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June 3rd, 2009 Megan Brescini | News Stories
 

Celeste Vs. Katrina

Catching up with a hurricane survivor who got blown back to Portland.

     
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CALVIN: “What the devil means for bad, God will turn around for your good.”
IMAGE: Megan Brescini

Celeste Calvin last spoke with WW in 2005 following her return to Portland after fleeing Hurricane Katrina (see “Treading Water,” WW, Sept. 14, 2005).

Calvin was a week into her senior year at Xavier University in New Orleans when Katrina forced her to leave all of her belongings and drive to safety in a 2005 Ford Focus with her 2-month-old nephew, sister and brother-in-law.

She slept for two nights in a $50-a-night motel in Lake Charles, La., so seedy she bought blankets at Wal-Mart rather than touch the ones on the bed. While watching CNN’s coverage of the hurricane, Calvin worried about her friends and family who said they were going to “ride it out.”

“I was one of the lucky ones that made it out before the looting and the flooding,” Calvin says. “I know people who waited for days with no electricity and no food, no water.”

She has since reconnected with all of her displaced friends and family. And last month, Calvin graduated from Concordia University with a degree in social science and a minor in theology.

“I didn’t think it would ever come,” says Calvin, 25.

A 2002 graduate of Benson High School, Calvin chose Xavier because of its diverse student population. She enjoyed her three years at the private Catholic school, but didn’t plan on returning to any school immediately after Katrina destroyed her senior year.

But Concordia officials saw a local TV news segment about her and other Katrina evacuees at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, and the Christian liberal arts school then offered her a full scholarship—one of 11 it gave to Katrina survivors. Two days later, Calvin moved into the dorm with nothing.

“The people were just amazing,” Calvin says. “Professors gave me books, colleagues brought me shoes and clothes.”

Jane Graves Smith, a psychology professor at Concordia, says that commitment to community is typical at the school.

“We’re all in this together,” says Smith, one of Calvin’s professors. “She is a student who was always committed to serving others. She is a great role model for the kids to have—a person who overcame adversity.”

Of the 11 students, Celeste is the only one who made it to graduation, a feat made harder by the need for her to take extra classes for the many college credits she lost in the transfer.

For the past 2 1/2 years, she’s also worked at the Boys and Girls Club of North Portland as a teen services supervisor helping teenagers with college prep and job readiness. She says the job teaches her as much about social work as college did.

“A lot of the teens trust her and feel close to her,” says Sarah Fast, program director for the Boys and Girls Club.

As for her future now that she’s got her degree? Calvin once thought she would certainly return to the South, where her father’s family is from. She does miss New Orleans’ sense of history and the culture: Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, the French Quarter. And, of course, the food.

But now she’s not so sure.

“From the day I came back to Portland, I decided I didn’t want to be in Portland,” Calvin says. “But as I got closer to graduation I realized that I’m where I want to be, I’m where I need to be…. As much as I miss the South and would love to go back, I realize that maybe that’s not what I’m supposed to do.

“The stumbling blocks that have been placed in front of me and all of the stuff that I have overcome just make me a stronger person,” Calvin says. “I love the place that I’m in. What the devil means for bad, God will turn around for your good.”


FACT: Calvin returned to New Orleans in October 2005 in hopes her apartment had been spared. It wasn’t. A layer of mold covered everything, mushrooms were growing out of her couch, and her clothes and shoes were scattered throughout the neighborhood. She returned to Portland defeated and didn’t get out of bed for a week. “And then something hit me,” she says, “and it was like, OK, you have to do something.”
 
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