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Houston Volunteer Trip (2018)

Skyler Hallgren | AUG 29, 2018

2018 has been a tough year for many folks. There is a lot going on that can make us feel like losing faith in the world. It can make us feel isolated and divided. Even uninspired.

But for some, it’s been a year of rebuilding their lives from literal disaster.

We all fear disaster, in any part of our lives. We handle that fear differently; some obsess over the worst, carrying the weight of worry. Some use focus to block it out, staying mindful and positive. Some truly don’t think about ‘what if’, hoping that ignorance is bliss.

And yet, while we never expect it, there is almost always something beautiful we couldn’t have imagined that comes out of what we fear most. Sometimes, that beautiful thing is the humble, yet power gift of appreciating what we already have.

Each of our disaster relief trips to date have reminded us quickly how much we have to be grateful for, and how many people out there make an effort every day to make the world a brighter place for at least one person.

They say “the grass is always greener where you water it”. So if you’ve been feeling uninspired, or having a hard time seeing the good in our challenges, let me re-introduce you to Houston and the people still there working to make a difference... one year after Hurricane Harvey.

DAY 1 [7/31] Arrival

Just shy of a year ago, Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf coast as a Category 4 hurricane, moved over Houston, and proceeded to dump 27 trillion gallons of water on top of the city for days. It was so much water weight that it sank the city almost an inch temporarily.

Harvey affected 13 million people, damaged over 135,000 homes, and destroyed a million cars. It was the most powerful hurricane to hit the US since 2005 (2nd most all-time), and caused $125 billion in damage.

A week after landfall, Texas Governor Greg Abbott told the nation that “this is going to be a massive, massive cleanup process. People need to understand this is not going to be a short-term project.”

Governor Abbott was right. We saw how extensive the damage was when we arrived in Houston last year 3 weeks after the disaster, and we saw it again when we returned to Houston 11 months later.

The city looks much better than it did last year as you pass by. There are no longer signs of damage or devastation as you fly in and then drive across the city. The damage in Houston now is trickier to pin down, because to see it, a visitor must go deeper and truly engage with the people. We’d get a closer look tomorrow..

The most exciting part about Day 1 was getting set up at volunteer headquarters.

For the second time in the last year we partnered with All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response for our disaster relief volunteer trip. We’ve supported All Hands and Hearts with donations over the past two years, and volunteered with them last September.

We support All Hands and Hearts because they make it easy for people with good intentions and a desire to help to get involved. At times they provide flights for volunteers who can stay at least 2 weeks through their partnership with Southwest Airlines. They also provide training, so volunteers without special construction skills (like me) can still make a big impact.

The biggest part of that is providing a place to stay at their volunteer base for any volunteer who needs it. This was our first time staying at the base, and it was a powerful atmosphere! It was clear to see why volunteers have such a life-changing experience with All Hands and Hearts, and why they return again and again. The volunteer base is being housed in a church annex by the kind people at Ecclesia Church. They’ve provided space for hundreds of volunteers to eat, sleep and relax after days of rebuilding flooded homes.

We were met at the door by the pleasing smell of lumber and tools, and by Tobias, the scruffy, enthusiastic Volunteer Relations Coordinator for the site. We arrived in the evening, so the base was full of volunteers relaxing after the day’s work. Three college-aged kids hung out outside talking; a middle-aged man with a corporate haircut played guitar in the corner. 5-6 volunteers from every walk of life were laughing at Pirates of the Caribbean together.

The volunteer base is a special place, and you can see how much the staff and volunteers take pride in their temporary headquarters. Tobias showed off the constructed showers, the task boards, and their mountain of tools and supplies necessary for a rebuilding operation like this. It was funny how quickly we felt at home; the positive, super friendly attitude of everyone we met was contagious.

The last part of the tour was the bunk room, and it was time to pick our bunks. It felt like summer camp - it had been awhile since I’d shared a room with so many people! I found a lower bunk and introduced myself to my neighbor. I’d learn a lot about Kyle over the next 2.5 days, but now was the time for bed. We’d need a good night’s sleep for an early start on the work site in the morning.

