Four-year-old Damion often comments to his mom on his new, different clothes, decidedly too casual for his "businessman" look. He loves being immaculate in his appearance and wants his suit, which used to be his regular attire to school in Biloxi, Miss. Damion wonders what happened to his electric toothbrush, his penny loafers. And a simple "bye" has become the most frightening thing his mother, Kesha Ainsworth, could say to him.
The last time Ainsworth said goodbye to her children, Alexis, 9, Dewontay, 6, and Damion, was on the telephone, hours before Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, making further contact with her family impossible. Ainsworth had moved to Utah weeks earlier to attend the Utah College of Massage Therapy, find adequate housing for her family and start a new life with her children.
But for six days, Ainsworth, 29, helplessly tried to find the whereabouts of her children, wondering if they had survived the hurricane that killed hundreds. Little did she know, the three young Ainsworths had evacuated the damaged area with their dad. They were sleeping in parking lots, searching for food and water. And all the while they were calling for their mom.
After getting a long-awaited call from her cousin that the children were alive and well, Ainsworth flew to the Gulf Coast, using a donated ticket from a generous Utahn, and began the dangerous trek to retrieve her children.
"One of the hardest things was once I actually got there, I couldn't get to my children for two days," Ainsworth said from a Salt Lake City park Friday afternoon where she was watching her three children. With limits on the amount of gas people could buy and the hours-long lines to buy it, Ainsworth had to wait to make the roughly hour and a half drive to pick up her youngsters. "The majority of my family lost their homes due to flooding. It was very devastating to go back. I didn't even recognize I was there.
"It was just terrible. The water was still contaminated. We couldn't drink water, and when we took a bath, we had to put bleach in it."
But the reunion with her children brings nothing but smiles to her face; Alexis, Dewontay and Damion ran out of the house to greet her. Damion's enthusiastic welcome knocked her to the ground. Lying in the grass surrounded by her children, "That was the perfect moment."
A week ago, Ainsworth and her children flew to Salt Lake City, and they are now trying to start over. Someone is donating a car, and the children have clothes and shoes from Camp Williams. However, without a job or a place to live, Ainsworth is struggling to make ends meet.
Because she was not living in the disaster area when the hurricane hit, assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is out of the question, she said. She is staying with a friend, attending night school and searching for a part-time job.
Despite the facts, Ainsworth is "ready to take the challenge.
"This was something Mother Nature caused, and we can't fix it. It's gonna be hard, but I'll do it. I still have my goal to finish school," she said. While catching up has been time-consuming, her children still are top priority. "It's almost like they don't know they're in Utah. They've made lots of friends. I've missed them so much."
Dewontay carries his Pokemon game everywhere. It's the only thing he grabbed before the evacuation. At 4, Damion talks of starting a job. And Alexis can't wait to use a computer. (When she gets older and becomes a lawyer or Realtor, "I'll have a laptop.")
They will register for school today, but "they've had setbacks," Ainsworth said. They crave her attention and want help getting dressed and tying their shoes. "It's almost like they're returning back to babies."
Although she's safe in Utah, she's nervous for family members still in Mississippi. Her husband Demetrice, from whom she's been separated for two years, decided to stay in Mississippi and help rebuild. So did her father, mother and grandparents.
On Friday, a Utah County resident who read Ainsworth's story in the Deseret Morning News two weeks ago threw a benefit concert for the Ainsworths in Provo. For others who would like to help, a fund has been set up at Zion's Bank. Or call Rochelle at 604-3935 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.