In 2004, homeschooling parents Todd and Elaine Bryant* evacuated their home when Hurricane Charley, the first of four hurricanes to hit Florida that fall, bore down on the Sunshine State. "For five days, we faced the very real possibility that we didn't have anything left," says Elaine.
"Will our home be destroyed?" their 6-year-old son, Gregory, asked. When Elaine replied that she didn't know, he said, "That's okay. God has a plan."
When they returned home, the Bryants were amazed to find that their house was only missing the screens and one piece of siding. The yard was littered with branches and leaves, but unlike the houses around them, theirs was intact. Still, the family decided they did not want to go through any more hurricanes. Within a year, they relocated to Tennessee.
When Hurricane Katrina swept across the southern United States in late August 2005, homeschoolers throughout the Gulf Coast region were forced to evacuate their homes, leaving vehicles, jobs, curriculum, and computers behind. They thought they would return in a few days to pick up their lives where they left off, but it was a week before many were able to drive back to their homes. When they arrived, they found mud, mold, warped furniture, and flooded rooms.
Knowing what southern residents were facing, the Bryants made a financial gift to the Home School Foundation's Hurricane Emergency Response Program. "We really had a lot of empathy for those who did lose everything in the hurricanes," says Elaine. "That prompted us to really help the homeschoolers in this situation. It was an opportunity to turn some hard times for us into a blessing for other people."
Family to family: Your gifts to the Home School Foundation
"You know that feeling you get when you are away from home for awhile?" asks HSF Fund Administrator Patty Taylor. "You had a great time, but towards the end you can't wait to get home to familiar places and faces. Well, imagine suddenly finding out that there is no home to go back to. Your friends and neighbors have vanished, and you have no idea where they are. It would almost be better to have everything completely swept away than to come home and find your familiar things destroyed, covered in mold and mud, simply garbage."
As reports of the devastation in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi spilled across the news, Home School Legal Defense Association began to receive calls from members around the country, eager to provide housing, curriculum, and funds to affected families. On the Friday before Labor Day, HSF notified HSLDA members that two new programs had been established: the Hurricane Emergency Response Program, to help families replace destroyed curriculum and to provide funds for more basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing; and Operation Extended Family, to match families who had lost homes with those who could offer housing, use of a vehicle, or employment.
Expecting a high volume of responses, HSF staff set up extra computers and telephones in a "hurricane room" and sought volunteer help from Patrick Henry College (PHC) students. By the following Tuesday, HSF had received 2,200 emails offering help!
For three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, HSF staff answered constant phone calls and a flood of emails from homeschoolers either wanting to help families in need or asking for assistance. Patty Taylor spearheaded HSF's response program. "While I was answering one phone call, five more callers would leave messages on my voicemail," she says. "People were so anxious to help."
Kelly-Christelle Orsini, a PHC volunteer in the hurricane room, was amazed at the generosity of these homeschoolers. One family even offered to have their children sleep on the floor so they could house more people.
Over 3,500 families offered help through Operation Extended Family. While many displaced families were reluctant to accept housing offers that would require them to move too far from their original homes, they were very grateful for funds received through the Hurricane Emergency Response Program that allowed them to replace curriculum.
"Homeschooling gives them a little bit of home," says Whitney Putman, another PHC student who manned the HSF phones and helped Patty read emails. The Foundation even offered help to parents who wanted to begin homeschooling after the hurricanes. In an effort to keep their families together, these parents were turning to home education instead of the public schools.
In all, HSF has received 5,000 offers of help and thousands of dollars in donations, most of which has already been used to help needy families. "We have been able to help everyone who qualified," says Patty.
Hope amid the devastation
In the summer of 2005, life was busy for Travis and Beth Scruggs, full-time students and homeschooling parents of seven. Travis was approaching his last year at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was working toward a master's degree in Christian education. He also worked as an accounts receivable manager at the seminary. Beth was earning a pre-med degree at Tulane University and educating their five oldest children.
