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Of all the transformations Hurricane Katrina left in its wake, the story of one child's journey may be the most striking.
We first met Arianna Evans as 9-year-old Charles in the days after the storm. Standing outside the New Orleans' Superdome, Evans became the face of the tragedy when an NBC News cameraman captured the child eloquently making a plea to the world.
“We just need some help out here,” the child said to the camera. “It is just so pitiful. Pitiful and shame.... We have over 3,000 people out here with no home, no shelter. What are they gonna do? What we gonna do? Take a look at all of this. Now what they gonna do if the hurricane come again?”
The picture and words captivated the country in the days after the levees broke, and Evans became something of a celebrity, getting on stage at the 2005 Emmys and making a guest appearance on the TODAY show.
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But her story had just begun.
In the years that followed, Evans endured more tragedy even as she came to an understanding of being “trapped in the wrong body." In May, she began taking hormones to become a woman. Now, 19, she has traveled a long road from tragedy to triumphant self-realization.
Evans was raised by her great-grandmother, Ophelia, in their Ninth Ward home after her mother, who battled drug addiction, gave birth at just 15 years old. After the storm obliterated their home, great-grandmother and great-grandchild relocated to Mesquite, Texas and lived with a relative. Eventually, they returned to New Orleans.
“The house was destroyed, but the foundation of the house was still here. So, my grandmother had a choice to rebuild,” Evans said. “We couldn’t move back in until two and a half years ago. A contractor ripped her off for like $104,000 …”
Evans became a certified nurses assistant in order to take care of her now-blind 87-year-old great-grandmother.
When her emotional cry for help was aired, Evans and her family started receiving calls and offers of donations. One woman seeking to help was Wanda Felton, a former investment banker, who has become a major part of Evan’s life.
“She’s always said that she felt the need to do something bigger than just writing a check. She wanted to actually come down and get to know me personally,” she said. “Wanda doesn’t have any kids of her own, as time and years have went by, she considered me to be one of her own.”
Evans and Felton have visited Martha’s Vineyard, Vermont, Miami and Mexico together, which Evans says has helped to broaden her horizons.
“I was pretty much surrounded by New Orleans,” she explained. “And it’s hard to actually think outside of the box when you’re pretty much –- boxed in.”
Felton’s influence was a game-changer, made even more important after Evans' mother and cousin were killed in drug-related murders in 2007.
“That experience was very detrimental to me, and it was just very dreadful," Evans said. "I lost a lot of my family, and we lost a lot but afterwards we gained so much more,” she said.
For her part, Felton says that her goal was to expose Evans to new places and other ways of life in an effort to help break the cycle of poverty.
“I just felt the need to roll up my sleeves and do something more tangible,” Felton said. “I hoped it would help provide the motivation to do well in school and to really live a bigger life.”
As for Evans’ transition to a woman, Felton believes that her sexual identity was lightly veiled even as a young child, recalling that Evans was always “precocious” and somewhat “effeminate.” Regardless, Felton remains Evans' biggest supporter
“I think it was always apparent… I was never uncomfortable with it — it was just who he was,” she said. “I am supportive of it.”
Evans says it was difficult to see what the light at the end of her tunnel was but she felt a burgeoning sense of her true identity. Her life today as a transgender woman is the culmination of that realization, which began as a young boy who always stood out from others.
In the years before the storm, family members would encourage Evans not to “be so soft” and stick to boy stuff. While other young boys were tossing footballs around, Evans preferred to be around women, studying their “mannerisms.”
"In life, there are events that can either make you or break you, and Hurricane Katrina definitely did not break me."
While Evans found inspiration in role models like Isis King from ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and local drag performers, she was forced to pretend to be something she was not by her family.
“I was taught to obey authority, and transitioning was always something I wanted to do.
“It was a gut feeling, a certain intuition,” Evans said. “I now know I was actually preparing myself for something. ... Transitioning was something I had thought of since 7th grade. I told myself then, I would be a transgendered person, someone who could pass as a female.”
Even as she learned to appreciate the larger world in her travels, Evans decided against leaving the city to transition in peace, advice she had been given from those within the transgendered community.
“I was born and raised here,” she says, “I feel a lot of people in the community have reached out to me, and pretty much supported me and continue to support me along this transition process. In the modern world, people have come around to care about the LGBT community.”
Though she’s just three months into her hormone replacement therapy, Evans is without question a lady. Precise in her words and mature beyond her 19 years, she acknowledges that some will not accept her current transition into womanhood.
“Everyone is not for me,” she said of the reaction she often receives. Some in her family have recommended she return to her life as a gay man. “It’s like a different genre of music. There are folks who are against it and attack our kind.”
Through frequent bouts of depression at not being able to be herself, she waited until she was of age to begin the transition.
“I’ve lived the day-to-day life as a transgender female for two months,” she said. “I’m not going to say this is an easy task or easy to deal with, because it’s not.”
Evans believes strongly, though, that in life’s most difficult and challenging times, the beauty of someone’s spirit can come into full bloom.
“In life, there are events that can either make you or break you, and Hurricane Katrina definitely did not break me. In so many ways it actually formed me into being the strong individual that I am today.”