Monday, July 03, 2006

Oprah's Coming to Town

I found out last week that Oprah was sponsoring several of the homes in the neighborhood where we were building. We couldn't tell the families, because it was a surprise. Tonight when I pulled up to the neighborhood Miss Paula came running up to me, "Oprah's doing me a house! You knew!" "I did, but it was a surprise. Is she going to pimp your house out?" "She IS! Y'all have to come stay, tell the rest of the team, y'all can come stay at my pimped house."

Miss Paula is about as cute as they come.

Miss Ada is a 63 year-old woman who led a couple prayers throughout the week. Even the most cynical bow their heads when Miss Ada prays.

I can't wait to come back next year and visit their pimped houses.


Local building blitz draws big-name sponsors
Laura McKnight Staff Writer

BAYOU BLUE - A crowd of local families discovered Sunday morning that despite a heavy national focus on the New Orleans area, the losses they suffered during hurricanes Katrina and Rita have not gone unnoticed.

At least not by Oprah Winfrey or the band Bon Jovi.

The group of families, working to gain homes through Bayou Area Habitat for Humanity, discovered Sunday that their new houses have a high-powered sponsor – Winfrey’s nonprofit Angel Network. The sponsorship was made possible by a gift from another set of stars, Jon Bon Jovi and his band.

“This just shows that our area’s not forgotten about,” said Jeanne Autin, executive director of Bayou Area Habitat.

The Angel Network is using a $1 million donation from Bon Jovi to build 28 homes at a site in the Bayou Blue community. The network will also furnish and landscape the homes through donations made by the general public, as well as pay for some add-ons like porches. The site, near the intersection of Bayou Blue and Bayou Blue Bypass roads, already includes a number of Habitat homes sponsored by various groups.

The Angel Network neighborhood is part of Bayou Area Habitat’s “Building Blitz on the Bayou,” the group’s campaign to build 100 homes in Terrebonne and Lafourche for hurricane victims by the end of the year.

Habitat leaders gathered the future Angel Network homeowners at the Bayou Blue site for a special announcement Sunday morning. The families and dozens of volunteers paused from working on homes to squeeze in front of a large-screen television.

The crowd grew still as Autin greeted the group, then leaned down to start a recorded announcement.

“Hello, hello, Houma, Louisiana,” Winfrey crooned to a stunned audience. She offered another quick greeting, then an explanation: “Ever since you all lost your homes in the hurricanes, I have been doing a lot of thinking about you, and so has one of the world’s biggest rock bands,” Winfrey said, as scenes of Bon Jovi and his band flashed across the screen.

“Yes, they’ve been thinking about you, too. So, today I have some exciting news – each family here that applied for a Habitat home will be moving into one of our brand-new Angel Network homes,” she sang, to gasps from the crowd.

“My heart just almost stopped beating,” said Ada Jones, who will gain one of the homes. “I couldn’t believe that.”

Winfrey herself was caught off guard during Bon Jovi’s appearance on her talk show last fall, when the rock star handed her an unexpected $1 million check to continue her hurricane-relief work.

After the storms, Winfrey offered a $10 million private donation to hurricane-recovery efforts, as well as $1 million to America’s Second Harvest. The star has used her Angel Network to sponsor Habitat homes in Houston and Jackson, Miss.

But so far, Houma marks the only announced Angel Network build in Louisiana, according to network staff. Other home-building projects are likely underway across the Gulf Coast, but not all have been publicly announced.

The network also set up an online home registry last fall, garnering more than $10 million in donations from the public to buy home furnishings and landscape materials for the new homes.

During the Sept. 21 episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Jon Bon Jovi told Winfrey, “The band and I want you to continue your good deeds. You can steward this so it gets to the people that need it.”

The Angel Network and Habitat for Humanity International decided hurricane victims in the Houma area fit that description.

“We’re using that check to build our next Angel Network neighborhood right here in Houma,” Winfrey said in the taped announcement. “And so in just a few months, all of you standing here are going to be neighbors.”

Those receiving the homes hail from Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, as well as the New Orleans area and southwest Louisiana, Autin said.

Habitat for Humanity International recommended that the Angel Network partner with Bayou Area Habitat because of its home-building successes since the hurricanes, Autin said.

“This area’s one of the biggest developments since the storm,” Autin said.

Construction began in April on six of the Angel Network homes and two weeks ago on the remainder. Plans call for all of them to be complete by Aug. 8, she said.

Loud cheering and clapping from Sunday morning’s audience soon turned to hugs and tears as families who will receive the homes described their surprise to an Angel Network camera crew.

After a lifetime of hard work as a housecleaner and caretaker, Ida Hawkins of the Dularge community will soon gain her first brand-new home.

Since Hurricane Katrina damaged her roof and Hurricane Rita flooded her home with two feet of water, the 63-year-old has been living in a FEMA trailer on her sister’s Houma driveway. Hawkins said she grew wishful watching Winfrey help build homes in Houston.

“I never dreamed it would happen to me,” she said. “Sometimes I think I’m dreaming.”

Though Bayou Area Habitat started working with the Angel Network several months ago, spurring rumors of Oprah and Bon Jovi-built homes, the network asked the local group to keep the project quiet so the families would be surprised. The network also asked that no pictures be taken during Sunday’s announcement.

The camera crew and other oddities may have tipped the families that something was up, but those interviewed said they were unaware that Winfrey or Bon Jovi had anything to do with their new houses.

“I had no idea. I just came here to do some hours,” Jones said. As with any Habitat build, the future homeowner must help build the house.

Jones, 73, lost her New Orleans home to Katrina’s floods.

“She said at her age, she didn’t think that there was hope,” said Jones’ daughter, Shirley Madukwe of Nashville.

After living in a shelter in Mississippi, Jones settled into a Thibodaux apartment with her husband, who is being treated for lung cancer.

“At age 73, you just can’t imagine what this will do for her,” Madukwe said. “I didn’t want her to give up.”

Sylvia Young, also a former New Orleans resident, said she looks forward to owning her first home. Young, who works with Options for Independence in Houma, moved across the Gulf Coast after Katrina’s floods destroyed her home.

She now lives in LaPlace, working in an Options office there, but drives to Houma as needed.

“Living in a house will be wonderful,” she said.


Patricia said...

you are one of miss paula's and miss ada's angels. being someone's angel sounds like just about the best thing you could be. it's easy for miss oprah to sign a check. and yeah, i know she does more than that. but you all were the real angels in this project.

more and more kudos you to, dawn.

Chunks said...

I agree with Patricia, it's you people swinging hammers that ought to get the pat on the back. Oprah sure makes it hard for me to still hate her though with her generosity. And Bon Jovi? C'mon! They are rock and roll hotness and goodness. Woohoo Habitat for Humanity!