I am honored to have participated in a trip to Houston last week for disaster relief after Hurricane Harvey. It was coordinated by an organization called Nechama, and promoted in Chicago through the Jewish United Fund. When I saw the email invitation, I quickly checked my calendar and said, “Yes!” I submitted an application and was invited to take part. Nineteen people – sixteen volunteers and three JUF staff members – traveled to Texas to see how we could be of help.
The whole group, including Nechama staff – about 30 people – was graciously hosted by the ChristChurch Presbyterian in Bellaire, Texas. It was wonderful to see people coming together across faith lines to help those in need. The church has a community center across from its sanctuary, and donated its large, open room lined with cots, air mattresses and floor pads since Labor Day Weekend. “Pick your spot and make a lunch,” we were told. The spacious kitchen had a number of sandwich fixings and chips which we then packed for our first worksite: a home in Alvin, Texas, situated less than fifty feet from the bayou.
Geraldine, the owner, a frail, 79-year-old chain smoker, was living there alone after the death of her husband last year. It had been her home for over 35 years. She is very privileged to own a property on which each of her four children has a house, and is living in her son Daryl’s home until her own home will once again be ready for residence. He wants her to stay with him. “No,” she says. She wants her own space.
The work was intense and emotional, yet satisfying. We had three days in Houston, and that translated into working on three homes. In each one we were first apprised of the damage and the goals the homeowners had hoped we would achieve. We got a safety briefing from our Nechama site manager, were given some how-tos, and got to work. At the end of each day, some of us walked to the local rec center for a shower. Nechama had a shower truck for those willing to brave a cold shower, but most of us took the short walk to the center.
Heartbreaking and Heartwarming
When people ask me about the trip, I keep reiterating two words: heartbreaking and heartwarming. It was heartbreaking to see the ruined furniture, clothing, family photographs and personal items that we removed for rubbish pickup. It was heartbreaking to see the water damage on the walls and floors, heartbreaking to see the random furniture that floated in when the hurricane flooded the bayous with two to three feet of water, and heartbreaking to talk with the families who had lost so much.
On the other hand, it was so heartwarming to be able to lend a hand, to meet the families directly and feel their gratitude for our presence, and to work so closely with Nechama, JUF and the volunteers who so selflessly contributed their time and presence.
We learned practical information: how to take care around asbestos and other toxics, to expect palmetto bugs (a very nice name for giant cockroaches) to come out in droves as we removed drywall and paneling, to use power tools or new hand tools. I learned to use a crowbar. Who would’ve thought I’d never used one before? Now I wonder how we have ever lived without one at In the Gardens.
We learned emotional lessons as well: the resiliency of the human spirit and how inspired we were to see people bouncing back in the midst of such loss. We learned that people coming together can overcome almost any disaster.
Just like in all places, Houston is filled with people from varying economic backgrounds and family compositions. Some had the strength and support that enabled them to clean out their damaged property very early on and begin rebuilding right away. Others, like Geraldine, are frail. Patricia, another homeowner we helped, has a large family, including kids and grandkids, some who live with her and some who don’t. It seems hers was the home where all the leftover clothing, toys, and appliances were stored – for the time that one of the grandkids or another family member might need them. Sadly, so much of her possessions had been destroyed. Dolls and tiny purple boots, video games and books, TVs and toasters – all of them became refuse. In my heart I was crying, but Patty was smiling. She adopted all of us as family that day.
The third home we went to the owners weren’t present, yet most of their possessions had been brought out onto its covered porch. Save the piano and some large furniture, which our volunteers brought out for rubbish pickup, the house was empty. Two wheelchairs provided us the insight that the family had at least one frail member. The Guardians of the Galaxy poster with its child’s drawing beneath laid testament to the vulnerable kids that the hurricane pushed out of their home.
Are you ready to help?
We came home tired and smelly and with a host of new friends. We were thankful to have been of help. But so many others are still in need of aid – in Houston, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Virgin Islands, in Mexico, and in California. Nechama is working on some of these needs. If you are interested in volunteering or donating to their cause, check out their website. May Houston and the other areas reeling from natural disasters get the support they need to rebuild and recharge their lives.