The home of Elmira Blanks in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of St. Rose is sparsely decorated. A newly-erected Christmas tree sits in the living room, but the walls are still bare and unpacked boxes sit on the floor.
Blanks recently moved into the new home, which was built on the same site of her previous residence. That home was burned to the ground in a 2011 arson that took the life of her 88-year-old mother, Ophelia Shepherd.
Blanks, 72, purchased the property in 1971 and lived there for most of her life.
“I was 27 years old and a single parent of two when I bought my house,” she said. “I did this on my own. I gave my two kids somewhere decent to live. They didn’t know what it was, and neither did I, to move from one place to another. I ended up raising my first two grandchildren here as well.”
In all, five generations of Blanks’ family lived in the home over a 41-year period until the incident occurred that changed their lives forever.
Shepherd and her great-grandson, Kendell Blanks, were both in the home when Toby Beasley kicked in the door, doused the floor with a flammable liquid and set the house on fire.
Kendell’s mother, Rashaunda Blanks, said her son nearly lost his life in the blaze.
“My son was the one who was locked in the house when it was on fire. He was stuck in the closet. He had to go out the back window,” Rashaunda said. “He was a few seconds from death if he would have stayed in that closet.”
While Kendell, now 18, was able to escape with a badly burned hand that required surgery, Shepherd wasn’t as lucky.
The disabled great-grandmother was unable to get out of the house because she had both legs amputated due to diabetes.Beasley, who authorities said set the fire over a bad drug deal between him and Kendell’s uncle, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the crime.
After their home was damaged beyond repair, the Blanks’ family embarked on a multi-year journey that ultimately resulted in a new house being built on the site of the burned out residence.
“It was the worst journey I’ve ever had in my life – three moves. In 41 years I never had to move, I didn’t know what it was to move anywhere,” Blanks said.
She and Kendell moved out of their familiar neighborhood into an apartment in the Ormond section of Destrehan and then to another apartment in the Charlestowne neighborhood of St. Rose. Construction began on their new home in August.
The construction was undertaken with assistance from local non-profit Family Resources, which helps low-income residents with home ownership.
Part of the agreement was that Blanks would help with certain aspects of the construction process. In between the morning and afternoon bus rides she undertook as part of her employment as a bus monitor, Blanks went to the work site and helped out.
“Just about every morning I came here and was doing something. It was just so interesting to see the improvements as they went along,” Blanks said.
Blanks and other members of the family helped out by picking up debris at the construction site while also painting the inside and installing insulation.
The home was completed last month just in time for the holidays. After nearly three years, they were ready to move back in.
Blanks said the timing could not have been better.
“It just means everything to be back home again. It is just a relaxing feeling to be back home. I was in an apartment and it was very nice and everything, but it wasn’t mine. It is a different feeling...I have a different attitude right now,” she said.
The first time she walked into the completed home, Blanks was overcome with emotion.
“I cried, I shouted for joy. Really it was just a God-sent blessing for me. It was just amazing,” she said.
Similarly, Kendell said he was unprepared for the feeling of moving back in.
“I was shocked. I thought I was dreaming actually,” he said. “I’d never been through something like that.”
Although the house was built in the same spot as the old one, everything is new.
“I have a brand new beginning here. Everything is fresh, even my driveway is on the opposite side now. I have a big nice drive through gate,” Blanks said. “It’s actually bigger. There is room to turn around as opposed to before. The kitchen was so small two people couldn’t fit in it.”
Though the house is more modern and comfortable than their previous one, Blanks said there is certainly a void because her mother is no longer with them.
“In spite of getting my home back, there is still a big part of me that misses my mother,” Blanks said. “That is the hardest. I always look (at the living room) because that is where her room was. I still don’t feel quite the same without her being here. Her memory will never die. Her memory will always be here.”
Kendell said despite the trauma of being injured during the arson, he is moving on with his life. The new home is just a part of that.
“I forgive my uncle and everything. I don’t hold a grudge or nothing. I am going to try and stay positive for my grandmother,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be back. I grew up in this house and I am thankful to be back here.”
|Elmira Blanks, left, holds up a picture of her mother, Ophelia Shepherd, who was killed after a man set fire to a home in Preston Hollow. Blanks is joined by her grandson, Kendell, and daughter, Rashaunda.|