Katrina survivors find new home through LeeWay

Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005: As Hurricane Katrina barreled toward the Louisiana coast, Harold Neal loaded his family of seven into their Chevy Malibu. Twenty-one hours later, they arrived in Baytown. They spent their first few days huddled in a hotel room watching Katrina trek through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee; life as they knew it was drowning in the surge.

Neal Family“Everything was gone,” Mr. Neal said. “Friends and family members who stayed behind had to wade in neck-deep water. Several lost limbs because of parasites and infection, and those that made it through physically were never the same emotionally. We couldn’t go back to that.”

The family settled into life in Baytown and did what they could to make ends meet. But a chance encounter at San Jacinto Mall soon changed their luck.

“I met [Project LeeWay Director] Clare Fleming at a job fair for Hurricane Katrina survivors at the mall,” said Mr. Neal’s wife, Donna Troulliet. “She was standing behind a table and had the nicest smile. So I went up to talk to her. That’s when she told me about Project LeeWay.”

Funded by a basic Carl Perkins grant, Project LeeWay assists low-income students seeking non-traditional careers, single parents, displaced homemakers and single pregnant women gain access to vocational and technical education at Lee College. A special Quickstart component provides students with six weeks of intensive training in math, reading, writing and computer skills. Additional program components including career exploration and job search assistance, and support services such as childcare, textbook and transportation assistance, financial aid resource identification and tutoring are also provided.

Upon successfully completing the program, students are eligible to enroll at Lee College, a prospect which appealed to Troulliet.

“I had always wanted to go to college,” Ms. Troulliet explained, “but I didn’t want to go alone, so I went home and told my family about the program.”

“When Donna told me about the program, my first thought was, ‘I don’t need school,’” said her mother-in-law, Jessica Neal. “I had been an administrative assistant at a college for 15 years and was close to retirement when we evacuated. But the more I thought about it, I realized I had nothing to lose, so I agreed to go with her.”

Together, the ladies persuaded Mr. Neal to join them. Six weeks later, the family successfully completed the program and enrolled as freshmen at Lee College. In 2007, Ms. Neal and Ms. Trouillet earned certificates in Computer Maintenance Technology, and later secured employment at Lee College. Mr. Neal earned a certificate in Instrumentation that same year and is currently pursuing an associate degree in Computer Aided Drafting and Design.

Ms. Neal credits the family’s success to the “positive atmosphere” they felt at the college and in the community. “We have received an incredible amount of support from Clare, our classmates and Second Baptist Baytown,” she explained. “The college, the community, it’s comfortable. It’s home. People here make it easy for you to become successful.”

On Thursday, Nov. 1, the family will have the opportunity to celebrate their success at a banquet honoring the program’s 20th anniversary.

“Because multi-decade grant-funded programs are so rare, we wanted to do something special to commemorate this milestone,” said Project LeeWay Director Clare Fleming. “The banquet will feature live music, gourmet food, a video presentation commemorating the program’s anniversary, as well as student testimonials and a special ceremony recognizing former students.

“This event is about much more than the program,” Fleming continued. “It is a celebration of the students — the survivors who have changed their lives for the better. They are the heart of Project LeeWay.”

Twenty Years of Heart, the Project LeeWay 20th Anniversary Banquet, will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, in the Lee College Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20 per person or $160 per table. Proceeds benefit Project LeeWay students.

For more information, contact Clare Fleming at 281.425.6559.