In late August, as Hurricane Katrina veered towards Louisiana, the family planned to leave the area for what they thought was just a few days. They packed two changes of clothes each, piled into their Suburban, and drove over 100 miles from their New Orleans home to McComb, Mississippi, where they spent the weekend in a house rented by Travis's father. It was a grueling trip for nine people, including a 1-year-old and a toddler. "I still didn't believe Katrina was going to hit us," said Beth. "We kept thinking, 'It'll blow over and then we can go back home.' "
In a few days, it was clear that this was a false hope. The Scruggses' apartment, situated on one of the highest spots on the seminary campus, was also within a mile of levees that collapsed with the floodwaters of the Industrial and 17th Street Canals. Fearing the worst and unable to return to the city, the family drove to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to be with relatives. Shortly afterwards, they relocated to Bowling Green, Kentucky. During that time, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary offered Travis a position in Atlanta, Georgia. In early October, the family moved once again, this time to Athens, Georgia, where Cleveland Road Baptist Church offered them a parsonage free of rent.
Six weeks after their evacuation, Travis and Beth were finally able to return to New Orleans. "I don't even know how to describe it," says Beth. Their home had been flooded, leaving black mold all over the walls and ceiling and destroying all of their belongings, even items on top of closet shelves. The refrigerator, full of food, had floated up onto the countertop. All the doors and windows had been opened to air the apartment of the terrible stench from the mold.
"It's totally devastating," Travis says. Saltwater ruined a station wagon they had left in the apartment parking lot, as well as Travis's motorcycle. He wondered, "How does anybody start rebuilding after this?"
But the couple's strong faith in God helped them shift their focus from their losses to their blessings. "You hate to lose it [material possessions], but it's just stuff," says Beth. They had each other.
Homeschooling was one of Beth's main concerns. The family had lost $2,100 worth of materials. Through the generous donations of HSLDA member families, HSF was able to cover the Scruggses' curriculum expenses, a gesture that amazed and encouraged them. "God called us to homeschool, and we had no way of fathoming how He would provide," says Beth.
During the Scruggses' short stay with relatives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, people they had never met before had reached out to them. Two homeschooling mothers took Beth under their wing and provided the family with clothes, books, and more curriculum. Another family donated a set of bedroom furniture, a kitchen table, and toys for the children. Others gave them a Wal-Mart gift card in a sizeable amount. A homeschool organization gave each child a backpack full of school supplies.
Beth was overwhelmed with the generosity of people she did not even know. "We went from having absolutely nothing one week to 'Oh my goodness! What are we going to do with all this?' " she says. "God has just really shown His power and His mercy through all this."
After their shocking return trip to New Orleans, the Scruggses drove back to the parsonage in Athens, Georgia. "Our main concern then became how to help others, because people had helped us," Travis says. "We knew there had to be some way we could give that blessing to others."
First Baptist Church of New Orleans had already provided the answer. Two weeks after Katrina, Pastor David Crosby had contacted Travis and asked him to direct the church's volunteer relief efforts. Travis accepted the two-year position of "Disaster Pastor," and began work in early November.
Meanwhile, the Scruggses had moved back into the rental house in McComb, Mississippi, in order to be closer to Travis' new job. Every day, Travis drives over 100 miles one way from McComb to First Baptist Church of New Orleans to oversee the 400 volunteers who are helping homeowners salvage and repair their damaged homes. He also coordinates housing and meals for the volunteers, who will be in the area for the next few months. He says that of the 450,000 homes in the city of New Orleans, less than 60,000 are inhabitable. "We tell people, 'We're here to help you rebuild.' It never fails. It touches them dramatically."
The Scruggses plan to move back to New Orleans and are looking for an affordable home in the city, a difficult undertaking since, as Travis points out, the houses undamaged by Katrina cost up to 30% more than they did prior to the hurricane.
Travis is now taking online classes from Liberty Theological Seminary, which will still allow him to graduate in May 2006. In fall 2006, he plans to start a judicial doctorate program at Loyola University in New Orleans. His goal is to serve as a pastor and form a side ministry to help churches with legal affairs. Beth plans to finish her degree and eventually attend medical school, but her priority right now is to continue homeschooling and raising her children.
The McCullough family was almost finished renovating their home in a suburb west of New Orleans. They had purchased the house in June 2005 and spent the four and a half weeks after their arrival painting walls and cabinets, remodeling, and refinishing. Some of the family's boxes were still waiting to be unpacked when news of Hurricane Katrina's approach reached Victor, Tracy, and their kindergartner, Analene, whom they homeschool.
The family immediately packed their car and headed west, driving through the night and reaching a friend's home in Katy, Texas, early in the morning on Monday, August 29. Hours later, Hurricane Katrina swept through their hometown.