DAY 2 [8/1] Getting Comfortable

The 6am wake up time was the part of the trip I was looking forward to the least.

The first minute after the lights switched on was rough, but the energy all around me worked better than an espresso. Volunteers and staff alike moved quickly to get dressed and head downstairs. Breakfast was out and waiting for us, as well as supplies to make our own lunches. All Hands and Hearts provides meals for volunteers every day that they are on the site, which makes showing up much easier (and more affordable).

We ate quickly, packed our lunches, and grabbed our personal protection equipment (hard hat, dusk mask, gloves and goggles). Each team was in their respective van by 6:45, and we were off to the races.

The drive across Houston gave us another chance to see the city from a distance, but it also gave us a chance to get to know our teammates for the day.

My bunk-neighbor Kyle was in my van and has a fascinating story. Kyle is young, with kind eyes and a soft North Carolina accent that draws you in. His last year was spent as an Americorp volunteer, but he came to Houston to continue his volunteer experience and lend his skills. He can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about Power Rangers.

Kyle would be in Houston for another 3-4 weeks, before heading to Mississippi where he was hoping to be accepted into culinary school. It was clear that his Americorps and All Hands and Hearts experience had made a massive impact in Kyle’s life, and hearing his story was incredibly motivating. It can seem counterintuitive at times, but so many people shared with me how giving their time and energy to others was the most valuable thing they could do for themselves.

We got to the home we’d be working on, and our site supervisor Topher put us to work unloading and organizing. Topher is from Toronto, and left his job in bond publishing after some family events put life in perspective. He has been working with All Hands and Hearts for months, and his patient teaching data-style and ability to create fun make him a truly incredible leader.

The home we were working on had been hit hard by Harvey last year. The flood waters came in the middle of the night, and the homeowner and her grandson took refuge on the living room table to stay out of the rushing water. When a rescue boat did come in the middle of the night, our homeowner sent it to her elderly neighbors to make sure they were taken care of. When sunrise came, her and her grandson waded through 4 feet of brackish water several blocks to safety.

Our homeowner was still out her home, living with 11 others at her mother’s home. FEMA determined that she was only eligible for $2,000, even though everything in her home under 4 feet had to be ripped out and gutted. The funds didn’t even come close, and she had no recourse to get her home back.

We learned that these situations are still common in Houston, even though press coverage is no longer focused on the need. All Hands and Hearts fills a huge need for these people, by helping with every step of the rebuild process. For our homeowner, it started with mucking out the home and gutting it done to the bones. The next stage was sanitizing everything that remained, to ensure that mold wouldn’t grow inside the walls after the rebuild.

AHAH had been working on the home for weeks, and this week’s tasks were priming and painting walls and ceilings, painting and installing kitchen cupboards, patching ceiling holes, and installing baseboards. Topher gave us our roles and expertly taught us how to execute our tasks confidently. We learned more about homes in our days with Topher than I knew to begin with, and it was a great feeling to come home with new, useful skills.

It was clear that Rocky, the homeowners dog that stayed at the work site during the days, was the team mascot.Although I never would have thought that so many animals would be impacted by disaster, both of our trips to Houston made it clear that Harvey hit pets as hard as owners. When people fled the waters, pets were left behind and left to fend for themselves. Even now, local SPCAs are still handling the volume of pets without homes. Rocky, however, got plenty of love from our team during water breaks.

The day flew by, and the house changed before our eyes. Unfinished walls started to have the semblance of feeling like a home, and the we saw what a difference a few coats of paint and baseboards can make. The kitchen was starting to take shape, and it was so satisfying to see tangible evidence of our hard, sweaty work.

Back at base we took our well-earned showers, enjoyed dinner with the whole volunteer team, and experienced our first full team meeting. Site Coordinators shared what had been accomplished at each home that day, volunteers asked for drywalling tips, and we felt a sense of team and accomplishment that was so unique and contagious.

Even though we had only met everyone the day before, we immediately felt like a part of the family. Everyone truly welcomed us with open arms and we felt at home. So many folks were volunteering for multiple weeks or months that I felt our trip was so short and insignificant. When I mentioned it, I was immediately corrected by a veteran volunteer that had been working in Houston for 3 months.

