Fayette County

Katrina survivors in Lexington give back in a big way

People ask Torrie Johnson why she is going through the effort of buying and delivering 2,600 Valentine's Day treats in the next several days, one for each student and teacher at Tates Creek elementary and high schools.

It's a big project, especially since Johnson has already given each of the hundreds of students at the elementary school gifts of school supplies in August, goody bags in October and a wrapped present in December.

"We're just returning a favor," says the 36-year-old mother of five.

In August 2005, in the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, Torrie Johnson gathered up almost a dozen members of her family in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and evacuated to Lexington to her twin brother's home for what they thought would be a short time.

Within a few days, the extended family starting hearing descriptions of the homes they owned in New Orleans — "demolished," "washed away" and "barely standing."

There was nothing to go back to.

Here in Lexington, they had nothing but the clothes on their backs. There was Torrie, her husband, Vachroan Johnson, and children Brandi-Rose, Brody, Justin, Jakobi and Mekhi, ages 1 through 13 at the time. Torrie's mother, aunt, sister and two young nephews also evacuated to Lexington.

Torrie Johnson's brother, Terrence Thomas, who works at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, turned his one-bedroom apartment over to the evacuees and slept in his car.

The Johnsons were afraid that the work skills that had kept them employed in Louisiana wouldn't translate to jobs in Kentucky.

Johnson's husband was a welder who had worked on the Mississippi River. In New Orleans, Torrie Johnson tested soil at construction sites. With two toddlers in diapers and the older children and adults grieving for the life they knew in New Orleans, shock set in.

And then, Johnson says, something started to happen that sowed the seeds for Johnson's gift-giving project.

The Red Cross brought them clothes and food. Wal-Mart and Bed Bath & Beyond donated gift cards. Teachers at Southern Middle School brought school supplies and clothes.

Her children's teachers, including those at Tates Creek Elementary, she recalls, gave them movie tickets and passes to go roller skating. The smallest gifts, the family found, made the biggest difference.

"It truly got us through," said Johnson.

The local Housing Authority secured an apartment each for Johnson's immediate family and her mother. Her husband found a job at a factory. Her children began to love their schools and to love Lexington.

"We were steadfast," said Johnson.

Before long, the Johnsons and their relatives were stable enough to start donating to other people in need, adopting a few families to buy Christmas presents for.

And by the start of this academic year, Torrie Johnson said she was ready to expand her giving.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why are you doing this?' said Johnson. "I tell my children that more than your words, people see your actions."

Johnson said the whole family helps her buy and wrap the gifts for Tates Creek Elementary.

Lisa Wain, a teacher at Tates Creek Elementary, said the staff and students are moved not just by Torrie Johnson's generosity, but in the way that she and her relatives give.

"They are not looking for anything in return," Wain says. "It's just purely out of the goodness of their heart. They are just really modest, unassuming people."

In the middle of Johnson's Valentine's Day project last week, the ice storm hit. Johnson didn't flinch. She said it just allowed her to return another favor.

The power at her brother's home went out. This time, he came to stay with Johnson.

"We're survivors," she said.