Miles Apart

With her sister and father living far away in storm-ravaged Mississippi, an 8th grader finds comfort in meeting new classmates and in staying in touch with old ones.

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The conversation in this third-floor apartment tonight is about Hurricane Katrina, and it’s clear that 12-year-old Holly Sweeney wants no part of it.

Her mother, Schondra Sweeney, takes up the slack, explaining how the storm wiped out their hometown of Waveland, Miss. Her laptop computer shows pictures of neighbors’ flattened houses, a sand-covered main street, and a refrigerator lying, wide-open, in what remains of the Sweeneys’ sunroom.

Verging on tears, Holly clings to her mother’s arm and then escapes to the bedroom.

The next day at school, the girl is all talk.

“I have about 30 friends here, and I had maybe 13 friends back home,” says the lanky preteen. She discusses her classwork, how she misses her father and her bedroom back home, and why she prefers the radio stations here in suburban Washington. “It’s kind of cool being the new kid,” she says.

What accounts for the transformation?

Experts have long suggested that re-establishing routines, particularly school routines, can be therapeutic for children who have experienced upheaval in their home lives. This seems to be true for Holly, as the members of her family piece their lives back together.

“She seems to have acclimated herself quite well,” says guidance counselor Louis Villafane.

After nearly two months apart, Holly Sweeney and her father, Steven Kinney, spend time together in an apartment in Virginia she shares with her mother, Schondra Sweeney.
After nearly two months apart, Holly Sweeney and her father, Steven Kinney, spend time together in an apartment in Virginia she shares with her mother, Schondra Sweeney.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

Holly was one of two students to land here at Kenmore Middle School after Katrina uprooted their families.

A little “shellshocked” at first, as Villafane recalls, Holly visited the counselor’s office almost every day for the first week or two after her arrival. The visits lessened as a school psychologist began meeting regularly with Holly and her need for support declined.

A Forced Separation

The Sweeneys say they are more fortunate than most in Waveland, one of Mississippi’s hardest-hit Gulf Coast communities. They’re unhurt. Though neither of their two houses is habitable, at least one of them can be salvaged, and the family has decided to repair one and sell the other.

But the disaster has forced family members to live hundreds of miles apart. Holly’s father, Steven Kinney, stayed behind to repair the family’s houses and those of their neighbors. A contracting engineer, he lives in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Holly’s older sister, Daniella, remains in Columbus, Miss., attending the Mississippi School for Math and Science, a residential public school for academically talented students.

Holly and Schondra Sweeney came here to northern Virginia because they could stay with a grandmother while Holly finished the school year. The two have since moved into a one-bedroom apartment that a residential-management company is providing rent-free for one year.

After that, plans are unsettled. The family may return to Waveland or move to Washington state to build a house on property they own there.

If mother and daughter had not left, Holly would have had to sit out classes until Nov. 7, when the Bay St. Louis-Waveland school system reopened, the last one in the state to do so. Because the Arlington County schools opened Sept. 6 here—nearly a month after schools did back home—Holly could start classes without missing a beat.

With the exception of mathematics, Holly says, the academic adjustment has not been difficult for her.

A Jewel of a School

In other respects, though, Kenmore Middle School could not be more different.

Spanking new, the school is a gem of the 18,500-student Arlington County district. The $33 million building houses a black-box theater, a dance studio, classrooms with computer whiteboards, and a soaring atrium.

Schondra Sweeney holds a photo of the street in Waveland, Miss., where their storm-damaged home still stands.
Schondra Sweeney holds a photo of the street in Waveland, Miss., where their storm-damaged home still stands.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

Its 720 students—below Kenmore’s full capacity—outnumber Bay St. Louis-Waveland’s prestorm enrollment. Kenmore is also far more diverse, racially and ethnically, than the mostly white middle school that Holly left.

After school, when she’s not attending club meetings or activities, Holly returns to the apartment, locks the door, and waits for her mother to get home from her job at a photocopying company.

The Sweeneys are concerned about safety in their neighborhood here, a congested patch of highways, apartment buildings, and convenience stores. They worry in particular about the men who regularly congregate outside their building.

Schondra Sweeney has caught them on videotape scratching the paint on her car.

Back in Waveland, which had 5,600 residents before the hurricane, the Sweeneys led a more small-town life. They felt comfortable leaving the house unlocked and the car keys in the ignition. Holly was free to meet friends at the skating rink or the beach.

“A lot of this, I know, has bothered her,” Sweeney says of her daughter.

But Holly still has her cellphone, her lifeline. She calls new friends here, old friends back home, and the friends scattered across the country.

“The money I get for my allowance,” she says, “sometimes I send to my friends back home.”

Vol. 25, Issue 18, Pages 26-27

Published in Print: January 11, 2006, as Miles Apart
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