Twenty-four students and four advisers from Penn State Behrend are participating in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Beaumont, Texas. The group will be helping residents recover from the catastrophic flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey, which hit the greater Houston area in August of 2017, causing at least $125 billion in damages and claiming 108 lives. Behrend’s ASB group is being joined by five other Penn State campuses, including Greater Allegheny, Harrisburg, Scranton, University Park, and York.
By Heather Cass
Publications Manager, Office of Strategic Communication, and 2018 ASB participant
The worst part of the work today? Breathing through this barrier.
Day 3 – Work Day #1
We were all eager to get our assignments and get to work this morning and were among the first in the long line for breakfast. (Did I mention there are about 200 workers here now?).
On the morning menu was biscuits with sausage gravy and yogurt/fruit/granola parfaits for the non-meat option. Our meals are all cooked and served by members of a local Mennonite church and they are delish. The men cook most of the meat on a giant portable grill outdoors.
In the morning, they also set out tables full of lunch and sandwich items and each volunteer packs their own brown bag lunch.
Community Collaborations International, the company Penn State Behrend uses to coordinate it’s annual ASB trips, is working with another organization — Operation Blessing International — that had set up shop in Houston shortly after the storm happened last fall.
The company requires workers to wear Operational Blessing shirts so that residents can easily identify them. So we all changed into our white Operational Blessings shirts before meeting outdoors for an orientation meeting.
After receiving our assignments, picking up our First Aid kit, tool bucket, cooler full of water, and quilts — one queen size and one child size — made by members of the Mennonite community to be delivered to every home we visit, we set off in different directions.
With four vans and advisers, Behrend had four groups of six to seven people to travel to different jobsites.
My crew worked at a home in a neighboring township about 15 minutes away from the church. Ours was a single-story home that belonged to an 80+ year old woman who was currently living in an R.V. behind her home, which had been completely underwater after the flood and had 5-foot deep standing water for about a month.
The home had been cleared of debris and all the drywall was down. Half of the home had new plywood flooring and the other half of the home needed the floors pried up so that new wood could be put down. Tearing up the floors was our job.
It was hard, sweaty, and dirty work made slightly harder by the humidity, lack of light in the house, and annoying, but necessary safety gear (masks, safety glasses). By the time our workday was over at 4 p.m., we had removed the entire subfloor in one room and had taken the first couple layers (there are layers of flooring) off in the two other rooms.
The homeowner’s daughter stopped by a couple of times to chat with us and tell us about her family, Texas, and the flood. Interacting with the residents as we work is not only expected, but encouraged. Operation Blessings says that, for some, we are the first ones to show up and give them a glimmer of hope. They told us to listen and ask not “How are you?” (because we’re all conditioned to automatically respond “good”), but “How are you holding up?”
I can’t imagine answering that question six months after a disaster. Many of the houses that we passed on our way to our jobsite had RVs in front of waterlogged houses and bags of debris and rotten lumber in the yard.
When I got my first look at the house we were working on, I was sad and overwhelmed. The enormity and volume of the work to be done — a half a year after the disaster — was disheartening. And our resident was one of many.
The other Penn State Behrend teams had different, but similar experiences:
- Chris Fox’s team went to a home only to find the homeowner had had a stroke two days before, so they were reassigned to help a young mother with a severely disabled son clean her house out.
- Chris Harben’s team demolished a bathroom in one home. Then, they canvassed the neighborhood, talking with residents to see if they had projects they wanted Operation Blessings to help them with.
- Will Taylor’s team worked on a home, removing walls, insulation, and debris.
We all returned filthy and hungry and hit the showers and dinner line, in that order. Personally, I cared more about shower than dinner.
After dinner, my crew made a Walmart run for supplies, including a cake for Chris Fox who had a birthday yesterday.
Then, more meetings and evening reflections (more about that tomorrow).
Today, Tuesday morning, some of us will receive new assignments, others will continue the work they were doing yesterday.