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Feeling Lost in a Big School Far From Home

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Although he has tried to make the best of it every day, Gene Lay says the unfamiliar halls of Damascus High simply are too crowded for him to feel comfortable.

Three months ago, he figured that about now he would be cruising through his senior year at Ridgewood Preparatory School in Metairie, La., where the student body totaled 500.

"I miss how it wasn't so big," said Lay, 18. "It's small, and I knew most of the kids, and everybody was more like a family."

But Katrina wrecked the family home, wiping away the happy prospect of his senior year, and the Lays found shelter in the home of a church pastor in Montgomery County. Gene ended up at Damascus High, where 1,900 students make it a bustling and sometimes confusing place.

When word came a few weeks ago that Ridgewood had reopened, he told his parents that he wants to graduate from the school in the spring. That meant he would have to be back in Metairie to enroll by January.

Which is a problem for Melba and Keith Lay, both 39.

Melba Lay, with her daughter and two sons, has been staying with a Pentecostal pastor, the Rev. Ron Libby, who opened his home to two evacuee families, 10 people in all. Keith Lay, who works for a Louisiana air conditioning company, has been living in a trailer on company property. Money is tight.

Their daughter, Kassidy, 16, also was unhappy at Damascus High -- she "started crying every day that she didn't want to go to school," said Melba Lay. She withdrew Kassidy and enrolled her in an online education program. The girl wants to go back to Louisiana, back to Andrew Jackson High in St. Bernard Parish.

The parents, who also have a 3-year-old son, said they would do almost anything to accommodate the youngsters. But they haven't been able to figure out how to afford it.

In July, the Lays had bought a new four-bedroom house in St. Bernard for just over $300,000. With a $253,000 mortgage, Melba Lay said, the monthly payment is $1,700. Then came the hurricane. The couple had no flood insurance.

So while she and her husband continue making mortgage payments, Melba Lay said, they have been trying to come up with the $150,000 they need to make the house livable again. To make matters worse, the storm also robbed Melba Lay of her income as a work-at-home bookkeeper.

So as they gather for Thanksgiving dinner -- Gene Lay in Damascus with the Libbys, the rest of the Lay clan in Baton Rouge visiting a relative -- a dilemma looms:

Should the parents try to squeeze a monthly rent payment in Louisiana into their already strained budget so their children can return to their old schools? Or should they disappoint them by continuing to avail themselves of the Libbys' generosity in Maryland?

Gene and Kassidy Lay await an answer.

-- Paul Duggan

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