- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Carmen Melendez sat quietly in her neighbor’s living room in Northwest yesterday, watching her six children devour a juicy turkey with all the trimmings.

Miss Melendez, 40, was grateful for many things this Thanksgiving. Less than three months ago, her New Orleans home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, leaving her and her family homeless.

But thanks to many organizations and agencies, the Melendez family has started over in a two-story, six-bedroom home in the Sursum Corda Cooperative neighborhood in Northwest, where they celebrated their first Thanksgiving in the District.

“I lost everything,” Miss Melendez said yesterday as her children cheerfully ran around her friend’s house. “But a lot of people came into my life, listened to my story and helped us. I’m very thankful.”

Neighbor Lillian Wright extended an invitation to the family for a dinner of turkey, ham, potato salad, spinach, stuffing and sweet potatoes.

Miss Melendez’s son Miguel, 17, sipped juice while his energetic 6-year-old brother, Aparicio, scarfed down turkey and potatoes.

“I don’t eat a lot of meat,” Miguel said.

His brother Christopher, 12, quickly echoed, “I don’t eat meat, either.”

Miss Melendez sighed and shook her head at her younger son. “Yes, he does.”

Miss Wright, who was feeding her own family before inviting the Melendez family, said she has been helping Miss Melendez adjust to living in the District.

“I never knew I would be feeding close to 20 people,” Miss Wright said. “I’m not rich, I’m just a simple school bus driver. But I’m a servant of God; I open my heart up to everybody.”

Despite the number of guests, the distribution of food at Miss Wright’s house was efficient. Miss Wright orchestrated the crowded kitchen, with children and adults bustling in and out with plates full of food.

“I’m full,” Aparicio said.

“Take some home for later,” Miss Wright said.

“We need to pray over the food,” Miss Melendez reminded.

Her family, she said, is used to holiday chaos.

“We have a lot of friends in New York. Sometimes we would go to their houses for [Thanksgiving], sometimes they would come to our house,” Miss Melendez said. “We’d have turkey, ham, rice and beans, chicken. But there’d be a lot people, just like this.”

Miss Melendez, originally from Honduras, had raised her six children in the Bronx. She moved earlier this year with her children and boyfriend, Richy Castillo, to New Orleans in search of a warmer climate and better place to rear the children.

Her children, homesick for the Bronx, weren’t keen on the move.

“It was very hot,” Miguel said. “And mosquitoes, a lot of mosquitoes. There were [mosquitoes] in New York, but not like that.”

“My arms would always get bit,” said Christopher, showing off his bite scars.

The family lost nearly everything they owned in the hurricane. They were stranded in New Orleans for days, spending nearly a week in the dank Superdome before being transported to Houston.

“It was scary,” Christopher said of the Superdome.

Sleep was scarce, food and water even more scarce, the children said.

“I went three days without eating,” Miguel said. “You didn’t want to eat any of that food the Army was giving us.”

After the family made a short stop in Milwaukee, the Red Cross put them on a bus to the District, where they stayed briefly at a Holiday Inn.

They settled earlier this month into their new home in Sursum Corda Cooperative, a small neighborhood of housing units near First and North Capitol streets in Northwest.

The Greater Washington Urban League, Bassett Furniture, Mount Carmel Baptist Church and the Sursum Corda Cooperative were among the businesses and organizations that arranged the living quarters.

Miss Melendez said she will plant roots in the District. She is seeking employment as a home health aide.

“I like D.C.,” Miss Melendez said. “The children are in the schools now, a lot of nice people, nice neighborhood. Why would we want to move?”

The transition has been relatively smooth but slow. The family only recently received living room furniture, and the service to the house telephone will be installed soon.

The children said they are beginning to feel at home and that everyone has gone out of their way to make them feel welcome.

“The house is cool,” said Ashley, 11. “It feels like New York inside the house, and D.C. when I go outside. My favorite thing is that me and my sister have our own room, with cable,” she said.

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