“Every day you are here matters,” said Tom, a contractor from Buffalo. “Every hour you can give to someone in need makes a difference. Whether it’s 2 days or 2 years, the important thing is that you came.” We felt that appreciation from everyone we spoke to. Many hands does make the work light, and it was clear that showing up was more than half the battle.

We felt lucky just to be a part of it.

DAY THREE [8/2] - Hitting our stride

The 6am wake up call was a bit easier the next day, and we were up and moving quicker than we could believe. It takes a lot to get me moving in the morning at home, but we were so excited to be a part of the team that we up and off so easily!

We were also much more valuable after a day on the site, and some time to get used to the cadence of things. We didn’t need as much instruction - we knew our teams, our roles, and just got down to business. Home improvement projects back at home can take months to get done, but the momentum and energy drove us to make quick progress. We didn’t have much time to make an impact, so we wanted to make the most of our opportunity to serve.

The home was taking shape quickly. A few members of our team had become baseboard experts, and we realized how small details like that really do make a space feel much more homey. The kitchen was starting to take shape, with cabinets painted and installed. And a finished ceiling in the living room that had been damaged a year before certainly made a huge difference.

We were working hard to get as much done as possible on our last day on the job site. By the time the homeowner came by to see the day’s progress, many of the rooms were taking shape. It was just in time too - she was at her wits end staying with 11 other people, and she was ecstatic when our site supervisor told her she would be able to move in the following week.

It was satisfying to see the relief on her face. Our efforts were only a drop in the bucket of what had been done to get her back to normalcy, but it still made us proud to have contributed in our small way. Every painted wall, every piece of baseboard, and every patch or texture that we could do was one less thing that needed to be done tomorrow. One less thing in between the homeowner and an inhabitable home.

Back at the base we shared how we felt with the other volunteers. It was truly amazing how quickly we had become friends, and I found myself wishing we could stay much longer. I wanted to be back on the job site the next day, back with my teammates making a difference. I wished I could paint just one more wall.

DAY FOUR [8/3] - Heading Home

Heading home from a few days of manual labor was harder than I expected. When I got on the plane for Houston, I was ready for a couple days of hard, sweaty work in the Texas heat, and I hoped that I could make it through. I knew I’d feel good about giving back and doing my part, but I expected to be fed up and ready for home.

But in reality, I didn’t want to leave. I had been inspired by the other volunteers I had met. I felt a comradery with people who had until 3 days ago been complete strangers. I felt like I was leaving something special, and my heart wanted to stay and keep contributing; to keep feeling like a part of something bigger.

One of our team had a special reminder about just how important it was to contribute. On her way to the airport, she struck up a conversation with the driver. It turns out that she was still without a home, almost a year later, and was still trying to figure out how to find the money to repair the house her and her family had shared. The need is still deep, and people are desperately trying to find a solution, even as Houston looks healed from the outside. A quick look under the surface shows a community that still is struggling.

For me personally, the lesson was really clear: just show up and lend a hand. It might be in Houston, in Puerto Rico, or just helping a neighbor in need in your own community. But that effort matters, no matter how small it is. To someone in need and in search of a way forward, a helping hand makes a big difference. If you want to come lend a hand with us on our next adventure, let us know! Contact us to let us know you want to come!

But the most amazing lesson was how much we received by giving. Our contribution was so small - only a few days of work. But we left with inspiration; with an overflowing energy; with a reminder of why community is so meaningful; and with a reminder that all one needs in order to regain perspective and meaning is give a bit of yourself to someone else.

On my way out the door of the volunteer base for the last time, I spotted a wall where volunteers from the past 11 months had drawn outlines of their hands with a message. It was so special to see how many people had come to give their energy, and who had experienced the same inspiration that I was feeling. I’d never meet most of them, but we are connected through time and space by that simple act of just showing up. I’ll hold on to the feeling for quite awhile - the feeling of family, belonging, and the inspiration to keep making an effort. It really does matter, and we can’t afford to forget that.