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When kindness of strangers is too much to bear

Seventeen-year-old Jamie Ferrande saved his family from Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters but couldn’t help them adjust to the well-intentioned efforts of a California family trying to do the right thing.
Susan Knight feeds her adopted child, Randol, while Kenneth Marcelin helps his sister, Mikell, 6, with her homework Sept. 20 at the Knights' remote 50-acre ranch in Pinon Hills, Calif. The Knights opened their home to the Marcelins, who were rescued from Katrina's floodwaters, but could not convince them to stay.Damian Dovarganes / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tears streamed down his face as Greyhound bus No. 1874 closed its doors and rolled off toward Dallas.

At 17, Jamie Ferrande dresses tough in slouching jeans, red sneakers and a baseball cap cocked to one side. But he jammed his hands into his pockets and refused to look up as his aunt and five cousins pressed their faces against the glass and waved goodbye.

Jamie saved his family from Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters but couldn’t help them adjust to the well-intentioned efforts of a California family trying to do the right thing. It was through the kindness of these and other strangers that Jamie, his aunt and her five children traveled 2,000 miles from a New Orleans rooftop to a 50-acre ranch near a ski resort in Southern California.

But what may seem like a Shangri-La became too much to bear for a displaced family who had lost everything.

Jamie’s younger cousins were coping — as children do. But his aunt, Troy Marcelin, quickly shifted from wary to downright miserable in California. She had grown up and raised her children in New Orleans, a city pulsing with activity, crowded with neighbors, packed with all things reassuringly familiar. There, she knew how to make her way. She spoke her mind.

In California, she was beholden to a family she’d only just met, relying on their kindness, their generosity. She felt her true self slipping away.

A series of fortunate events
An almost inconceivable series of events had brought them to safety here.

Jamie and his cousin Kenneth had ripped the door off an abandoned refrigerator and used it as a life raft, ferrying the younger children to the safety of the Best Western motel where Marcelin worked. A helicopter finally rescued them, and they landed at a shelter in San Antonio, Texas.

The odyssey continued when Mark Miller, a Californian who once ran a bed-and-breakfast in New Orleans and hired Jamie for odd jobs, got a desperate call from the teenager; Miller went to the Web for help and found an offer that Gene and Susan Knight, a wealthy couple, had posted on

They offered refuge to a family fleeing the storm. They had space in the house they had just sold in Arcadia, an affluent suburb of Los Angeles, and they would take the guests with them when they moved to their ranch in Pinon Hills, near San Bernardino. Other strangers, linked by the Internet, pitched in to get the family onto a plane for the West Coast.

The Knights were building an addition to their house, providing a total of seven bedrooms and five bathrooms. It would be plenty of space to blend their two families, thought Susan, who planned to pay Jamie’s aunt to help take care of the kids and house.

Food, shelter — and stress
The Marcelins — who had never left Louisiana before — were coping with the shock of losing everything they owned. Thanks to the Knights, they were sheltered, fed and safe at last. But stresses soon began to show.

Nothing worked out quite as planned.

At 44, Troy Marcelin is thin and attractive with delicate features and wide-set eyes. But time and stress have taken their toll. She’s missing several teeth, and her face is lined and weary. Wearing cast-offs from shelters and generous strangers, she cried often during their first days in California but was beginning to relax.

Then the moving van arrived at the house in the Los Angeles suburbs. Another journey to make, and this one was overwhelming for her.

The new house, in a canyon near a tiny rural mountain town, sat in a harshly beautiful landscape of sagebrush, Joshua trees and scrub covering dry, rocky soil — opposite in every way from New Orleans.

It was miles to the nearest neighbor (Gene said he owns all the land visible from the house), and the silence scared Troy, as did snakes and coyotes, even the family dogs. She has never had a driver’s license. Her worldly possessions included $488 in food stamps, $1,500 from the Red Cross and $1,000 from a Knight family friend.

She felt completely dependent on the Knights.

The decision to leave
“It’s beautiful here. My children love it. But I never pictured mountains for my living,” she said last week, her eyes filling up with tears. “And I’m just used to doing for myself. I don’t want a handout.”

In New Orleans, the single mother earned $160 a week as a hotel housekeeper. Her 21-year-old son worked as a hairdresser and contributed to the family’s income. They got by, but barely.

Here, it seemed she was left most days to care for the adopted infants, but said she was not yet being paid. She said she felt stranded.

The Knights are wealthy by anyone’s standards. Gene, who works as a software engineer and inherited the ranch from his father, estimated their worth at $2 million.

Material items not enough
The couple showered their new family members with gifts, including a new suit, shirt, tie and shoes so Jamie, who had been expelled in New Orleans, could go to the homecoming dance at his new school. Also: a fully furnished two-bedroom mobile home for him and Kenneth to live in, iPods for them and clothes and toys for the younger kids.

Still, the stress in the ranch house became palpable. And it was about more than the money.

