UNIVERSITY CITY — Marisa Scott and Ben Smith live in a room crammed with the boxed-up remains of their lives.

Scott, Smith, and daughter Mira, 1, left Chicago in late June and moved in with Scott’s mother. They stored nearly all their belongings in the basement while Smith started a new job, saving up money for a place of their own.

Then the flood hit. Sewage and rainwater filled the basement and first floor. “Everything we had washed away,” said Scott, 34. “We’re not even sure what we even still have.”

They lost three cars in the flood. The house is in disrepair. Cracks in warped doorways let the night air in. Scott’s mother, Joanna Szapszewicz, 68, is trying to salvage what remains of the photos and papers collected by her parents, Polish immigrants who came to St. Louis after surviving the Holocaust.

Scott worries she’s been too distracted to be a good mother to Mira. There’s too much to do to try to rebuild.

“It really just messed up our whole lives,” she said.

Summer flooding spawns 100 Neediest case

Ben Smith kisses his 20-month-old daughter Mira goodby on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, before leaving for work from his University City home. Smith and Mira's mother, Marisa Scott, (not pictured) have been set back since July flooding in the area damaged or destroyed everything below the second floor. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Szapszewicz, Scott, Smith and Mira are just one of 100 families in the region determined to be in dire need by the United Way of Greater St. Louis and its partners. And for four weeks starting Sunday, their stories will be featured in the Post-Dispatch as part of the 100 Neediest Cases, an annual effort coordinating 58 social services agencies, school districts and nonprofits to deliver goods and cash assistance to thousands of families facing crushing hardships: homelessness and hunger, job layoffs and overdue bills, illnesses and the death of loved ones.

The 100 cases are only a fraction of the 4,682 families that could benefit this year.

Some families face lingering financial and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And thousands are reeling from the historic flash flooding that devastated the region July 26, wrecking homes, displacing families and leaving piles of ruined furniture, appliances and clothing in its wake.

“The need is even greater this year,” said Erin Smith, vice president of communications for the United Way. “Families who were struggling before may be struggling even more now.”

Some families can’t afford even the most basic things, she said.

For LueGuester Hyde, that’s a refrigerator.

The July flood swept through her one-story rental home, carried off belongings and wrecked her refrigerator and car, which she’d relied on to work jobs as a home aid and food delivery driver.

Her yard is full of ruined furniture and appliances. When it rains, Hyde picks up the smell of mildew. Bugs are crawling in through cracks and warped sections of wood, she said.

And bills are piling up.

100 Neediest: Flood victims account for much area need

LueGuester Hyde poses outside her Caseyville home on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. She and her two children lost many of their essential belongings to flooding in the area earlier this year, including the loss of her vehicle, the use of her refrigerator, and many clothes.

“It’s stressful,” said Hyde, 44. “I’m trying to figure out how to do this and do that at the same time. Trying to keep my blood pressure down.”

Her daughter’s bed mattress was ruined. It had been laid on a carpet while Hyde waited for a bed frame to be delivered, a purchase she’d saved up for to try to help her daughter, 9, turn the room into a “big girl room.”

Her son, 16, a member of the school basketball team, lost his basketball shoes. The hoop outside was knocked down and wrecked.

Christmas looks “real bad,” for her family, she said.

“The holidays are coming,” Hyde said. “And we can’t keep paying money to lease a refrigerator and pay my bills at the same time.”

In total 1,100 families can be adopted by donors who will be sent a list of that individual’s or family’s requests. Donors are asked to provide at least one gift for each person.

Among them are a teen, 17, who is now the sole caregiver for her five younger siblings, ages 6 to 14, after the unexpected death of her mother in August, and a single mother of two who lost her car and job in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of her eldest son in July, a year after losing her brother to gun violence.

Another 3,600 families will get cash assistance to help pay for basic needs. Even small contributions add up.

Summer flooding spawns 100 Neediest case

Joanna Szapszewicz sits in the living room on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022, on some of the only remaining furniture in her University City home "This is my office now," she says weeks after she and her family suffered July flooding in the area that damaged or destroyed everything below the second floor. They use the living room for eating, sitting, playing and conducting business with FEMA and other help agencies. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Last year, the 100 Neediest Cases campaign raised more than $1.6 million, and at least 1,000 cases were adopted by donors ranging from individuals to groups and nonprofits to corporations.

Donors gave cars and appliances to people working to feed, clothe and care for their families; clothing and groceries to people struggling with housing or addiction; bikes and dolls to children who just want the joy of a toy for the holidays.

Szapszewicz, Scott’s mother, was among them. She’d been a longtime donor since her 20s; the stories always broke her heart, she said.

It feels odd to her family to now be on the other end.

Ask her family about the hardship they’ve faced since the flood, and they’ll count the ways they’re lucky. They’re safe together. They’ve got a roof over their heads, family and friends who’ve helped them.

They lost their belongings, but “we were fortunate enough to have those things to lose,” Scott said.

Maria Szapszewicz

Maria Szapszewicz

Leaning on the wall of the living room is a warped painting of her mom, Maria, at age 16, a year before war broke out in Europe, before Nazis made Jews wear stars and Maria and her family were sent to Auschwitz.

After coming to St. Louis, Maria and Jacob Szapszewicz helped countless other immigrants settle here and build new lives.

And they were among the earliest Holocaust survivors to start giving their testimonies locally, speaking whenever they could at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Creve Coeur and at schools to educate people and work toward a future.

Joanna Szapszewicz draws strength from the lessons her parents taught her about hope and perseverance.

“They made whole new lives for themselves,” she said. “They never looked back, and we have to do that, too.”

Summer flooding spawns 100 Neediest case

Ben Smith feeds his 20-month-old daughter, Mira, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in the living room of his mother-in-law's University City home. Having lost much of their furniture in the July flooding, Ben's family uses the living room for eating, sitting, playing and pursuing help from FEMA and other agencies.

Summer flooding spawns 100 Neediest case

Ben Smith, left, and Marisa Scott, second from right, have breakfast on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, with Mira, their 20-month-old daughter in the living room of Scott's mother, Joanna Szapszewicz's University City home. The family, seated in their only remaining furniture since July flooding in the area damaged or destroyed all belongings below the second floor, use the room for eating, sitting playing and conducting business with FEMA and other help agencies. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Nassim Benchaabane • 314-340-8167

@NassimBnchabane on Twitter

nbenchaabane@post-dispatch.com

Originally published on stltoday.com, part of the BLOX Digital Content Exchange.