After watching the horrifying aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on television, Forest Park resident Dennis Leise felt he had to do more than just look on. He had to help. So Leise arranged to take a week off from his job in product development at Morningstar, a company that rates and analyzes mutual funds and stocks, and called Catholic Charities and volunteered to go to the Gulf coast to help out.
He was told, however, that it was better to stay put and help out from here. So Leise and other Forest Parkers worked tirelessly last week to set up a shelter on the south side of Chicago for some of the hundreds of thousands forced to evacuate their homes by flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Leise was put in touch with Father Wayne Watts, who grew up in River Forest and works for Catholic Charities, and the two worked feverishly, along with many others, to transform a building that once housed a church and then was used as a residence for wayward youth into a warm, welcoming home that will be able to house as many as 60 people.
The building, which once housed Our Lady of Solace Catholic church, is located at 6212 S. Sangamon in Chicago.
Volunteers from all over the Chicago area moved furniture, cleaned, painted, furnished, and supplied the shelter.
The first family moved in last week, another arrived on Monday, and more are on the way, according to Father Watts.
“Everyone is so caring and loving, it’s awesome,” said Lula Ward who arrived with her two sons James, 19, and Lartazz, 12, and her friend Percy Dixon.
Ward left her New Orleans home with $90 in cash two days before the hurricane hit, hoping to return to her home after the storm had passed. But after spending a couple of nights in a motel in Brookhaven, Mississippi and a week in a church shelter in Hazelhurst, Mississippi without electricity and running water Ward realized she wouldn’t be heading home anytime soon because of the flooding that has caused almost all of New Orleans to be evacuated.
That’s when she decided to head to Chicago, where her brother lives.
Upon reaching Chicago, she said, “we were so glad to see some soap and water and towels,” said Ward. “We were nasty, dirty and sweaty.”
Now she is trying to put her life back together. She said she would like to remain in Chicago and does not want to return to live in New Orleans.
Forest Parkers were instrumental in getting the shelter ready. Run Chicago, the running goods store on Madison Street, donated a shipment of 60 pairs of running shoes to the shelter, said owner Brian Connelly.
Dan Watts, the older brother of Father Watts, is a co-owner of O’Sullivan’s which, along with Forest Park National Band & Trust, helped underwrite the cost of the Run Chicago’s donation.
Dan Watts is also the president of Pullman Bank, which is located on the south side of Chicago and contributed $8000 to purchase the mattresses and beds for the center.
“I thought the response from Forest Park and Chicago was kind of amazing,” said Dan Watts. “It coalesced in such a short period.”