“Susan is the best mom. ... She has a marvelous sense for the way things should be,” said Gene Knight, who decided to marry Susan a week after he met her.

Susan is 51, short and stocky, a fireplug of energy. She knew at 8 years old that she wanted six children, and divorced three husbands who didn’t share her desire for a big family. She’s kind-hearted but quick-tempered and demanding. Crossing her seems unwise.

It’s clear she meant well, hoping to give the Marcelin kids a chance at a good education, a different way of life.

Culture clash
But Troy, for one, liked the life she had before Katrina. And perhaps without realizing it, Susan trampled on her authority.

Troy worried that her youngest, an angel-faced girl nicknamed “Butterfly” who wears pink ribbons in her hair, was picking up bad habits.

“When she doesn’t get what she wants, she goes to Auntie Sue,” Troy complained two weeks after the families came together.

She was troubled by how the Knights disciplined their two teenage girls, especially 14-year-old Katie, whose highlighted hair, makeup and tight jeans make her appear older than a high school freshman. As Katie challenged her mother, talking back and throwing tantrums, Troy winced and rolled her eyes.

Other contrasts between the families became apparent.

At one point, as the Marcelin boys slurped down Top Ramen, a cheap noodle concoction Troy bought with her food stamps, Katie whined at the kitchen counter wanting to rent a $1,500 stretch SUV for homecoming.

Another time, Susan Knight admonished the boys to wash their hands after eating fried chicken as her girls trotted off, hands unwashed. The Marcelins sat at the table, the Knights at the counter. The Marcelins cleared and rinsed the dishes as Katie chatted on the phone.

No place to go
Her resentment growing, Troy took refuge in the shower, where her children were less likely to hear her weep. She was afraid to speak her mind, she said, for fear of getting kicked out.

“It’s like walking on glass,” she said.

Kenneth said he didn’t recognize his mom.

“The first few days we really felt like family. Now reality has set in. ... One day it just changed,” he said. He began to cry and shooed his 10-year-old brother, Tevin, out of his room in the mobile home.

Kenneth revealed that his mom wanted to go back east, to Texas, where her brother and sister, nieces and nephews all landed after the storm.

Jamie remained silent. Once a talkative boy with a toothy grin that takes up half his face, he also was crying more easily now.

Had he made a mistake leading his family here?

He couldn’t answer, simply shaking his head, tears falling. He had been having trouble sleeping, and his transition back to high school hadn’t been easy. His teachers feared he was years behind.

“It’s weird because I’ve been on my own so long,” he said. “I don’t know how to relax.”

‘I want you to understand’
Just three days after moving to the ranch, Troy made her decision.

She announced to the Knights that she and her children were leaving. Jamie would stay behind and continue school.

“I can’t make you understand,” she told Gene, wiping her eyes. “I want you to understand.”

She was grateful for all they’d done, but needed to be in Dallas with her family. Her younger sister, Shwanda, had found an apartment there and could help Troy do the same. “I’m just looking forward to holding her, crying and yakking.”

The Knights were stunned.

Gene’s smile was stuck. He and Susan tried to change her mind — they reminded her of the better schools and financial support. Things would improve once they’ve all settled in, they said.

“This is chaos. This is a mess. But I can fix this,” Susan Knight said.

It was no use. Troy repeated her gratitude but also her determination that she and her family needed their own place.

The house was a stew of emotions: anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion.

In the morning, the Knight girls headed off to school. The Marcelin kids and Jamie stayed behind.

Leaving with more than they came with
When they’d arrived from New Orleans, they’d had the clothes on their backs and a few garbage bags filled with donations. Now, they easily filled eight suitcases and backpacks Susan bought for them.

Susan said she realized California was “completely foreign” to Troy, and that she’s “going back to the only thing” she knows, the only thing she has.

“I can’t fault her for that,” Susan said.

Gene spent another $750 for the bus tickets. He looked bewildered.

“She’ll be back. She and her kids want to be here,” he said optimistically.

The group was running late. Troy waited in the Knights’ minivan while Susan hugged and kissed each child, just as she did when they first arrived at the airport two weeks earlier.

Gene drove them to the station for the 1:15 p.m. bus. He helped with the luggage and bought vending-machine snacks for the kids.

Troy wore blue pants and a white shirt, just like her boys. “I hope those shirts stay clean for a few hours,” she said.

Coming full circle
Jamie said little. He stood by himself until the bus pulled away.

Five days passed before Mark Miller got phone calls from both Susan and Jamie. It wasn’t working out, they said.

They asked him to intervene again, to find someplace else for Jamie.

Driving up to Pinon Hills, he picked up the teen whose frantic call began this complicated chapter, which was now running full circle. He bought a ticket to Dallas for Jamie to rejoin Troy’s family, staying at a motel with money running low.

“I never dreamed,” Miller said, “it would come to this.”