CHICAGO - The first time Mary McCray's granddaughters saw snow, it was Christmas in New Orleans last year. Only a few of the flakes stuck but, to them, it was a miracle.
The four girls, ages 8 to 12, remember the chicken, stuffed peppers and baked macaroni their grandmother made for a special dinner and the presents Santa brought. And now, despite all they've been through - wading through neck-high flood water to escape Hurricane Katrina, sleeping on the ground outside the Superdome and a long bus ride to Houston and then Chicago - they're just as excited this year.
"We're going to have another white Christmas!" Rabriel McCray, the eldest of the girls, shouts gleefully as she watches an all-out blizzard from a window of their new, subsidized apartment on Chicago's South Side. Giddy and giggling, 9-year-old Keoka McCray and 8-year-old Wilshondra make pretend snow angels on the carpeted living room floor.
Their grandmother, who they call "Mo-mo," is more subdued and looks worried.
"You know what I told you," she says, looking at a boxed-up Easy Bake oven she purchased to replace one they left behind and a TV that has a few basic video games. "This is all I can buy you."
Even so, the girls stay upbeat, a testament to the resilience of some of the youngest Katrina survivors, whose families often are struggling financially. Parents and aid workers note that many storm-displaced children are helping in their own way, making modest requests when asked what they'd like Santa to bring them this year.
"When I look at their lists, I find it quite amazing. Usually kids ask for PlayStations or DVDs - these kids are asking for necessities," says Cherrell Jackson, who is coordinating a holiday gift program for about 200 Katrina families for the Heartland Alliance, a Chicago-based service organization.
So far, she's received gift donations for about half of the families - most of them filling kids' requests for clothing and winter weather gear, school supplies and books.
In Foley, Ala., children living in motels, shelters and trailers provided by the federal government also have been filling out letters to Santa, provided by retirees Bruce and Patti Walstad.
"One boy asked for a necklace for his mother and a football - that was it," Bruce Walstad says. "A 9-year-old boy asked for clothes for his 3-year-old sister - and he knew the sizes. Another just wanted 'someone to help my mom take care of us.'
"It can break your heart."
The Walstads began buying toys and necessities for Katrina victims by asking friends and their former police colleagues in the Chicago area to donate $5 each. They ended up receiving thousands of dollars, enabling them to purchase everything from car seats, strollers and bunk beds to diapers, shoes, clothing and toys for Christmas.
For this Sunday, they organized a Christmas party at a VFW hall for kids from families displaced by Katrina, providing a bright spot for those who've been scrambling to find permanent housing.
Though they're planning to move soon from the Super 8 motel in Foley to a house outside Montgomery, Ala., about 150 miles away, Penny Boutwell stayed on a bit longer so her 6-year-old daughter Jessica could attend the party. Jessica, who faces bowel surgery in early January, has made only one request of Santa so far - for new books and cartridges for her LeapPad reading system.
"She's not asking for much this year," Boutwell says, "probably because she knows we don't have much."
In Mesquite, 8-year-old Robdell Bridges and his 3-year-old sister, Jewel, recently begged their mother to stop their car outside a store so they could drop all her change in a Salvation Army collection bucket.
"They're so busy worrying about other kids not having anything," says mom Germaine Bridges. She considers herself one of the lucky Katrina survivors because she and her husband, Dennis, have been able to buy their children Christmas toys and a tree this year. Both she and her husband also are in the process of being approved for jobs, hers at a bank and his with the Dallas transit system.
Back in Chicago, the Heartland Alliance is working with donors to get gifts for Mary McCray and her granddaughters. Each of the girls has put clothing at the top of her list for Santa, along with scarves, hats and gloves.
Mari, their 10-year-old sister, also asks to put in a request for their grandmother: "A big fluffy coat - the biggest you got! And a truck to ride around in."
They also wish they had gifts for their grandmother on this particular December day, her 45th birthday. But they're happy just to celebrate.
Mary McCray tells them to go ahead and cut the cake without her. So they do, singing "Happy Birthday" to her from the kitchen. Wilshondra runs back into the living room and gives a kiss to her grandmother, who can't help but crack a smile.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!