One week after Katrina, Victor returned to New Orleans to survey the damage. A 75-foot ash tree had landed on their home and the house had been flooded. Eighteen inches of muddy water still stood in the carport. Victor had to slosh through the rest of the house, but he was able to salvage some of the furniture and many of the kitchen appliances and supplies. Even so, the family lost 90% of their possessions, including half of Victor's personal library and half of a special collection of books belonging to his grandfather, a former Baptist minister.
"I'm done," said Tracy, at first unwilling to face another renovation effort. "I'm not going back." The family moved into another house in Katy. Meanwhile, Victor kept commuting to Metairie, Louisiana, where he continues to work as branch manager of a commercial collection agency.
Tracy has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the Katy community. The McCulloughs have received toys, clothing, and free visits to the local doctor's office. A local church has also reached out to them and supported their homeschooling efforts.
"The homeschool community wanted to care for us," says Tracy. One homeschooling mother provided a bookcase and filing cabinet and offered more furniture and a computer. Tracy also received phone calls and emails from members of a Houston homeschool group, who told her they were praying for her and wanted to help with any needs.
It's been hard to keep Analene from being frustrated," says Tracy. "She's uprooted. She misses her friends." But now, Tracy says, Analene often "bounces around singing songs" from an educational CD they were able to buy with curriculum funds sent by HSF. "Just a simple thing like that has been meaningful to her."
Victor and Tracy have decided to move back to Louisiana and tackle renovations one more time. Their home is now undergoing repairs. The family plans to move back to the New Orleans area in January 2006 and return to their home in March.
"God's just really shown up in every area to provide what we need," says Tracy. "I stand amazed at God's kindness to us in the midst of the difficult circumstances."
More family time
Four weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Steve and Nancy Burtchaell were finally able to return to their home in New Orleans. The Burtchaell residence had been in standing water up to the gutters for 10 days. "It's like someone put your house in a blender and mixed everything up," says Steve, adding that the mold damage was inconceivable. "We had to break down the doors and kick them in."
Steve is a professional jazz pianist, Nancy is a harpist, and their two children, Patrick (9) and Nicholas (4), are up-and-coming musicians on the drum and piano. They have been homeschooling for five years. The family lost nearly all their musical instruments, including their beloved Steinway, Nancy's harp, and their son's new drum set.
Throughout the chaos and confusion of the hurricane, the Burtchaells experienced an outpouring of generosity. "Most of the supplies and support we received were from complete strangers, fellow homeschoolers around the nation," says Nancy.
One family in Massachusetts sent six boxes of school supplies, and HSF was able to provide the Burtchaells with financial assistance, which enabled the family to replace Patrick's drum set. "We don't even have furniture, but we have stuff for homeschooling!" Steve says.
"The kindness of people impacted me more than the hurricane itself," adds Steve. The disaster also forced him to reevaluate his life goals. "It helped me realize that the important things aren't material." Before the hurricane, Steve's job frequently took him away from his family. But now, he says, "I'm going to spend more time with my family."
Homeschoolers don't just support one another during tough times, they also reached out to non-homeschoolers. As the Broussard family discovered, opening their home to another family resulted in many blessings!
Born and raised in Gambia, Africa, Charlie Mendy moved to France to attend culinary school. He met his wife, Dominique, in the French Alps, and the two moved to New Orleans 10 years ago to be near some of Charlie's relatives. The couple has two children, Chloé, 5, and Lucie, 1.
As Hurricane Katrina was moving across the gulf, Charlie came home from work one day to find Dominique in a panic. "That was unusual," he says. She had heard about Katrina's approach and did not know what to do. Charlie told her not to worry. "We're just going to leave for a couple of days and then come back," he said.
The family drove out of New Orleans on Saturday morning, August 27, and headed to Lafayette, where they were able to stay in a Catholic convent. After the hurricane, they discovered that their house had severe roof damage and no electricity. Many of their rental houses were damaged and uninhabitable. Due to the unstable situation in New Orleans, the family decided to remain in Lafayette, but they needed another place to stay because of overcrowding at the convent.
Meanwhile, Abbeville, Louisiana residents Keith and Tiona Broussard and their four sons had stayed high and dry during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and they wanted to open their home to families who had been displaced. "We had several people call and ask [if they could stay with] us, but those families ended up going other places," says Tiona, who homeschools one of their four boys.
