Sunday, December 25, 2011

Some New Orleans residents finally get 'home for the holidays'

Photo: John McCusker, Times-Picayune

Snaking down Lake Forest Blvd. in New Orleans East, a black SUV driven by a chauffeur passed visual reminders of Hurricane Katrina – a vacant school surrounded by a chain-linked fence and the deserted Methodist Ambulatory Surgery Center with a "for sale" sign posted out front.

Cast members from the NBC daytime serial, “Days of Our Lives,” were determined to make the detour last week, bringing a touch of glamour to the neighborhood. 

They wanted to see Sharon Taylor in her newly renovated home they’d helped to rebuild. Last spring, several members of the cast and crew contributed much-needed funds and sweat equity to finish its reconstruction.

“Wow – six years later — it’s still pretty barren,” Arianne Zucker, the actress who plays Nicole DiMera, said after touring the previously flooded areas earlier this year. 

But traveling a couple more blocks down the Lake Forest Blvd., Zucker would notice many homes cheerfully decorated for the holidays, including the modest brick house Taylor owns.

The stars’ unlikely connection came through Zack Rosenburg, cofounder of the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission has been helping families, senior citizens and disabled residents return home after Hurricane Katrina.

Zack met the show’s co-executive producer Greg Meng, in Los Angeles and explained New Orleans’ continuing need for assistance. The cast had already been involved with building homes with Habitat for Humanity in other parts of the country.

“I never thought I would get back in my house,” Taylor sighed. She slept there Saturday for the first time in more than six years. Though the rooms have only a few pieces of furniture, she proudly displayed framed photographs saved from more than 8 feet of floodwater.

New kitchen cabinets and appliances, immaculate floors and freshly painted walls lent the 25-year-old house the appearance of a model home. Taylor had lived there most of her married life, raising the couple’s three children.

“I’m so happy that I’m back,” she said, acknowledging neighbors who took care of the property and mowed the grass the entire time she was gone.

Taylor hung Christmas stockings by the fireplace and placed an ornamental tree in the almost empty family room. She is one of many beneficiaries of St. Bernard Project’s “Home for the Holidays” campaign.

"There are many reasons to celebrate during the holiday season, but at SBP we are also thinking about the thousands of families who are still not able to celebrate the season at home with their loved ones,” Rosenburg said.

"We have 132 families on our waiting list and our goal is to raise over $300,000 as the year ends so that more families like Sharon's can celebrate the holidays at home in 2012," he added.

After Hurricane Katrina, Sharon and Melvin Taylor and their two daughters evacuated to Opelousas, La., where they lived almost a year in a house with 15 other people. Finally returning to New Orleans to begin rebuilding, Melvin died of a heart attack. Sharon later fell in the FEMA trailer and instantly became paralyzed. Before the storm, she had been employed by the school district in facility planning, but was then disabled.

Following months of difficult physical rehabilitation at Touro Infirmary, she slowly regained her mobility. “I am a miracle,” she said last week. A cousin heard about the St. Bernard Project and told her:
“Take this number. These people might be able to help you.”
She applied to St. Bernard Project’s program March 2011. “Days of Our Lives” staff and crew surprised her the following month, agreeing to fund the project.

St. Bernard Project sent volunteers from “here, there and everywhere,” to help out, Taylor said. The TV show’s cast and crew also spent time, sanding and painting walls.

The TV personalities came to understand why New Orleans residents wouldn’t just move to other cities; they longed to return home.
“I was born and raised in Southern California and never realized how much you (in New Orleans) live with your family – so close, so tight, generation to generation,” Zucker said. 
Observing the bonds among family members and neighbors helped the actress decide to place more value on her own relationships with friends and family.

Taylor and her extended family welcomed the TV crew with home-baked praline, fresh from the oven.

After “six years, four months, 10 hours and 35 seconds,” Taylor said jokingly, she’s finally back home. Her two daughters will graduate from college this spring – one from Louisiana State University and the other from Xavier University.

“I was so determined,” she said. “You have to be determined and focused.”

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