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Hollie's Story: Healing the Wounds of Hurricane Katrina

Credit Angela Kellner
Hollie Looper happily pulls weeds in the shade of the Hinsdale Garden near Reedsport, Ore.

Nature has the power to destroy and to heal. Eight years ago Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, hitting New Orleans especially hard. One family made the difficult choice to flee their place of birth for a new life in Oregon.

The eldest daughter has had a difficult time adjusting and finding her way. This summer she and her younger sister enrolled in a five-week job training program in the woods with Northwest Youth Corps.

On a hot Saturday in July, anxious parents drop off their apprehensive teenagers at the Northwest Youth Corps headquarters in Eugene. Inside the gym the teens clutch their belongings, including new work boots still in the box. Crew leader Ben Thayer goes over the basics, making sure they aren't over packed.

"You'll be supplied with two work shirts, that'll be what you're wearing most of the time. The most important things are your boots, your socks, your pants and your work shirts. Does everyone have work gloves?" Ben asks.   

The group hustles outside in the blistering sun where the baby steps of team-building begin. They're shown a large white wall tent that's already set up and given the pieces of another to assemble.

"On three. One, two, three. Yeah. Boom," shout crew members.

They'll be sleeping in these tents for more than a month. It will be their responsibility to set them up and take them down when they move between job sites each week. Northwest Youth Corps sends crews to rugged locations across Oregon, Washington and Idaho every spring, summer and fall. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are the two largest agencies that hire the NYC crews. Students can earn credit. Everyone earns a stipend.

19-year-old Hollie Looper plans to use her stipend to pay for a trip back to New Orleans, where her family left eight years ago.

"We left before the hurricane hit because we lost two homes before that so we didn't want to be there for the hurricane," says Hollie.

But on the way to a safer life in Oregon, Hollie was nearly killed. "A 20-pound piece of metal came off a semi and went through my dad's windshield. I actually moved in time to put my arm in front of my face. The pressure broke my arm," she says.    

They have family in Oregon. Her mom attended Oregon State University. She worked at Hynix, a semi-conductor plant in Eugene and was laid off when it closed. Her dad is disabled.

Hollie graduated from high school and can't find a job. Her family is pinning a lot of hope on this job-training program for her and her younger sister. She says the last several years have been tough.

"We always are striving for that home. Like finding a place to call home. And so, we're doing this cuz we don't wanna (crying) we don't wannna rely on my parents cuz it's financially hard. Luckily with this program I was able to get a scholarship,” says Hollie.

Hollie wipes tears from her striking blue eyes, her face framed by blonde hair with a pink streak dyed down the middle. She's larger than all the other teens on her crew and she knows the field work will be physically demanding.

"I'm a big girl. And I'm not the most physically-fit person so that's what I'm hoping to achieve, like become more fit and be healthy for myself," she says.

Hollie's mom, Pattie Looper is a college graduate and has a good job. She wants the same for her daughters.  She doesn't want Katrina to win.

"My daughter Hollie was a all-star baseball player. And then we almost lost her when we came up here for Hurricane Katrina. So, you know, she gave up, a lot. Although she's a great kid, she gave up on her self-esteem, I feel. She would never tell you that," Pattie says.

Along Highway 38 east of Reedsport is Spruce Reach Island. It's home to the Howard Hinsdale Garden, sprinkled with rhododendrons from around the world. It's open to the public only one day a year, when the flowers are in full bloom. The BLM now owns it. BLM Botanist Jennie Sperling says it was terribly overgrown until the Northwest Youth Corps came in.

"Four years ago this garden was solid head-high with blackberries. You couldn't walk through it. And the first year we had the kids just cut it off and haul it out. And they came back with a vengeance so we said, whoops, we better start digging them out. And they've done a terrific job," Jennie says.

"So now that you see where the root is, this is gonna take pushing and digging and pushing until you get all the way to the bottom of the root," Ben says.

Kneeling down in the shade pulling weeds by hand is Hollie Looper, happy and smiling.
"I'm starting to like it here, more and more every day," says Hollie.

Hollie says it's been difficult to be away from her family, but they came out to visit and brought jambalaya for everyone. By the second week, Hollie wanted to quit and go home. That's what happened to her younger sister. Crew leader Ben Thayer says Hollie toughed it out.

 “We didn’t let her quit, we pushed her through those, we had some talks and she has made monumental strides. She's always keeping everyone super positive and she's now one of our better hikers whereas before she would get in her own head, and keeping herself back, but she's too smart to be the only person standing in her way," says Ben.

Hollie says she's made nine new life-long friends and gained appreciation for the outdoors.

"When I get back I'm totally gonna recommend this to a lot of my friends. You can go from being someone who doesn't do anything to someone who's just like got all their stuff together. I went from not doing anything to like wanting to do something," says Hollie.

She wants to move to Eugene with her boyfriend. She plans to enroll at Lane Community College and study to become an ultrasound technician. Hollie Looper and her crewmates graduate from Northwest Youth Corps on September 1st.