Miss Suzie and Mr Josh
Something amazing is happening in my mom's little town of Pearlington, Mississippi, something inspiring and hopeful, something full of love and renewal. A grass roots movement is growing from the mud and despair of Katrina, and it's making my heart grow by three sizes just to know it exists. I want to nurture it, protect it, share it with you. Its spirit was embodied in one amazing day this week, a day that represents to me all that is right with the world, all that is good and caring in the human spirit.
Like so many stories I've shared with you here, it's one of survival, of perseverance, love, inspiration, and the will to carry on. But basically, it's a love story. A wedding day, Katrina-style...
"Everyone knows I'm always late for everything," confesses Suzie Burton. "All my friends and family laugh that I'll be late for my own funeral. But if the good Lord is willing, I'll be on time for my wedding."This is a story the major media hasn't picked up on yet, but it's one you need to know about. If you've been feeling helpless in the face of all the destruction, as I must confess I have, this shows you one way you can help save lives, one way you can help rebuild lives. This movement is happening right now, in your own backyard, and it's people like you that are behind it. They need your help.
Willing or not, Suzie was late for her nuptials to Josh Ward on December 21. In the aftermath of Katrina, an hour or so delay barely fazed the more than 60 friends and family who gathered in Pearlington for the wedding. The delay was maybe divine intervention. As the bride dressed for her big day, dozens of volunteers from Walton County put finishing touches on the couple's new house.
"The Panhandle didn't experience devastation of Mississippi Gulf Coast during Katrina," says Buster Woodruff, a leading force behind the volunteer effort. "We were lucky and we wanted to help others who were less fortunate."
Within days after Katrina, Buster had packed his truck with supplies and headed west to New Orleans. Officials stopped him at the Louisiana border, where he accidentally happened upon Pearlington and found a community in dire need of help.
Often the best way to solve an insurmountable problem is to start with an attainable goal. With that philosophy, a grassroots coalition of volunteers from Walton County, Florida, started the "One House at a Time" project. Working with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, the group adopted the town of Pearlington and recently completed the first of many temporary houses. The coalition's goal is to raise money and build 200 houses in Hancock County.
A Wedding and A New Home for a Deserving Couple
Like many South Mississippi residents, Suzie and Josh had no idea what was ahead when the heard a hurricane called Katrina was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Both are in their 70s and they did not evacuate, thinking they were out of harm's way. Suzie was born and reared in South Mississippi, and her wood-framed house had witnessed many storms. She had raised a family on that land. It was, and still is, home.
As the couple settled in for the night it was raining and windy, but they were not seriously alarmed. By 6:30 in the morning, however, a few inches of water was visible on the floor. Within 30 minutes, the water was rising fast.
There was no where to go. There was no one to turn to for help. Together they wrapped their arms around a porch column as the storm's 12-foot tidal surge lifted the house off its foundation.
"Mr. Josh had told me many times that he loved me, but I was never sure how much I really loved him until that night," recalls Suzie. "When the water got over our heads and we hung onto the porch post for dear life, I prayed 'Please God, if you must take one of us, take me. Don't let it be my Mr. Josh'‚ I didn't want him to drown in that deep dark water."
The house floated more than 12 feet before it lodged in place. Everything was lost, including their beloved pot belly pig, Sweet Pea. As the house rested in a most precarious position with no steps to get to down to solid ground, Suzie and Josh waited for help in the ramshackle house on a wet sofa with no emergency supplies. It was nearly three days before family members found them.
Each had suffered injuries. Suzie was taken to Louisiana. A military transport carried Josh to a shelter in Northern Mississippi, where he slept in an aluminum lawn chair for two weeks. Amid the confusion, they had no way to communicate with each other. There was no news if the other one was even alive. They had lost their home, their belongings, Sweet Pea, and now they had lost each other.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Suzie and Josh made it back to Pearlington where they reconnected and decided to get married. Soon after their reunion,they met Buster at the local relief center. "I offered to carry a load of laundry to her truck, and then Miss Suzie offered to tell me their story," recalled Buster. "I knew we had to do something for them."
A new house was soon under construction on her property. Next, Buster focused his attention on planning the wedding and finding the perfect dress for Suzie. After visits to four bridal shops in Mobile, Buster found a traditional gown of satin, silk, lace, pearls and a 10-foot train.
With Buster on one arm and her cousin Joel Wallace on the other, Miss Suzie glowed as she walked through the yard greeting guest and singing praises. Ronnie McBrayer, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Walton County and an ordained minister, performed the ceremony as shouts of Halleluiahs, amen and praise the Lord filled the air.
The blushing bride
After the wedding cake had been cut and toasts were raised to the happy couple, Suzie thought all her dreams had come true. Then Buster presented them with a baby pot belly pig named Angel. Suzie let out a little cry and broke into song, "I am blessed with everything I could ever need. God has even blessed me with a new Sweat Pea."
Volunteers and guests said their goodbyes, and Suzie and Josh retired inside their new home for their honeymoon. They are starting a marriage in house that rests on the foundation of the original structure that floated away during the storm. The post they clung to is now the center column of their new front porch. Weathered and worn, the column promises to be a solid support for their new life together and a symbol of faith, hope and rebirth for the New Year." -Lynn Nesmith
If you'd like to join this movement, one house at a time, if you'd like to offer your support in any way, please contact Habitat For Humanity of Walton County at 850-835-0067, or visit www.waltoncountyhabitat.org
The volunteers. Your New Year's Resolution should be to join them.
Note: These pictures weren't shot by me, they were forwarded to me by the volunteers that helped to make this day happen.