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
Thursday, March 8 was Penn State Behrend’s last Alternative Spring Break workday. It was bittersweet as we all missed our families and home (and our soft, comfy beds), but we didn’t want the adventure to end.
And, there is still so much work to be done in the Beaumont, Texas, area.
This is Miss Chandra Jones. She is the owner of the final house in Port Arthur, Texas, that my team worked on (Chris Harben’s team had been there earlier in the week). When Miss Jones learned that I was a writer she told me to take her picture and tell her story so that people know the hurricane damage is not all cleaned up and that “folks is still suffering down here.”
Miss Jones was in a catch-22. She couldn’t apply for federal assistance in repairing her home until it was gutted, but couldn’t gut it herself and couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it.
Enter Operation Blessing and service-minded students on Alternative Spring Break.
Our task at Miss Jones’ house that day was to gut her kitchen. Our goal was to finish that, then turn her electric and water back on and move her appliances back into the kitchen area so she could prepare meals. We did not want to leave her without an operational kitchen.
But, the moment we set foot in the kitchen, stepping on spongy floors, we knew that probably wasn’t going to happen. Whatever was below the linoleum was wet and rotted. It turned out to be particle board and some sort of plastic underlay with more (rotted) wood below.
We gutted the walls and removed the lower cabinets and counter (they had all be under water and had to go), tore up all but the last layer of flooring. There were plumbing and gas issues along the way. There was a brief break while we waited for the gas company to check out a suspected leak.
All the while, team members spent time on the porch, taking turns talking with Miss Jones. She was entertaining and smart. Intuitive and gregarious. She has two grown children: a son who works 16-hour days and was living in the house with her and a daughter who is a school teacher. The daughter has been begging her mom to leave her house and live with her.
Miss Jones did live with her daughter for several months after the flood, but she felt like the landlord didn’t want her there and she just wanted to live in her own home. She had paid her little home off just before Hurricane Harvey blew in and wrecked everything.
Most of the houses across the street from her are still boarded up. She said nobody has ever returned to at least three of them. “They just left,” she said.
It occurred to me that every person my team helped this week (with the exception of the day at the animal shelter), was an elderly person or a single mother. It’s our most vulnerable populations that are left struggling — they can’t fix it alone and they don’t have the ability to flee. So they are living in moldy homes with rotten floors and walls and almost no furniture as that was tossed after the flooding.
At least three times, I had to walk away from the job site to hide tears.
One of those times was late in the day after higher ups at Community Collaborations International had stopped by to check on our progress and told us there was no way we would be able to make the kitchen functional that day and that Miss Jones had to be told her house was inhabitable.
One of the students, Emily Archer, had formed a special bond with Miss Jones that day, and she volunteered to deliver the news to Miss Jones and her son.
Her son understood. He said that he had told his mother she should not be living there, but was that she wouldn’t listen to him.
She listened to Emily, whose strength, kindness, empathy, and compassion brought me to tears (again). Miss Jones agreed to temporarily move to her daughter’s house until her kitchen floor and plumbing issues could be resolved by CCI and Operation Blessing.
“I see what you did,” she said, waggling a finger at all of us. “Sending this one out here to talk to me,” as she pointed to Emily. “You know we had a special bond, me and this one. That’s why you sent her out here to talk to Miss Jones.”
Guilty as charged. But Emily wanted to tell her because she cared. We all did. We all wished we could take Miss Jones home with us.
As we worked throughout the day, Miss Jones sat on the porch and made a point of getting to know each one of us, even the ones like me who tried to sneak by.
“What are you?” she called out to me as I carried part of her kitchen cabinet to the curb. “Are you a professor at that college?” she asked me.
“No, I’m a writer for the college,” I said.
“You a writer?! You need to write my story then. Tell them people is still living like this down here.”
“I will, Miss Jones. I promise I’ll tell your story to anyone who will listen.”
Before we left, we asked for a photo with her on the porch of her little periwinkle home. She was happy to oblige and stood in the middle wearing a scarf that another Operation Blessing volunteer had knitted for her.
She hugged each one of us tightly, and at one point exclaimed, “OOhh, youu all smell like money. I bet you all living in mansions back home in Pennsylvania.”
We don’t. But compared to her, we do.
As I helped tear out Miss Jones’ kitchen floor that day, my husband was laying a new one in our living room in Pennsylvania. He texted me some photos. I glanced at them as I stood in Miss Jones’ destroyed kitchen, a hole to the dirt ground within my field of vision. And I teared up again. I have so much, and she has so little and I don’t know what to do about that.
So we did what we could for Miss Jones and we got the job site ready for the professionals to do their part next. There are at least two more weeks of spring break student volunteers arriving to help. I hope she’ll be back in her home and eligible for assistance in rebuilding by early April. She told us she could reapply with FEMA then.
Here is how the other Penn State Behrend ASB teams spent their final workday in Texas:
- Will Taylor’s team volunteered at the local Salvation Army, helping with organizing and inventory.
- Chris Harben’s team worked on gutting a home and removing debris.
- Chris Fox’s team worked at a home in the morning, but were done early and returned to the church to help cleanup after 200 volunteers (no easy job!)
Tomorrow, in my final ASB trip post, I will tell you about the all Penn State activities/gathering we had on Thursday evening, our travel home, and relay some final reflections from Penn State Behrend students who participated in this year’s ASB trip.