A helping heart at hand

Eighty-eight-year-old Nettie Caston vaguely remembers what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit her beloved New Orleans or how she wound up in University Community Hospital away from her family. But she will remember the many faces and names of the well-wishers who witnessed her joyous reunion with her daughter.

Caston came to Tampa along with 50 other evacuees aboard a military plane on Sept. 3. She, along with two other evacuees, received a warm welcome at UCH.

“Everybody was so nice, and so kind and so gentle,” said Caston.Marques Smith, a senior double majoring in biomedical sciences and psychology, came to see Caston at the behest of his friend, Heather Dazey.

“As I was leaving, I called my roommate and said you need to come up and visit her,” Smith said. Smith’s roommate, Albert Gibbs II, went to the hospital and was deeply affected by what he saw.

“When I came to visit her Wednesday evening, I went home and was so moved by it that – I just typed up a letter,” said Gibbs.

In the letter he appealed to friends and colleagues for monetary donations. He also encouraged students to phone Caston.

“We’re all in college and nobody’s rich. I understand that, so if people just come and donate some of their time that would help lift her spirits,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs also said that USF has taken in about 50 students from the area battered by Hurricane Katrina. He recommends students welcome them to campus.

Before he started raising funds, Gibbs contacted Caston’s daughter, Jackie Russell, who had been evacuated to Beaumont, Texas and was currently staying with her brother.

“I called her daughter, and just said, ‘Look, I’m here in the Tampa Bay area, I just want to know what I can do,'” said Gibbs.

Russell did not have a way to come and get her mother, so Gibbs decided to collect money for a plane ticket.

On Thursday morning, Gibbs learned that a plane ticket had already been arranged. He asked if there was anything else he could do and was told both would need a way to get around for two weeks for medical appointments.

“So I shifted my focus (to) trying to get her a rental car and I raised funds to get her a rental car for two weeks and just helped them get back on their feet,” Gibbs said.

On Thursday evening, Gibbs made an appearance at an informational National Pan-Hellenic Council meeting. The National Pan-Hellenic Council is the Greek counsel that governs historically black fraternities and sororities.

While there, he addressed the students about Caston and Russell’s situation. Shortly thereafter, students and other attendants opened their wallets and wrote checks for her, he said. According to Gibbs, $300 was raised. By Friday, the total amount collected tallied $475.

The generosity paid off; according to hospital staff. Caston is in high spirits.

“I feel good. I feel brand new,” Caston said as she sat hugging her daughter.

Russell said that nearly all of her family was in Texas, and thanked James Nolan, a hospital administrator, for contacting her about her mother.

After being reunited with Caston, Russell’s next step will be to try to continue with her new life.

“We’re just getting settled and then trying to find a job and just go on with life until we can get to New Orleans to see if there’s anything salvageable. And if not, then we’ll just start all over,” said Russell.

Despite a future clouded with uncertainty, both mother and daughter remain hopeful.

“Just keep on keeping on,” Caston said to her daughter, to which Russell nodded.