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Making music for a Katrina victim

A benefit will help a displaced quadriplegic rebuild his life and home.

Jason Hurst has lost much in his 32 years: his mobility from an errant bullet 14 years ago, his home and all his belongings - including his electric wheelchair and all his medical equipment - in Hurricane Katrina.

But he has never lost his zest and sense of humor.

Take the safe someone stole from his destroyed home in the weeks after the storm two years ago: "They thought they were going to find money. I'm sorry to disappoint them. All they got was a scope of my plumbing," he said, referring to a copy of a videoscope of his urinary tract he had kept in the container.

Take the strain on his mother, his primary caretaker since they've been displaced to Texas: "If you know someone in a foreign country who wants to marry me, let me know. I'm quiet. I don't cost much."

Hurst talks about books and his job for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and his beloved Akita, Candy. He doesn't bring up a longing to return to the city where he was born, to rebuild his home, to reconnect with his now-scattered family.

That was one of the things that struck Gretchen Bell when she met him last year. It is one of the reasons she and other Philadelphians are trying to help Hurst fulfill his dreams.

A fund-raiser to help Hurst rebuild is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. today at World Cafe Live, 31st and Walnut Streets. For a $12 cover charge, participants get four bands, including the New Orleans-influenced Anthony Lattanze Band from Philadelphia, and can bid on auction items such as dinner for two at the White Dog Cafe. Food and drink can be purchased.

"After I met Jason, I just wanted to help so much. I was thinking about calling every one of my friends to ask for cash," Bell said. "Then I thought, 'If I had a big party and invited them, they might give more.' "

Bell works for Liberty Resources, a nonprofit organization that promotes independent living for people with disabilities. She and her husband used to frequent New Orleans' annual jazz festival and returned there for the first time since Katrina just before last Christmas. She toured the devastation and met with people who worked with the disabled.

"We all saw on TV what was happening, but there was really no mention of people with disabilities," Bell said. "Just the horrible aspect of being in a wheelchair and watching the water rise over your head. We didn't hear about that, but these people knew that firsthand."

About the same time, she read an article about Hurst in New Mobility magazine: He and his mother headed to his sister's house in Dallas the day before the storm, taking only his manual wheelchair and a few changes of clothes. But it was impossible for Hurst, a quadriplegic, to get to his sister's fourth-floor walk-up apartment. Shelters could not accommodate him because of his injuries. He and his mother bounced around, spending money on motels and taking shelter with the Salvation Army.

The Hursts tried to get aid, but were often overlooked because they weren't in a hurricane relief center. Help came only when Hurst's mother, Willmarine, sent a personal e-mail request that made its way around the Internet. Volunteers gave clothes and cash and found the family a wheelchair-accessible apartment in Plano, Texas. Finally, months after the storm, Hurst had an electric wheelchair again.

Bell e-mailed Hurst, then called him, then went to visit. The connection was immediate. Back in Philadelphia, Bell contacted Robin Parry, founder of Philly to New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that has sent volunteers to the Gulf Coast and has organized fund-raisers for those affected by the storm.

Parry, a bartender at World Cafe Live, understood Bell's drive to help. She first visited New Orleans about eight months after Katrina, and "I just lost my heart, and it changed my life. I never really came home inside of myself."

People in the disabled community have rallied to support Hurst. Members of the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled will attend today's concert. Maria Grayson, blind for 14 years from complications of diabetes, said she understood the challenges Hurst faced.

"This could be me in the same situation," said Grayson, of Mount Airy. "With a disability, everything's always a little harder."

After the concert, Lattanze and his seven band members will travel south to work on Hurst's house. One of the songs the band will play, "The March Back to New Orleans," was written after Latanze saw the tragedy unfold on television. Among its lyrics:

Days of drenched insurgence

No response is seen

Months would pass before we packed

For the march back to New Orleans.

Performing at the benefit was a natural choice, Lattanze said.

"We want to pay homage to a city whose music and culture has given so much to our way of life," he said. "As Americans, we owe the city a lot."

Hurst said he was amazed by how much people had done already. It has inspired him to complete his master's degree so that, when he returns to New Orleans, he can help others with disabilities.

"People who don't know me from a can of paint have walked into my life and become best friends. They've given me a renewed sense of what I want to do," he said. "It wasn't the government that came to our aid. It's the people who have cared, the people who have volunteered."