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Montgomery College Student Success Stories

Outriding the Storm
Insights, Fall 05

Casha JonesReluctant to evacuate her home in Belle Chasse, La., 18-year-old Casha Jones shoved two pairs of jeans and a T-shirt into a bag and got into the family car that Sunday morning. She was expecting to be back home in a day or two. One week later, holding back tears, Casha stood before curious classmates in Professor Darren Smith’s math class on Montgomery College’s Germantown Campus as one of the new students displaced from New Orleans.

Casha’s expectations, like many who live along the Gulf Coast, were based on past experiences with tropical storms and hurricanes. Born and raised below sea level in one of the southernmost parishes on Louisiana’s coastal region, Casha and her family faithfully heeded evacuation warnings. They usually drove clear of the storm, waited in a hotel, then returned home when the all-clear was issued. But Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the usual storm. As the category 1 hurricane accumulated strength on its westerly track across southern Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, Casha’s family formed a four-car caravan and drove to Pensacola, Fla., ahead of the storm. “We
made reservations at a hotel,” said Casha, “but when we got there we had to evacuate there, too.”

Within hours after reaching Lake City, Fla., east of Pensacola, the 23-member extended family checked in to another hotel, road weary and anxious. They watched TV reports hoping for the best that Sunday night, but when Katrina hit Louisiana the next day with 145 mph winds,
and the levees failed, and 80 percent of New Orleans sank under water, they knew they couldn’t go back home. Not now, anyway. With little choice and even less time—they were running out of money for the mounting hotel and restaurant bills for such a large group—the now-homeless Casha, her mother and two siblings, a wheelchair-dependent grandmother, a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, her cousins, an aunt, a friend, and a dog drove northward to a
relative’s home in Montgomery County, Md.

After about 18 hours on the road, Casha and family arrived at Mable and Calvin Ogden’s home in Montgomery Village. “We got in around 5 a.m. on Wednesday. The next morning, I was roused out of bed: ‘You are going to school today.’” Casha couldn’t believe it: “I thought we might be staying a week or so.” “All we knew was they weren’t going back,” said Calvin Ogden, Casha’s uncle and host, “and there were 23 of us in here, from ages 2 to 82.” In an effort to inject some order into a chaotic situation, the adults decided to get the children into school immediately. “The youngest children were enrolled first,” he said, “then we got to Casha. We looked to Montgomery
College right away. Our two boys had gone to Montgomery College, and we were encouraged
when we found out Ms. Hill was there.”

Montgomery College Counselor Audrey Hill recalls the night she met the family in the hallway
outside her Germantown office. “I was meeting with a student in my office and went to photocopy something for her. In the hallway, I heard someone call my name: ‘Miss Hill!’ Up jumps Mrs. Ogden, and she says to me: ‘I want you to meet my homeless family. Twenty-three of them landed on my doorstep yesterday!”

Audrey Hill stood shocked to be talking with the Ogdens, a family she had met years earlier
when she worked as a counselor in the county’s public school system. They soon made introductions and got to work placing Casha, who had just completed her first week as a
freshman at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. Hill recalls: “Casha said to me:
‘ The only thing I have to prove it is my student ID card.’”

Counselor Hill ushered in her new charge. Montgomery College staff had been notified to prepare for Katrina evacuees who might need to enroll. Late-starting classes were announced and the Montgomery College Foundation set up a Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund to support scholarships, books, fees, and other critical needs for arriving students. Working through the evening, Hill successfully placed Casha in four classes, the first beginning the next morning at 8 a.m. “They arrived at 6:45 that morning.” said Hill, “Casha apologized for wearing flip flops, and what I thought was a wrap was really a throw, you know, a blanket, that she had on. She looked quite nice in it.”

By establishing a daily routine, the family was able to settle down a little. FEMA and the Red Cross provided them enough funds to buy cold-weather clothing and other necessities. It also provided hotel accommodations, which created much needed space for the close-knit, but restless, family members. Neighbors and strangers donated an assortment of food, clothing, household goods, and store gift cards. Casha was hired by the College’s Institutional Advancement Office to work 20 hours a week around her academic schedule. She has learned to navigate public transportation, a temporary necessity while she saves up to buy herself a VW Beetle— hot pink or black.

Although she’s been living miles away from her home, friends, and familiar hangouts, against her will for the most part, Casha has found that some things haven’t changed. She still plans to become a nurse, get a master’s degree, and buy that car. She doesn’t yet know when she will be able to return to Louisiana, but she sees, in her words, “the sunshine through the storm: the generosity of strangers and opportunities I never dreamed about have made so many good
things possible.”