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Published in Print: September 1, 2005, as Refugee Louisiana Principal Seeks Ways to Help Victims
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Refugee Louisiana Principal Seeks Ways to Help Victims

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When Donna Berggren, a principal from Jefferson Parish, La., arrived in the Houston area late Sunday night after an 11-hour, bumper-to-bumper trek to escape the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, she did what she knows best.

She called the Houston Independent School District to offer to assist with the stream of students flowing in from her home state. She volunteered to hand out school registration forms at Red Cross shelters. And she sent a message that she was there to help to the central office of the suburban district where she’s now staying.

While states and districts across the storm-damaged region threw open the welcome mat to student refugees this week, Ms. Berggren felt that as a refugee herself, she had something extra to give the families displaced for what could be months: someone who knows where they came from.

“I thought maybe if we go and let these parents know that we’re from Louisiana, we’re from Jefferson Parish, and we’re here to help you take care of your children, that it would let them know it’s not all strangers here,” she said in a phone interview Sept. 1 from Deer Park, Texas, where she and six other members of her family were staying with friends.

Caravan to Houston

Ms. Berggren had received no word on the condition of her house or her school, Chateau Estates Elementary, which serves about 740 students, most of whom are from needy families. With about 50,000 students, the Jefferson Parish system sits between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

“I’m thinking of little kids from school who live on streets that I know flood and I don’t know that they could afford to evacuate,” she said.

The last time she saw her school was when she left work on Friday, Aug. 26, three days before the storm hit. Although she and her staff knew it was coming, she said, she didn’t know until that weekend that it was headed directly at their area.

“I had teachers call me and say, ‘Should we go and move everything upstairs?’ ” she recalled. “And I said, ‘We can’t possibly do that.’ ”

Ms. Berggren drove to the Houston area in a three-car caravan that included her husband, two grown children, and 7-month-old grandchild. With the highways clogged with evacuees, the trip took more than twice the usual five hours. Still, she considered herself lucky to be staying in a house, instead of emergency housing.

“I feel so thankful and so blessed that my whole family is safe and we’re in a wonderful place and staying with wonderful people, and I just feel like we need to be out there doing what we can to help our fellow people from Louisiana,” she said, as she prepared to visit a shelter. “I cannot sit around and do nothing.”

Vol. 25, Issue 02, Page 19

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