(WOMENSENEWS)–Michelle Castillo and her family used to celebrate the holidays

as a quiet time for all to gather round a full table.

Every year the meal is the same–gumbo, collard greens, baked ham and cabbage. Castillo’s father makes homemade eggnog. Castillo makes the family favorite, Reese’s Pieces Cake.

This year, for the first time in the new millennium, her entire family is traveling in to Orlando, Fla., from around the country to sit at the same table, enjoy one another’s company and reflect on the turbulent year gone by.

“Somehow we all got spread out over the years and the last time we all managed to get to one place was the year before our mother died,” Castillo explains. That was 1999.

“Now we’re going to have a jam-packed house and it is going to be wonderful.”

Three months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything her family owned but a small bag of personal items and the clothes on their backs, Castillo is still battling ferociously to lay the groundwork for a new life for herself, her two children and her ailing father.

“There is still a long way to go, but all in all, we’re doing OK,” says Castillo, who readily admits to constant exhaustion and feelings of loneliness. “I thank God for what we have, we feel blessed. Are there problems? Yes, this is a difficult adjustment, but I want to maintain an upbeat attitude and just keep working my way through all this.”

After months of focusing on her application for relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and settling her family first in a relative’s home and then permanently into a rented Orlando house, she finally feels she has the time to begin looking for work. Over the last month, she has been using public library computers to search for openings and send out resumes.

Few Leads for Decent Work

The 41-year-old was working as a dispatcher for an alarm monitoring service in New Orleans and is looking for something in administration or inventory control. So far, however, she hasn’t found many strong leads.

“Truth is that sometimes you have to take a job that doesn’t pay what you want and that’s OK, but there doesn’t seem to be much available at the moment at all,” Castillo says.

Working a minimum wage job such as a cashier or motel maid–the only kind of work that seems available now–wouldn’t provide her enough resources to care for her family and would lead to cuts in the little aid she’s receiving.

Currently, there are precious few financial resources coming into the household aside from the $1,200 her father, Allen Wallace, receives in retirement benefits. Florida is providing the family of four with $184 a month in food stamps and earlier this month Castillo’s unemployment benefits began to kick in $98 a week. Child support of $200 a month from Castillo’s ex-husband, who was also run out of New Orleans by Katrina, barely covers the children’s basic expenses. Rent alone costs the family $1,200 a month.

“We don’t want handouts, we want to build a life,” she says. “And to be honest, I will feel much better about things once I do find work.”

Finding a job isn’t the only thing on her mind.

When New Orleans’ Southern University reopens for classes in January, Castillo plans to apply to transfer her credits. She wants to finish the bachelor’s degree in journalism she was two semesters away from completing when Katrina hit.

“One thing I’ve learned,” says Castillo, “is that you have to take it one step at a time. Slowly but surely we will get our lives back.”

FEMA Settlement Arrived At Last

In mid-November Castillo received a $10,391 claim settlement from FEMA for the losses her family suffered after Aug. 28 when Katrina submerged their Ninth Ward home. But the settlement won’t come close to covering the costs of making a new home.

With the funds, Castillo began buying basic furnishing and supplies for their new rented home, and put a $2,000 down payment toward financing on a 1999 Chrysler Town and Country van so the family would have reliable transport.

“When you’ve lost everything and have to start from zero, you don’t really realize what that means until you begin trying to rebuild,” Castillo says. “We had to get winter coats, a suit for my father to go to church in, forks, knives, towels . . . Everything, we needed everything.”

For Castillo, obtaining “everything” meant weeks of fighting holiday crowds to buy necessities before coming home to hang curtains, put together head boards and assemble end tables. At Christmas time, they often receive gifts from others, but don’t typically exchange them among themselves or have a holiday tree because of their Jehovah’s Witness religious beliefs.

Wallace, a 67-year-old diabetic, has gotten his blood sugar back under control after a severe post-Katrina flare-up. Last month, however, he began having vision problems doctors subsequently identified as glaucoma.

He is already legally blind in his right eye and the left eye is now being affected as well.

Kids Ousted From School After Records Lost

Problems with immunization records led the Robinswood Middle School to dismiss Castillo’s two children, Alexandra and Giovanni, earlier this month. The children’s New Orleans pediatrician lost all records in the deluge and the school will not readmit the children without firm dates of their immunizations. Orlando doctors informed Castillo some of the immunizations–which include tetanus and measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)–can not be given twice within a five-year period.

“This is the last thing these kids need, to miss more school, be shut away from the new friends they’ve made. They are very unhappy about it,” she says.

At the moment school is out for the holidays and Castillo is hoping she can find some resolution before school begins again in January.

“Every day there is a something new, some new battle, and sure there are people around who try to help but in the end it’s all up to you,” Castillo says.

To a great extent, Avis Jones-DeWeever, study director for the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, agrees.

“Truth of the matter is that the honeymoon period is over,” says DeWeever, referring to the extent of Washington’s official concern for hurricane survivors. “We just have to hope people are not going to forget about all these people who’ve lost so much.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.