Harvey Mission

On the Ground

As flood waters in Houston and beyond began receding, leaders at Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC) and The Associated reached out to Houston's Jewish community. How could we help?

Almost immediately, The Associated established the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and Jewish Baltimore stepped up and gave back. Meanwhile, JVC collected gift cards and then, this December, they galvanized a group of local volunteers for a hands-on Hurricane Relief Mission in partnership with Nechama: The Jewish Response to Disaster.

JVC worked previously with the Minnesota-based group after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The four-day trip included home repairs and volunteering at the Houston Food Bank.

The group included 13 volunteers and two JVC professionals ranging in age from 25 years to 54 years, representing career changers, job seekers, new and seasoned professionals.

"JVC is a volunteer matchmaker. People are thirsty and hungry for community and feeling that they are making a difference," said Erica Bloom, assistant director, who co-led the trip with Abby Malischostak, senior associate, community partnerships.

"Immersive experiences like this are transformative," continued Bloom. "We bring that energy home and it sparks ongoing volunteerism."

The group learned to muck and gut – stripping homes to the studs to remove mold and water damaged walls. Volunteers hammered water-stained walls and used metal hooks called pry bars to pull sheets of drywall away from wooden studs. The group removed trim from doorways, ceilings and baseboards. Black trash bags of ruined belongings piled up. Mountains of drywall were stacked curbside.

At the Whittington home more than four feet of water sat for two weeks. Whittington and fiancé Michael Touhy were allowed entry for 10 minutes during the time.

By the time the Baltimore contingent arrived, belongings were scattered on the first level. Outside tables held what could be salvaged – a trophy, clock, vases, a pair of ballet slippers small enough to fit in one hand.

Working with Nechama, Americorps and members of the Orthodox Christian Disaster Response team, the JVC team continued mucking and gutting, as well as removing insulation from ceilings and walls, pulling out bathrooms and trash removal. The goal was to prepare the home for rebuilding.

"We stretched ourselves with physical work and learned how to take down drywall and clean out after a flood," said Karen Singer, JVC chair and Houston volunteer. The experience went far beyond the hands-on construction skills the group gained. "Together, we made a world of change for people whose lives we touched."

Volunteers Hedy and Michael Rosman wanted to venture into something new. "We wanted to do something other than just write a check," said Hedy Rosman. "This opportunity allowed us to help in a hands-on way, see where the money goes and how much it helps others.

"I loved the mission of doing something good for someone. It was meaningful. It provided a good perspective as we met people who lost their homes. We saw how we can really make a difference as we helped repair homes on the road to being completely fixed."

Beyond rebuilding, the group also volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, the nation's largest food bank, feeding 800,000 people annually. Three months after the storm, the food bank continues responding to increased need from people who cannot return home.

Everybody Knows Somebody

The Associated subsidized the volunteer trip. "We were extremely appreciative that The Associated enabled this trip. It allowed all of us – different ages and experiences – to work together and help others," said Rosman.

In Houston, the work continues. "We have a responsibility to mobilize our network in the country and connect with everyone who wants to do something to help," said the Houston Federation's Sacha Bodner, LCSW-C.

"There is still trauma, for children and adults. We have people who are still displaced. It’s across socioeconomic levels – are people able to repair homes, address mold, do they need legal services?"

The flood changed perspectives about asking for help. "So often, people say 'I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not used to be the one asking for help.' And now they need help,'" said author and nonprofit consultant Kari Dunn Saratovsky, who is leading recovery efforts. The Jewish community is allocating resources for new sites for the preschool, synagogues and social services.

"Everybody knows somebody who was flooded," said Saratovsky. "We have a responsibility to serve the broader community. As Jews, we are responsible for tikkun olam, repairing the world."

Longtime Houston resident David Bell remains grateful for Baltimore's generosity toward Houston. "We are Klal Yisrael. The help we have received has been profound in meaning. We will overcome this, thanks to the support of the community."

During one of the daily evening debriefing sessions, the group discussed the quote: "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it." (Pirkei Avot 2:16). Though the work is surely not complete, the group contributed to Houston's rebuilding.

"We cannot express enough how it felt to receive such warm and generous help in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey," wrote homeowner Ann Whittington in an email, several days later. "I just cannot find the words that would best describe our gratitude and our sincerest thanks.

"The Baltimore brigade was truly awe-inspiring. It was a multi-day task force of so many willing and generous helpers. We will always be grateful and bless you all."

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