Today, Sept. 8, we began our distribution efforts in Bellaire, Texas, a city southwest of Houston. A team of Project GIFT Blackshirt volunteers started at 5 a.m., unloading tractor trailers and positioning supplies for the day ahead. Others joined a little later – myself included – and sorted the donated items into piles and onto tables. The sun rose slowly in the sky, and as eight o’clock neared, we opened the parking lot and started the process of giving valuable supplies to those who had gathered, already forming a long and circuitous line of cars that would only grow as the day continued.
Our employees worked with closely with volunteers from J.D. Martin Co. Inc., an electrical manufacturer’s representative. These men and women wore custom blue shirts with a powerful graphic on the front – the word “TOGETHER” with the “O” replaced by an outline of the state of Texas. This simple word would become the theme for the day, as people from different walks of life, different businesses and even different geographic regions bonded together in the blistering Texas heat to help the Houston area rebuild.
Everyone fell quickly into place, taking up residence at one of several stations set up in the church parking lot. Seeing no one at the far end of the distribution area, I relegated myself to the baby items, and given my role as a father twice over, this area represented a duty that I felt well-suited to perform. For several hours, I sorted diapers, wipes, puffs, pouches, bottles, baby food and more into piles on, under and in front of a single white folding table. Shannon, another member of our dedicated Southwire volunteer team, would kindly greet residents and ask the typical questions – how many babies do you have? what size diapers does he or she wear? do you need baby food, formula or purified water? – and together, we would grab the various items and load them into the backs of vehicles.
By the time each vehicle left the distribution site, the local residents therein had bottled water, food, a blanket and pillow, paper products, pet food and baby items (if needed), personal hygiene products and assorted cleaning supplies. These items didn’t seem like much to me, but as I would soon learn, even the smallest and seemingly insignificant items can mean the world to someone enduring unimaginable loss.
In the midst of our distribution, I paused for a moment to listen to the pastor of our host church discuss his church’s role in the recovery efforts. During this brief conversation, I learned that the area has sustained three floods in three years, and the church has fallen into a rhythm of how to help members of the local community. For a number of years, the church served as an evacuation center, and the church’s laity and leadership continue to find ways to give back. Even now, the gymnasium is full of donations, and volunteers from the congregation – and others – are helping storm victims with the process of gutting their homes. He recognized our own impact, though, and praised our efforts, stating that it was honor to partner with us during our two-day event.
According to one of our team members, the first two hours of our drive saw approximately 100 cars through the line, and by noon, we were emptying the fifth tractor trailer and starting the sixth, which contained more than 20 pallets and large boxes full of supplies. The previous record for distribution, established during our outreach in Baton Rouge, was completing four trailers by lunch time. To help readers envision the level of need at this event, it took me five minutes to walk from the back of the line of vehicles – almost reaching the nearby freeway – to the first station of our distribution area. The line continued to grow by the minute, and the hard-working volunteers gathered at the event loaded items into vehicle after vehicle after vehicle with no end in sight. This pace did not slow throughout the day. After lunch, we started unloading the seventh truck, and by 2 p.m., the eighth trailer was empty.
After several hours of helping at the drive, I visited Southwire’s Sumner facility, where another drive was taking place for employees directly affected by the flooding. In addition to helping employees, the team also filled trucks with supplies and drove them in regular intervals to the surrounding city streets for distribution. If yesterday’s interaction with the gas station and travel information center illustrated the sheer abundance of water in the area, today showed its true damage. As we drove through these neighborhoods, one crowded street after the other, we saw the all-too-familiar piles of drywall, lumber, furniture, insulation and personal possessions on the curb, sitting alongside trash cans and black plastic bags intended for regular garbage pick-up. Looking into one house, I could see that the lowest three feet of sheetrock on nearly every wall had been removed – one of the most important steps when attempting to mitigate mold and mildew during the clean-up process.
Despite this, everyone in the area remained positive. The employees went door-to-door, talking to storm victims and offering bags of supplies based on the number of people in the home. Each employee spoke warmly, and the police officers who had accompanied and escorted us even joined the distribution process, ensuring that everyone remained unharmed and asking residents about their specific needs. We saw neighbors in safety masks helping each other, and the smiles on nearly everyone’s faces and the shouts of thankfulness and appreciation – one even coming from a literal rooftop – filled our hearts with joy. All of this for a few small bags of supplies, a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to what these people must have surely lost. One of the most touching sights during this portion of the day came when I saw one employee hand a young boy two rolls of paper towels, and the boy’s eyes lit up, a mile-wide smile filling his face.
Regardless of the boy’s undeniably sweet and innocent reaction, this level of happiness in spite of loss emanated from one individual more than anyone else. During one of our interviews, we had the privilege to speak with Stephanie Harris, one of the employees at our Sumner Plant. In a few short minutes, she shared the story of losing her mother during the area’s previous storm in April 2016. All the while, she smiled brightly and enthusiastically shared how excited it made her to see so many people helping out and working together. As we would also come to learn, it was also Stephanie’s birthday, and she admitted throughout our discussion that most of her birthdays lately have been sad and lonely. This year, however, her birthday proved to be a happy one; choosing to serve others and witnessing the prompt response of Southwire’s Project GIFT left her exuberant.
What Stephanie said during our limited time with her really stuck with me. She pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that losing material possessions doesn’t matter as long as we retain our lives. If we’re still alive, still breathing, we can use our time to work together and rebuild. Ultimately, she said, we’re a family. In the midst of situations like Hurricane Harvey, there are no racial barriers, no divisions caused by age, gender, religion or political party. We’re united, and we have to remain patient, positive and thankful in spite of difficult situations – just like residents we met on the streets of Houston.
This final fact was reiterated later at dinner, during which we received handmade “thank you” cards from local fourth grade students. These schoolchildren shared their heartfelt appreciation for us simply helping out in their city, and as I read my card, I thought of my own children. I thought about the lessons that I try to teach them, the qualities that I hope to instill – things like treating others with respect and the importance of being selfless – and my mind returned to that little boy, holding those paper towels and smiling, thankful to have something (anything) to which he could hold onto in the midst of terrible circumstances.
Stay tuned to southwireblog.com for more updates from Jordan’s Journal.