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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 6, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 5Oakland, CA

Katrina evacuee’s trauma yields compassion
for fellow survivors he’s now hired to help

When Katrina evacuees pour out their stories to Catholic Charities case manager Kenneth Bazile, they find more than a willing helper – they find a colleague, a fellow native of the Gulf Coast, a man who has struggled just as they have to build a new life in the Bay Area.

Bazile, like hundreds of others, came to Oakland traumatized by loss and drawn by family ties, and like many of the evacuees, he turned to Catholic Charities of the East Bay in his efforts to find a job and permanent housing.

He visited CCEB daily, sending out faxes and emails, contacting prospective employers. “I was looking for all kinds of work,” he said, “from executive level to I-need-to-eat kind of work.”

He landed dozens of interviews, but everyone turned him down. It wasn’t lack of experience that did him in; it was too much. Bazile had been director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club of New Orleans and earned a six figure salary. He also had a master’s degree in public administration from Ohio State University.

Employers insisted that he was overqualified and wouldn’t last at a job beneath his skills, but he was willing to do anything that paid. “All I wanted to do was eat, and I don’t want to beg,” he said. “I’ve had to humble myself a lot.”

By mid-January he had reached a point of desperation. “It was like I don’t know if I can hold my breath and tread water anymore,” he said, and then his own case worker at CCEB, Jamie Manalang, spoke up on his behalf.

The agency had received a grant to employ case managers for Katrina evacuees, and she put in a word for hiring Bazile. “The next thing I was being interviewed,” he said, and he got the job. “It was so ironic. I was coming here every day trying to find a job.”

Bazile started as a case manager in mid-February, with a deep sense of gratitude. “I feel so blessed to be able to do what I’m doing. It’s a wonderful blessing to be a blessing to others and get paid.”

His work has been “an eye opener,” he said. He was surprised to find how many evacuees are in the area and how many still need help. “There are 250 cases split between the three of us,” he said. Clients are looking for jobs, housing, food, clothing, furniture or simply for help with utility bills.

The agency faced a “wave” of clients when evacuees were put out of hotels last month and was expecting another wave when more would be forced to leave on March 1. But the good news, Bazile said, is that so many people are willing to help.

Back in New Orleans, he said, some residents have become mean-spirited during the recovery effort, objecting, for instance, when returnees put up trailers in their neighborhoods. But Bazile said he has found a generous response here. “I want to tell the folk of the Bay Area thank you, as someone who sees it from both sides,” he said.

He does not plan to return to New Orleans. He lost three houses, two vehicles and his job. His two children, a daughter aged 21 and a son, 6, are in Houston and will rejoin him in June. His mother, grandparents and great aunts were evacuated from a rooftop and now live near Knoxville, Tenn.

Another brother, Mark, followed Bazile to the East Bay, where their eldest brother, Leo, has served as vice mayor of Oakland.

His parish, St. Monica in New Orleans, remains closed as well as the parish school, another loss that has left him adrift. He was active at St. Monica, singing in the choir and directing the church’s Catholic Youth Organization, and now he is looking for a new parish community.

The destruction of New Orleans, the loss of his home and career, he said, are “horrible. But what could you do? It is what it is.” And even though his experience has been traumatic, he said, “I was blessed to come here to a city where I wasn’t a stranger, with family members.”

His work reminds him of how much he has. “Every time I start to have a little bout of self pity, I look up and see people worse off, and there’s always somebody willing to help in some kind of way.” Parish groups, local churches, and individuals step forward to sponsor families and make donations.

As a case worker, Bazile helps evacuees connect with the help they need. “To right the ship,” he said, “get them back on track.” He knows what it is like to need shelter, to depend on relatives and to be face disappointment week after week in a frustrating search for employment.

“Quite a few” clients are ready to return to the Gulf Coast, he said, and CCEB has already sent some back. But others remain and need the support Bazile and his fellow case workers provide.
Bazile visited his former home earlier this year and found “total disruption,” but he also caught sight of a sign on a New Orleans church that summed up his own experience – his losses, his gains and his joy in helping others.

He recites it precisely from memory: “I have everything I gave. I lost everything I kept.”

Kenneth Bazile

Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland

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