When she heard about the Mendys, a family of four needing a place to stay, she spent some time in consideration and prayer. I'm going to present it to my teenagers, and if they're okay with it, I'll go forward, she thought. Confirmation came when her oldest son, Terrent, said, "If we take in a family, they'll need privacy. So I really think they need my bedroom upstairs."
One week later, the Mendys moved into the vacated top story of the house. "It's been great," says Tiona, "although it has its ups and downs." She says having two infants in the house can be rough. "When one's trying to take a nap, the other is screaming and vice versa! We've learned a lot from one another."
"I just thank God for this wonderful family," says Charlie. With his background in culinary arts, Charlie often cooks meals for the two families, who always eat together. He and Dominique are also teaching French to the Broussard children.
"It's been a blessing to be here," says Charlie, adding that his family has met many good friends through the Broussards.
Currently, Charlie is looking for property in the Lafayette area that he can rent out. He is also traveling to New Orleans twice a week to take computer classes at Tulane University and to repair his rental properties, some of which he plans to retain.
The least of these
"Mom, could we send some of my old schoolbooks to people from the hurricane?" The question came from 6-year-old Sammy Campione. The family had been discussing Hurricane Katrina and ways they could help families who had lost their homes and belongings.
Shelley Campione, Sammy's mother, mentioned that HSF was organizing a fund for families who needed to buy books. In a few minutes, Sammy returned with $12 of his own money and announced that it was for families who needed to buy schoolbooks. "I was so touched," says his mom, "and shared it with the family for anyone else to contribute." The Campione children sent $22 to HSF.
Sammy (now 7) says it was "kind of hard" to give up his money, which was a combination of his allowance and gift money—he had been thinking about using it to help his brothers and sister buy a trampoline. But he says it made him feel good to give his money to families in need.
Many other homeschooled children across the nation pitched in to help families who had been devastated by the hurricanes. Through their initiative and unselfishness, these children demonstrated what homeschooling is all about: giving.
The difference of one
Ten-year-old Bethni Taube, a homeschooler in Hermitage, Tennessee, decided she wanted to give toys to children who had lost all of their possessions in the hurricane. "The kids [in the shelters] had really nothing to do," she says. "If I was in their place, I would feel the same way. I wanted to give them something they could actually have."
Bethni began by finding several toys of her own that she could donate. Then she went around her neighborhood passing out fliers advertising her toy drive.
When a local news service discovered Bethni's toy drive and interviewed her, donations began pouring in. Toys and school supplies came from neighbors, friends, fellow homeschoolers, and even a family 200 miles away. The Taubes quickly ran out of the shoeboxes they had been using to pack the items, and they switched to paper bags donated by a Kroger grocery store.
The 5th-grader spent three weeks collecting donations, packing, and labeling bags. She even set up a tent in her front yard where people could drop off donations. "Our tent got really full!" she says. "I got tired of getting up every day and doing it again, but I actually made it through and did it!"
Destenee Taube, Bethni's mom, says their home was full of packages. In the end, Bethni collected 350 boxes filled with stuffed animals, coloring books, markers, and other toys.
When a local roofing company picked up a load of boxes for transportation to Biloxi, Mississippi, Bethni says the driver was surprised to find out that a 10-year-old was running the effort-he had assumed Bethni's mom was the one in charge. "He was really shocked!" says Bethni, laughing.
A local church took 50 more boxes to the hurricane-ravaged areas, and the rest were loaded onto trucks sent by MusicTV and Country Music Television. Bethni herself got to take a few boxes to 30 children who were staying with their families in a local hotel.
Destenee was proud of her daughter and of the giving spirit of the community. "Everyone was really appreciative of what she was doing," she says. "It shows that they [homeschoolers] are valuable assets. And they are stepping up to the plate."
Wall-to-wall books: Project Noah
When Tropical Storm Allison caused extensive flooding across Louisiana and southeast Texas in the summer of 2001, Houston resident and homeschool mom Lisa Guidry took action. She realized that many homeschoolers were among the flood victims, and they were unable to receive funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace curriculum.
Lisa prayed about how she could help. "We as a homeschooling community need to come together and help our own," she said. She sent out an email asking families for curriculum donations. The Texas Home School Coalition also helped her spread the word.
At first, Lisa and several volunteers, including her nine older children, distributed donations and helped families cook meals, rip up old carpet, and mow lawns. "We eventually had to narrow our focus to just curriculum," she says.
