September 30, 2005

Catholic grade school takes in students displaced by Hurricane Katrina

By Sean Gallagher

The family of Shawn and Mirandra Varnado were on the move for the first two weeks after Hurricane Katrina threatened and eventually flooded their home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans a month ago.

But recently they found some hope and a more predictable life for
themselves in Indianapolis. An important part of this stability was the enrollment of three of the family’s children at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis.

Shawn Varnardo Jr., is now in the school’s kindergarten. His sister, Dazha Holliday, is in the sixth-grade. And Teri Kennedy is a seventh-grade student.

The family is currently living at a hotel in Indianapolis.

Their transportation to and in Indianapolis, their housing expenses and the children’s tuition are all being donated by people from central Indiana who wish to remain anonymous.

Sept. 22 was the children’s first day of school in nearly a month. For her part, Teri was glad to be studying again, even if it was in a new school in a new city.

“I like it,” she said. “I was excited about coming. I’m meeting new friends in my classes.”

The day before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the family evacuated New Orleans for a motel in Houston. Unfortunately, many of Shawn Varnardo’s other relatives chose to remain and brave the storm’s wrath.

They ended up staying at the then overflowing New Orleans Convention Center in squalid living conditions with food and water scarce.

“I begged them to come, to leave before the hurricane,” Shawn Varnardo said. “Plenty of times, we had rode hurricanes out in New Orleans. But this being a Category Four, I begged them to come, but they wouldn’t come. Unfortunately, they paid for it.”

The Varnardos soon found a photograph of their home in New Orleans on the Internet. It was flooded “to the top of its roof.” Shawn Varnado also learned that floodwaters had lifted the house in which he grew up off its foundation and placed it in the backyard.

“The house has so many memories, and just seeing that and knowing your history, it’s hard emotionally,” he said.

Now that the family is in Indianapolis, they are finally catching up on some much-needed rest. At the same time, they are starting to see a brighter future.

“We’re very happy,” Shawn Varnado said.

“We’re more relaxed now the kids are in school,” said his wife, Mirandra.

Although the family is not Catholic, they were glad that their children could attend an ethnically diverse Catholic school since they had been students at a similar one in New Orleans.

Although taking in the displaced students may seem like a noteworthy event, Mary Pat Sharpe, St. Joan of Arc School’s principal, said that giving aid to those in need is something that happens there on a regular basis.

“It’s just not unusual,” she said. “We are always helping people. Always. I’ve got students in this school that we’re helping [with tuition]. But those students in turn are bringing in canned goods or doing some other things to help someone else.

“I think that’s one of the things that is so important, so wonderful about this school. It doesn’t make any difference where we are socioeconomically. Everyone here is always willing and ready to help someone else.”

Sharpe also recognized that while Shawn Jr., Dazha and Teri have received a lot of help, their presence in the school will benefit the other students as well.

“We talked about the hurricane victims,” she said. “We collected money. We’ve sold candy. We’ve done all kinds of things for the hurricane victims.

“But that doesn’t mean a lot until you actually come face-to-face with someone who is a victim. I think this is an opportunity for our kids to really see firsthand that these are real people, other kids their age, that they’re collecting money for.”

And like many other students her age, Dezha’s hopes for the future aren’t long-term. Despite all the challenges she and her family have faced over the past month, her goals are simple and straightforward.

“I hope that I pick back up on my work and make good grades,” she said. †



Local site Links: