Lending a hand in Houston

by Dianne Nechiporenko | Catholic Charities

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Volunteers from Catholic Charities USA canvass neighborhoods to assist low-income families devastated by Hurricane Harvey. (submitted photo)

Many of us were glued to our TV sets in late August, horrified at what we saw as Hurricane Harvey blasted the Texas coastline. It just so happened that Catholic Charities USA’s Annual Conference was slated for Houston, Texas for the last week of September, less than a month after flood waters finally receded from the record-breaking storm.

Instead of canceling the long-scheduled convention, those of us attending, including myself, were give the opportunity to provide help and resources to those in need in the aftermath of the storm. Some scheduled convention events were held, however the majority of the conference was canceled, allowing us to examine neighborhoods to distribute supplies, and to open social service cases for long-term management through Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Buses were provided to bring Catholic Charities volunteers to communities which were hardest hit. These communities were made up primarily of low to medium income families, who had basically no savings to assist with damages. Many lost the majority of their belongings, parts of their homes, and their means of transportation, which prevented them from returning to work. I personally went out to neighborhoods and knocked on doors to do some intake work – an experience that left me wondering what I ever really had to complain about. Most of the folks would say “I’m okay, but my neighbor down the street really needs the assistance.”

The majority of neighborhoods I canvassed were full of devastated trailer homes that were missing walls, roofs, insulation, etc. It had been more than three weeks since Harvey hit and the smell of mold in the air was extremely strong. We examined the neighborhoods in pairs and thankfully, my partner spoke Spanish. The majority of folks we visited with were undocumented and very nervous about communicating at all. Angry dogs of every size and shape guarded the trailers, letting us know we were not welcome. We did get one neighbor to walk with us to ease the fear among neighbors that we were not with the government. Most people we talked with were not FEMA eligible, were without a Social Security number, and had no means of getting assistance. When our trucks of supplies showed up folks were more willing to exit their homes and accept cleaning supplies, children’s supplies, and non-perishable food items. We attempted to record information in order to send Catholic Charities Houston case workers back to assist with repair and recovery from donations received.

Our second day of deployment was to the Catholic Charities Galveston-Houston distribution center. At this site, there is a grocery store as well as a food bank, counseling site, offices, etc. There were many volunteer groups filling freezers with meat and fresh produce including bananas, potatoes, and tomatoes, as well as non-perishable goods and pallets of water. Grocery carts were filled in the back room by volunteers, then brought to another room where volunteers would take the cart to the cars of folks who had completed the paperwork for supplies. When the doors opened there were people lined up as far as the eye could see waiting for assistance. This distribution site was well organized and had processes in place. If a person qualified they would receive groceries two times per month for six months, otherwise, it was a one-and-done delivery.

Other opportunities allowed us to organize and stock warehouses, and assist in mucking-out the homes of elderly flood victims, who had no one to assist in this process. The temperature was 94 degrees most days with anywhere from 84-92% humidity. Most volunteer opportunities were not in air-conditioned environments and were not in pristine condition. However, everyone pitched in and truly felt like they were doing God’s work. Please keep all affected by this disaster, and the volunteers assisting them, in your prayers each and every day.

Dianne Nechiporenko is the Executive Director of Catholic Charities North Dakota. For more than 90 years, Catholic Charities North Dakota and its supporters have been putting their faith in action helping people, changing lives. You can reach Dianne at info@catholiccharitiesnd.org or (701) 235-4457.