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Charity Begins Far From Home

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Fourteenth in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area.

It wasn't long after hearing that Todd Larche had been released from the hospital that Oscar Mims, the doctor who delivered Michele and Todd's son two weeks ago, was dropping off two months' worth of stomach medicine. Just one more gift, one more person, trying to lighten their load in what way he could.

Michele can scarcely believe the things people have done for her family since Katrina. "It's just amazing," she says. She has been moved to tears, even though she hasn't gotten to her thank-you cards yet. You know, things have just been kind of hard.

In six short weeks, their home was wiped out, their dogs were wiped out, and their 5-year-old landed in an emergency room, seizing and throwing up. Michele's mother, struggling with Alzheimer's, cries over floodwaters and thoughts of home. Michele gave birth to her second child in a strange city. Then Todd got sick. Twice he has been hospitalized; doctors ran kidney and gallbladder tests before he was released again Tuesday. And while their new baby has been a joy, he keeps Michele up at night. And, Lord, every step is so much heavier when you're tired.

It's why the gifts of friendship and support have been a powerful easement, even if she hasn't had a chance to say a proper thanks.

At her sister's kitchen table in Silver Spring, holding a sleeping Todd Jr., Michele goes through her list. Strangers have donated more than $2,500, including a personal check for $1,000. At Walker Jones Elementary in Washington, where her sister Cassandra Wallace teaches, a class of sixth-graders, many from the Sursum Corda housing project, took up a collection and donated $70.59, a Ziploc bag full of change and small bills. Money and offers of housing have poured in from co-workers of Michele's brother-in-law, Ronald, although the Larches can't move because they need the extra hands with the kids and Mere Mere, Michele's mother.

Friends of the Wallaces have brought ham and made cakes. Strangers have given clothes and a backpack full of school supplies for Kristen. A group called "Girlfriends" gave a bassinet and bouncer. Turner Elementary School in Southeast Washington donated 642 diapers, with the promise of more to come.

Cheryl Wade, who lives in Prince George's County, met a woman who had a friend who worked with Cassandra. She sent out an e-mail blast asking for toiletries, "things people don't think about," she says. She got soap, deodorant, toothbrushes, mouthwash, six 24-packs of water, 45 rolls of toilet paper, 12 pairs of men's socks and undershirts, two eight-packs of paper towels and 432 baby wipes in a box. "My sons and husband loaded the truck," Wade says. "We just gave until we couldn't put no more in there."

Pat Greenhill of Clinton, a retired Veterans Administration worker, cried when she saw a newspaper picture of Michele crying. Earlier, she had tried to donate to another evacuee family, but they were just accepting money. So Greenhill bagged her gently used items for the Larches: bed linens and towels, blankets and baby clothes. She dry-cleaned some things. The rest she washed in Ivory Snow or Tide or Woolite. She folded everything neatly and separated them into 13 labeled bags for her husband to drop off at Catholic Charities, with a card for the Larches. "I told them I loved them even though I never met them."

Michele breathed in that love as she unpacked the bags of clean linens and clothes.

It's just a small piece of care, says Greenhill. A way to feel connected in a world of things we can't control.

J. Carter Daniels of Kensington, a project manager, has worked with Ronald Wallace at HUD for 15 years. He's reluctant to talk about his gift. Daniels read the novel "Magnificent Obsession" when he was in high school and says it taught him that when you give, the reward is internal. Seeking credit dims the light of what you do.

At the kitchen table, Michele marvels at the generosity of people she has never met, generosity that fills her eyes with water and half-fills her sister's garage. In her hardest time, it has made her feel less alone and given her more comfort than she can ever put on a thank-you card.

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