Project Noah came by its name because Lisa felt God wanted her to "be a lifeboat" for those in difficult circumstances. "The only boat that really saved people was Noah's Ark," she explains. "And the name just kind of stuck."
Hurricane Katrina provided Project Noah with its biggest assignment since Allison. Lisa received approximately 100 calls from families needing assistance, roughly a third of whom had never homeschooled before but wanted to begin in order to keep their families together. Meanwhile, donations of curriculum and school supplies began pouring into Lisa's home.
"The magnitude of things we've gotten is phenomenal," she says. She had no clue they would receive so many donations. "It went from 'Oh, look at all the boxes coming in' to 'Oh my goodness! Look at all the boxes!'
For eight weeks, Lisa received about 20 boxes a day as well as drop-off donations. The boxes, packed with everything from books to manipulatives to toys, came from homeschoolers all over America and even from other countries, such as Japan and Latin America. Even publishers donated curriculum. Many of the items were brand-new.
"This is the first time where most of the boxes we've opened have been worth $100," Lisa says. "Homeschoolers don't always have a lot of money, because we invest in our children. But we have lots of books!"
Her three-car garage and spacious game room are packed wall-to-wall with boxes of books, some already assigned to families and others waiting to be shipped. "And it's still coming," says Lisa. "I get deliveries every day."
When a family asks for assistance, Lisa asks them about their homeschooling experience and evaluates their specific curriculum needs. Project Noah will then help meet the family's curriculum needs for a year.
"I didn't turn anybody away," she says. "Everyone gets helped to some degree." Though their primary mission is to support homeschoolers in a crisis, Project Noah also helps low-income homeschoolers and single parents on a case-by-case basis.
During Katrina and Rita, Lisa worked with Project Noah seven days a week all day long. Now, she gives four hours a day. Her children also help sort and move boxes along with their friends, scout troops, teen groups, and other volunteers.
"What I'm doing is nothing big," says Lisa. "It's what these people [donors] are doing. It's basically families helping families. God has allowed me and my family and Project Noah to be the viaduct for these families to give to other people. We can help people do what they want to and that's to teach their children."
Reaching across America
The Belle Fourche Area Christian Home Educators (BFACHE) of Belle Fourche, South Dakota, wanted to help the many homeschoolers who had been displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "We all talked about ways we could help," says Jill Jerde, a homeschooling mother of six. "We felt kind of helpless up in South Dakota." They had heard about displaced families who were under pressure to put their kids in public school for the sake of convenience, and they wanted to enable these families to continue homeschooling.
As Jill was researching opportunities online, she discovered Project Noah's website. For the next six weeks, the approximately 25 families in BFACHE collected curriculum and school supplies and received donations from homeschoolers in the surrounding communities.
Jill was glad her children were able to take part in the project. "We'd like for the kids to physically see things go rather than just put a check in the mail," she says. The donations were consolidated and sent to the Jerdes' house, where Jill and her children spent hours packing the boxes and transporting them to the local post office. "I was at the post office for at least an hour and a half," remembers Jill, laughing. The group collected nearly 20 boxes weighing over 400 pounds!
In the rural town of Greenville, New York, far from the fury of the hurricanes, Rev. Murray Mayfield wanted to help homeschoolers who were struggling after the storms. A pastor of two Baptist churches as well as a paint contractor, Rev. Mayfield has homeschooled his five children since his wife died in an accident in March 2005.
He contributed to the HSF fund because he remembered how he had been supported by fellow homeschoolers after his wife's death. Rev. Mayfield says that his family received a "tremendous outpouring of love from the homeschooling community. They ministered to us in tremendous ways. I wanted to do the same."
"When your world is turned upside down, your true character comes out," says HSLDA President Mike Smith. "And in the face of disaster, homeschoolers have shown themselves to be strong. They're committed to each other and to serving others."
Along with providing great opportunities for learning and for developing character, homeschooling offers thousands of parents and children the chance to reach out together and help others in tangible, sacrificial ways. The message this conveys to the watching world is that homeschooling is not merely an effective educational choice; it also prepares young people to care about their neighbors and take action in ways that benefit their world.
* Name changed to protect family's privacy.
|About the author
Andrea Longbottom graduated from Patrick Henry College in December 2005 with a degree in literature. She now works full-time in HSLDA’s Communications Department. Andrea grew up in Southeast Texas and was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school.