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Living here has made the difference

 

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Dianne Pavolini and her four grandchildren lost everything they owned when Hurricane Katrina demolished their double-wide mobile home in Gulfport, Mississippi.

   

Dianne Pavolini and her four grandchildren lost everything they owned when Hurricane Katrina demolished their double-wide mobile home in Gulfport, Mississippi. They moved to Picayune, Mississippi, and have started a new life in their own home, built in partnership with Pearl River County Habitat for Humanity.

After suffering health problems and emotional stress while living in temporary housing, all four children are doing well: Aaron, 19, recently graduated from high school; Aidan, 17, is completing National Guard youth camp; little sisters Athina, 9, and Alivia, 4, play happily with other children on the street where eight other Habitat partner families live.

And a sweet-natured Chihuahua named Sookie keeps them all entertained.

The happy banter in this house belies the ordeal the family has endured to get here. Before moving in, in the summer of 2009, Pavolini and her three grandchildren (Alivia came later) had survived a real-life nightmare during Hurricane Katrina and then nine months in a FEMA trailer designed for one occupant that eventually was condemned, and later a rent-subsidized house in Nicholson for about a year and a half.

“When Katrina was coming, we didn’t evacuate,” said Pavolini. “We didn’t know where to go. A friend took us to a golf course where he worked, thinking that was safe. But then the golf course flooded, and water was up to our chest.

“We barely got out,” she added. “We had to hold Athina (then 4) over our heads to get through the water. I had just passed her off to her mother when the water knocked me down.”

The family took refuge on the highest green until the water receded.

“It was like being on an island,” said grandson Aaron, matter-of-factly.

“We were waiting for the water to come up and sweep us away,” Pavolini recalled. “I kept thinking, ‘Are we going to die?’”

A native of Bay St. Louis, Pavolini lived a block off the beach when Hurricane Camille came through in 1969. Until Katrina, that was the storm that everybody talked about.

Pavolini was a waitress for years until she got emphysema in her left lung and was forced to take disability. Since her grown children have been suffering from health and emotional issues, she has become the primary caregiver for her four grandchildren.

“I don’t know where we would be living now if we didn’t have this house,” Pavolini said. “God is so good. We love our home.”

Both of Pavolini’s grandsons put in sweat-equity hours toward the family’s home. Aaron, who takes his role as big brother very seriously, has his sights on Pearl River Community College, where he wants to earn a degree in computer programming before going to ITT Tech in St. Rose, Louisiana.

“At the beginning of the year I was struggling, making OK grades,” Aaron said. “But now my grades are good.

“Living here has made the difference—not having to move around and deal with different school systems,” he added. “When I moved schools, they weren’t learning the same stuff we were learning. It caused me a lot of trouble. I never learned how to write in cursive because I switched schools so often in middle school.”

Youngest grandson Aidan also struggled in school until some of the staff at Pearl River County Habitat for Humanity helped get him into the National Guard youth camp.

“He wasn’t even doing eighth-grade work at the alternative school,” his proud grandmother said. “The teachers kept telling me he had it in him to do better. Now he has his GED, and he’s doing so much better.”

When the family lived in a FEMA trailer, Pavolini’s emphysema flared dramatically, and all three of the kids suffered from chronic colds and sore throats. Now everybody’s healthy.