades in New Orleans.

"I miss the second line so bad that my mom sent me a CD called The Ultimate Street Parade," Reynoud says. "Every day before I go to work, I pop that in, and it gets me in the mood to go to work."

Finding authentic New Orleans food here is difficult: fried alligator, crawfish Monica. They've even had to adjust to using Hellmann's mayonnaise instead of Blue Plate mayonnaise - a Southern brand of sandwich dressing found in Louisiana.

But when asked whether he wants to return to New Orleans, Reynoud takes a deep breath and pauses.

"I do," he says. "I really do - but just to visit. Baltimore will be our home."

Life begins again

Helen says that shortly after their arrival in Baltimore, family members were taken to five or six locations to choose the site of their Habitat for Humanity home. The organization builds or renovates homes for the needy.

The dilapidated house they saw in October 2005 in the 1400 block of N. Fulton Ave. was symbolic of what they had gone through: broken and worn, yet it was still standing.

To them, the house looked as if it had been caught in Katrina's wrath.

The first floor was waist-high in trash. The wood was rotten. The roof was falling in.

"On Oct. 8, 2005, we came to a house that had not been occupied for about 20 years," says Peter O'Neill, head of the private Garrison Forest School, which provided volunteers and served as a sponsor for the family's home. "It was pouring that day. I now realize that we were being baptized. I realized recovery from Katrina happens one board and nail at a time."

Reynoud, who proudly wore a New Orleans Saints hat that day, overlooked what would become his backyard - a mound of broken bricks and trash mixed in the red-claylike rubble.

But with the help of some Baltimore Ravens players - including Tony Pashos, Derrick Mason, Jason Brown and Evan Oglsby - Ravens cheerleaders, the Garrison Forest School volunteers and Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, by mid-October of this year, the five-bedroom house sparkled like new.

To Nicholas, the new house is priceless.

"We have never owned a house before," Nicholas says. "To own our house is something."

Of course, relocating to a place halfway across the country does come with its obstacles, adds Nicholas, who is a freshman at Morgan State University.

"I am not around people who sound like me," Nicholas says in a thick Creole accent. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm the only one from the South."

In his old neighborhood, Nicholas says, he could see the Superdome.

By contrast, standing in his new bedroom in Baltimore, he sees boarded-up rowhouses and cars zooming down Fulton Avenue.

His mother looks at the blighted area that surrounds her family with rose-colored glasses.

"I got a little bit more fortitude that always keeps my cup at half-full," Helen says. "We are trying to fit into Baltimore by our own devices. For the most part, we stay to the grind each day. No matter what happened, the world still goes on."

Home sweet home

Ravens players and cheerleaders, volunteers and others from the community came out on Oct. 10 to a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the new chapter in the Duplessis family's lives.

"Today is a day you like to capture and put on film and show people when they say things are bad in Baltimore," says Mike Riley of M&T; Bank, a partner in the project to renovate a home for the Duplessises.

Ravens' player Adalius Thomas was present when the family received the keys to the house. He knows what it is like to be temporarily homeless. The house his family lived in burned down when he was in high school, he says.

"Just helping someone made it more worthwhile," Thomas says. "It really brings the neighborhood together. Bu, it's sad that it takes a hurricane for us to come together."

The Duplessis family contributed 450 "sweat equity," or volunteer, hours to rehabbing the new house, meeting a requirement set by Habitat for Humanity. The organization would not disclose the cost to rehabilitate the house, but officials said the average cost of a Sandtown Habitat house is about $50,000.

At the ribbon-cutting, all of the Duplessises stood on the stoop of their new home and sang John Legend's "Refuge (When It's Cold Outside)."

They smiled and cried as they belted out, "You give me peace in the middle of the storm."

Adams embraced the Duplessises and cried. The man who found them in Baton Rouge retold their story.

"You are home again, but I still got your back," Adams says.

After that, they cut the ribbon and walked in. On Oct. 24, the family members moved into their new house, which was fully furnished.

It took a year, but they were finally home again.

"When you lose your whole life and still be alive," says Helen, whose cancer is in remission, "that's not a feeling anybody should have to be experiencing. I am glad my living life is about to become whole again."


To see a slideshow of photos of the Duplessis family, go to baltimoresun.com/unisun/neworleans.

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