Katrina refugees find 'angels' in Gainesville

Ramona DeSantis, from left, Chris Cassada, 14, Peggy Ward and Cara Cassada May pose for a photo in May's home. DeSantis and Ward help May, who is suffering from cancer, and her son with anything they need.

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:56 p.m.
After a year that dealt her a devastating storm and a life-threatening illness, Cara May still considers herself lucky.
That's because here in Gainesville, the transplanted Gulfport, Miss., resident has found the people she calls her "angels," people like Peggy Ward.
May was living in Gulfport, Miss., when, three weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the blood. She had just begun dialysis for her kidneys, which had been affected by the myeloma, when the storm forced her and her now 15-year-old son, Christopher Cassada, to evacuate to Gainesville and stay temporarily with her aunt and uncle.
They arrived here with nothing but an outfit apiece and a few personal items; the rest they lost to Katrina. Their first day in town, May took her son to enroll at Newberry High School, where they met Ward, a career counselor at the school.
"She changed our whole life in an instant, for the good," 51-year-old May says. "I could cry right now just thinking about her."
That afternoon, Ward came to visit May and brought her a bed, sewing machine and other items.
"I wanted to do something from the minute Katrina hit," says Ward, 60. "I saw there was this need . . . and one thing led to another."
Ward and school registrar Nell Bass, along with May's neighbor Rosa DeSantis, set to work getting May and her son the things they needed to fill the apartment in Newberry she'd found with the help of the Gainesville Housing Authority. Though she was weak from cancer treatments, May was, for the most part, self-sufficient.
But in February, she slipped and broke her hip, a result of her weakened muscles and bones due to medications for the myeloma. It was then that Ward and the others really stepped up.
For several months following the injury, Ward came to May's apartment every other day at 6 a.m. to take her to dialysis, then returned to make breakfast for Chris and take him to school. DeSantis sometimes drove her home from dialysis. Bass came over about two days a week to help clean and once a week to bring dinner.
"A lot of people pitched in and helped," Bass says. They did "just things that you want to do to help somebody."
May's sister Judy Cassada, who lives in California, says she doesn't know what they would have done without the help Ward and the others gave her sister. She says their help meant the difference between her sister having to enter a care facility and being able to maintain a somewhat normal life at home.
"Peggy has made it possible, bottom line," Cassada says.
May recently spent three weeks at Shands at the University of Florida while receiving a bone marrow transplant, which offers hope for her incurable but treatable cancer. During that time, Ward insisted that Chris stay with her and her husband and even took him to Fort Matanzas Beach on the east coast so he could compare it with the beach in Mississippi.
"I don't have to worry about my son," says May, whose doctors have given her a good prognosis. "I can't give him mommy love right now. The love that they gave Chris, I can't replace."
Ward says that May and Chris have become like family to her and asserts that she hasn't done anything that anyone else would not.
"I've fallen in love with the entire family," she says. "It's like a blessing to me to be able to help them."
Sarah Stewart can be reached at 338-3103 or Sarah.Stewart@gvillesun.com.

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