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Houston federation helps fund Katrina-aid groups, Jewish or not
JTA / June 7, 2006

By Larry Luxner

HOUSTON — Vietnamese-born Chuong Hoang Nguyen was doing fine until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his thriving Louisiana shrimping business nine months ago.

"As soon as Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico, I evacuated my wife and four kids to Houston," he recalled. "The hurricane hit my place at 5 a.m. on Aug. 28. Our mobile home was torn away, and my $70,000 fiberglass boat was destroyed."

In desperation, Nguyen turned to Second Mile Mission Center, an evangelist Christian charity in suburban Stafford, Tex.

"They gave me food, clothes, household items and powdered milk for my baby," he said. "I think they're doing a good job. They're helping people get everything they need."

Likewise, Joyce Armstead lost her New Orleans house and everything in it after the levees broke in Katrina's wake, flooding her home with six feet of water.

"We checked into the Radisson, thinking we'd go home in three days," recalled Armstead, 69. "That Monday after the hurricane, the sun came out and people started leaving because they thought the worst was over. But the water was steadily rising. We ended up walking in the water up to our chests from the hotel to Tulane. My son had to carry his five-month-old baby over his head."

Eventually airlifted to Houston, Armstead ended up at an apartment complex whose lease is being paid by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

"I cried every night when I first came here," said Armstead. "This mission has helped me tremendously. They gave us food, toilet articles and a $20 card for gasoline."

Nguyen and Armstead aren't Jewish. Nor are any of the other 60,000 hurricane victims — mostly blacks, Hispanics and Vietnamese — whom Second Mile Mission has helped since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last August.

But Second Mile is thriving, thanks in part to a $75,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

"This gift from the federation is very significant, because we needed additional funding [in the wake of Katrina]," said Karen Parker, the mission's director of development. "We weren't prepared for such substantial growth from one year to the next."

Second Mile, comprising 21,000 square feet of storage for canned and dry food, clothing, kitchen utensils, furniture and bedding, assists about 200 clients a day — 30% of them Katrina evacuees like Nguyen and Armstead. Its self-stated mission is "to provide an opportunity for people to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by first building a relationship that meets their physical needs."

It's one of 28 Houston-area agencies and organizations helped by the Jewish Federation in Katrina's aftermath. Eighteen of these agencies serve the general community — including recipients like Zip Code Assistance Ministries, the Houston Food Bank and Tyler County Hospital — while the remaining 10 assist only Jews.

The federation provided a total of $2.2 million in grant money, of which $1.5 million came from United Jewish Communities, and another $700,000 was raised by Houston's Jewish commuity, said Federation CEO Lee Wunsch.

While Houston itself wasn't hit by Katrina, Texas' largest city became even larger with the influx of nearly 300,000 evacuees from New Orleans, including 5,000 Jews.

That boosted Houston's Jewish population from 45,000 to 50,000, though according to Wunsch, only 40 or so New Orleans Jews still remain.

"Most of these people went wherever they had either family or friends. Those who came to Houston just came here because it was the next closest big city driving from New Orleans," he told JTA. "A lot of people had no place to go. You can't get around Houston without a car, and for some families, that in itself was an issue."

Wunsch was interviewed at the federation's headquarters on South Braeswood in southwestern Houston, which is home to most of the city's Jewish population and its 20 or so synagogues.

"This building was a major focal point of our relief efforts. Our boardroom became ground zero for the recovery efforts," he said. "There's still a lot of work being done here, but it's not in your face."

Sherri Tarr, who evacuated her home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, was evacuated first to Jackson, Miss., and then to Birmingham, Ala. She and her children eventually joined husband Matthew Tarr in Houston, where the Jewish Federation found the family a place to stay.

"We lived with a couple in their townhouse and had two bedrooms," said Tarr, who returned to New Orleans last week. "My kids got enrolled in the Jewish day school there. My husband got an office and lab space at Rice University. Thank God we've both been working this entire time. We never lost a paycheck."

Other evacuees weren't so lucky.

Jodi and Raúl Zighelboim, their two children and the family dog fled New Orleans with little more than a suitcase among them. Their home in suburban Lakeview was totally destroyed, and Raúl Zighelboim — who's originally from Peru — spent months looking for a job. And this family at least had the emotional support of the Houston Jewish community.

"I think the psychological trauma of it all is going to begin manifesting itself soon," said Linda Burger, executive director of Jewish Family Service. "The first six months, you're going through survival, and at some point you're realize its a new normalcy. The pressure will be on us to provide counseling later on."

Burger said JFS, which operates on a $1.6 million annual budget, has been allocated an additional $300,000 "to give out financial aid, ramp up our employment services program and provide counseling at no cost" to any hurricane evacuees.

Burger, who directs a full-time staff of 24, said the first recipients of JFS hurricane relief money were three Haitian families, each of whom received $800 for rent.

"We're helping primarily Jews but also non-Jewish people. We don't turn anyone away," she said, estimating that JFS will have handed out $230,000 by the time it's all over.

"The devastation that happened as a result of the hurricane was a great equalizer. It didn't matter what your educational level was. People are all in the same boat," she said. "The Jewish Federation is acknowledging that, in order to respond to the crisis at hand, it takes the entire community's effort."

Another key recipient of the federation's generosity is Neighborhood Centers Inc., Houston's largest nonprofit social services agency, which received a check for $100,000.

"Our objective is to return our Katrina-displaced neighbors to self-sufficiency," said Marc H. Levinson, director of agency development and public relations. "That takes the form of connecting them to employment, finding them apartments, getting their kids in school or child care, and connecting people to resources."

Levinson, a former TV producer and director from Pittsburgh, said his Katrina database has 1,600 families representing 5,000 to 6,000 evacuees from New Orleans.

"We're understandably very proud of what we've been able to accomplish, even though we are not on the front pages of the newspaper every day," he said.

"It may be a little tight, but Houston is welcoming these people. In our Head Start program, we've got some phenomenal teachers who wouldn't have washed up here in Houston if they hadn't been displaced from their homes."

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