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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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9-year-old becomes Katrina's littlest star

Los Angeles Times

Before he stood beaming onstage at the Emmys, before his "Today" interview with Katie Couric, before people were calling him a "superstar," 9-year-old Charles Evans was just a kid from New Orleans' 9th Ward made precocious and wise by his hard-knock life.

Then, on Sept. 2, he appeared on NBC's "Nightly News" standing amid the post-Katrina garbage outside New Orleans' convention center, wearing a dirty SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, speaking directly to the camera, his face pressed close, a slight lisp evident, his assessment heartbreakingly articulate, delivered with adult poise, even a touch of showmanship.

"We just need some help out here," he said. "It is just so pitiful. Pitiful! And a shame. ... We have over 3,000 people out here with no home, no shelter. What are they gonna do? What we gonna do? Take a look at all of this. Now what they gonna do if the hurricane come again?"

In that moment, Hurricane Katrina's littlest media star was born. His child's-eye view distilled the overwhelming nature of the event down to the fate of one soul. He became the innocent on whom viewers could project their grief. Charles' plight soon was the topic of Internet chatter. Worried strangers bombarded the network with requests for details on his whereabouts.

Naturally, Hollywood recognized this raw talent. He was a traumatized boy, yes, but a natural on camera.

Before you knew it, Charles was booked to appear at the Emmys. On Sunday night, he stood alongside child actor Tyler James Williams, with a new suit and an ear-to-ear grin. After the show, it seemed everybody knew Charles — Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry and the whole cast of "Desperate Housewives." When they went to hug the little boy, Charles surprised them with a kiss.

By Monday, reporters were calling Charles' Los Angeles hotel room.

His cousins Kevin and Valetta Morrow, who are hosting Charles at their Mesquite, Texas, home, were overwhelmed by the attention. They began asking for compensation for interviews, money they needed to help care for Charles and the dozen or so other relatives they were housing along with their own six children. There were more than 50 others scattered across the country, Kevin Morrow said, who needed help, too.

"Being exposed on the Emmys," Kevin Morrow said, "that just opened up the doors for a whole other entity, a whole other level. (The family) started out as evacuees, and now the stage has turned with all the media attention. A lot of people are telling him he's talented. They want to adopt him. The whole table has turned."

Indeed, Charles is struggling to put this adventure in some kind of perspective. He vacillates between lost little boy and clever kid from the projects. On Monday morning, as he awaited his flight back to Texas, he answered a reporter's call by asking for a last name and media affiliation.

"Didn't you see me?" he asked. "I've been on TV all the time."

But when the questions came, he decided to converse in gibberish, insisting he didn't speak English, only Spanish, French and "Indian tribe."

"He's eating it up," Kevin Morrow said. "He never gets full."

Charles didn't know his parents. His 76-year-old great-grandmother, Ophelia Evans, reared him. Charles has grown to be her caretaker, too, giving Ophelia insulin shots. After the hurricane, he foraged for food for her as well as for his extended family. When his great-aunt, Kevin Morrow's mother, died en route to Texas from the sidewalk they shared outside the convention center, Charles wrote an obituary for the elderly woman.

"I will always remember her sweet and gentle face," he wrote.

Campbell Brown, co-anchor of NBC's "Weekend Today," discovered Charles on Sept. 2, after Charles had spent all week camped on an unshaded stretch of sidewalk. He was hungry, she said, but his priority was finding food for Ophelia and younger kids in his family. Brown choked back tears as she recalled that day.

"He walked me around and described very matter-of-factly the horrible things he had seen," she said. "The people screaming and crying for help ... pointing out people who had died and their bodies had been left there for days. The whole time, he somehow still had this wonderful innocence and openness about him. I don't know how he has maintained that, given what he's been through. It broke my heart."

Charles and his family were evacuated by helicopter to a mall in San Antonio. They moved in with the Morrows and their six children a few days later.

Around the same time, thousands of TV viewers started bombarding NBC with offers of help for Charles. The network established the Charles Evans Fund and Evans & Morrow Family Fund with Bank of America and set up an e-mail address for them: charlesevans009@sbcglobal.net.

Charles and his great-grandmother were booked on the "Today" show, undoubtedly in anticipation of a pint-sized performer and a lively interview with Couric. Instead, America saw the child side of Charles, a little boy who, outside the comfort zone of his family, was like any other 9-year-old — shy and overwhelmed under the harsh spotlight of national media. Couric got only monosyllabic answers from Charles.

That same wide-eyed wonder was on display Emmy night as Charles stood onstage, frozen in front of an audience of celebrities. He couldn't contain his glee, even as "Everybody Hates Chris" star Tyler James Williams described the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and pleaded for donations to Habitat for Humanity. The incongruity was irresistible.

Yet, as Brown noted, Charles' story is far from a typical rags-to-riches tale. The fund has taken in some donations, but whether there will be long-term financial benefit for him and his family remains to be seen. He has a long way to go to recover from the traumas that preceded this month's chaos. The media storm he's found himself in only complicates that journey.

"He's not just this cute little boy," Brown said. "He's this boy who's been severely traumatized ... not just by the hurricane. He needs stability desperately. In this situation, which, to a certain extent I've created, he's not going to get that."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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