WAVELAND, Miss. -- In a sense, Jose Luis and Maria Martinez created this situation themselves by moving to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina with their four children, no place to stay and no job guarantee in pursuit of what so many want: The American Dream.
“We do this for our children,” Maria, 39, says of having left Houston in a run-down minivan with the hope that Jose Luis, 49, could cash in on the Katrina work boom that has drawn countless Hispanics to the hardest hit areas.
The family made it to Waveland, thinking a friend here would line up work hanging sheetrock for Jose Luis, but the jobs never came through.
Maria recalls that after a first night in a hotel charging $300 for one bed, the family spent several nights in their car, then in a small tent on a strip of grass along Highway 90.
Sandra Reed, an administrator at the Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District, was handing out tents to homeless families with school-age children when she and a Spanish-speaking teacher came across the Martinez family.
“They couldn’t even stand up in it,” she says of the pup tent they were living in. The family received a stand-up tent and the educators saw to it that the eldest child, Julissa, 7, got enrolled in school. “The need was just so stark,” Reed says of the effort expended to help the family.
Gutted building becomes home
Several weeks later, the family discovered a gutted building that was uninhabited and moved in. The owner later found them living on his property, but after hearing their story said they could stay.
The building was much bigger than the tent, but also more dangerous: nails from exposed beams, rusty equipment and a shower in a loft area that sagged anytime someone walked on it.
The conditions were just short of squalid, and Jose Luis wasn’t making much financial headway. Since he speaks English and has a green card, he was able to recruit other Hispanics and contract his crew out at various job sites, but the work was unstable at best. After one job, he was left with just $85 for two days of work. And every job required him to pay his team from day to day, while the contractors paid him only after the work was done.
About the only thing going right for the family was having met Reed, who also saw to it that Maria took her youngest children -- Juliana, eight months, and Gabriel, 3 – to a nearby health clinic after they developed ear infections.
Turning a corner
That visit not only helped the children, it would prove to be the Martinez’ ladder out of the post-Katrina hole they had fallen into.
Maria and her children quickly caught the attention of staff at the clinic, which is run by the Loudoun Foundation, a Virginia-based charity.
“These people have really touched a lot of people I work with,” says Tracey Parent, who heads the foundation.
So the foundation offered to take the entire family to Virginia for a chance at a new life. “We have a place for them to live and a job for him,” Parent says. “We felt they could make it on their own if they had the opportunity.”
Parent says Maria was prepared to leave right away, but that Jose Luis was reluctant to give up on Katrina work just yet.
Two days later, though, the entire family decided enough was enough and Parent flew down to accompany them back to Virginia.
'Do they deserve to rot?'
Parent realizes that the locals impacted by Katrina have their own tragedies and long-term needs, but says that shouldn’t mean not helping people like the Martinez family.
“My goal is to provide an opportunity, not charity,” she says. “It’s not my job to find fault or pick and choose. It’s unfortunate they picked that spot (the Gulf Coast), but do they deserve to rot?”
Maria, for her part, is already thinking of the possibilities -- including work for herself and day-care and schooling for the four children.
Reed, she notes with a smile, “told me I was too young not to be able to go out and do something with my life.”
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