Gonzales resident expands reach to the homeless

Melba Braud and her family have for years spent Christmas Day serving a holiday dinner to the homeless in a dining hall at St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge.

“This year I said, ‘I want to do something different because I don’t have my daughter for Christmas,’” Braud said.

An alleged drunk driver struck and killed Amber Roussel July 30 on Interstate 10 in Beaumont, Texas. Her husband, Ryan, suffered head injuries. Roussel, who was 31, left behind three children, Lauren, 12, Emmory, 3, and Ryan, 1.

Instead of just returning to St. Vincent de Paul’s this year, Braud decided to do something bigger. The Gonzales resident, who runs a private catering business, gathered some family and friends along the Mississippi River levee in downtown Baton Rouge Thursday and cooked breakfast for more than 200 homeless people.

Before sunrise, Braud set up two big pots, one full of grits, another with oatmeal. She had already put the word out at St. Vincent de Paul about the free meal she was cooking.

“This is good,” Kim Bronikowski, a family friend, said as she ladled out food for a small line of homeless people. “Makes you forget about all the problems in your life.”

“It’s really a blessing,” said Oliver Scott as he ate a bowl of hot oatmeal.

Scott said the meal was welcome after spending a cold night under the Mississippi River bridge.

“It’s a lot colder when you’re homeless,” Scott, who said he spends most mornings looking for work, said.

Braud and company also brought fruit and snacks to hand out so their guests would have something to eat later in the day. Braud’s granddaughter and Amber Roussel’s daughter, Lauren, spent weeks saving her money to buy the items for many of the snack bags, Braud said.

Early in the morning, the foot traffic was less than Braud thought it would be. The weather was so cold that many of the shelters kept people inside until later in the morning. Braud solved that problem by taking her car to a nearby shelter and ferrying several homeless people back and forth so they could eat a hot breakfast.

Braud said her next charitable effort is to find blankets or sleeping bags for the homeless. She said she has about 50 and is trying to get donations of 200 more to hand out Thursday.

Joseph Griffin also came out to eat, but he said he’s much better than he was 18 months ago when he lived along the levee, homeless for several weeks. Now, he said, he has a home to stay in and returns to help the people who still don’t have a place to live.

“It’s not just people who are on drugs and alcohol who come out here,” Griffin said, looking south down the levee. “We’re all just a mishap away.”

Braud identifies with that sentiment.

“It only takes one tragedy in our life to make us homeless, so if I can put one warm meal in someone’s stomach and put a smile on someone’s face, then it’s all worth it,” she said.

For Braud and the other participants, it was the memory of her daughter’s smiling face that drove them forward.

“(Amber) was a very loving and kind person and very giving,” said Bronikowski. “I miss her a lot.”

They called Thursday’s breakfast “Amber’s Gift” in memory of her giving nature.

“I feel like it’s better to give in her name, and so that’s what I’m trying to do, to make a difference,” Braud said.