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“Because I Can, and Because I Should”

In his late seventies, possibly early eighties, Harold Johnson, a retired Army Colonel and university administrator and the coordinator of the regional Baptist Disaster Relief, emailed the following (on August 27, 2017) to a long list volunteers:

We now have an assignment. It will be at a church north of Houston. We will be co-located with Unit #1, but will function as an independent kitchen except that the logistics and sanitation functions may be combined. Tentatively we will travel Friday, set up Saturday, and begin cooking Sunday. Initial request is for 20,000 meals divided between the two kitchens. Return is expected to be Friday of next week. I will provide full details sometime Wednesday.

At 5:00 p.m., Friday last, I picked up La Belle Femme from the locally-based Red River Association Baptist Disaster Relief headquarters. As the caravan of private cars, SUVs, vans, and two trailers, including a 30ft. kitchen on wheels, pulled into the parking lot, family members, excited to see their loved ones arrive safely after an arduous week of travel and hours of labor helping their neighbors to the south, rushed to kiss, embrace, and hold on to their beloved.

As the vehicles disgorged their occupants, the volunteers’ faces beamed with the excitement one observes on the faces of sojourners glad to get back to their loved ones and the comforts of home. Prior to their departure, the team (co-led by 71 year old chemical engineer  David McAlister) of approximately 30 volunteers displayed a bubbly enthusiasm and an uplifting esprit de corps. Though tired after two days on the road and five days of twelve hour shifts preparing and serving meals, cleaning cooking utensils, reaching out to hundreds of displaced Harvey victims, working diligently with health inspectors, sleeping on cots and floors, and a twelve hour ride back home, I noted that the same type of enthusiasm that launched the trip was displayed on the good Samaritans’ countenances. And I was reminded of the same expressions I’ve encountered many a time on the faces of Boy Scouts and their parents after a week of camping in the woods.

Concerned about the safety and well-being of his mother and during a telephone conversation with her, one of our sons asked his mother whether it was safe for her to travel to Houston, the site of the worst hurricane to have whacked the region, and a storm-ravaged locale about to be plagued with a multitude of post-disaster afflictions. Asked he: “Why do you want to do this? It is not safe.”

La Belle Femme’s response was short and to the point. Said she: “Because I can, and because I should.”

When the same concerns were presented to me, I merely stated that “your mother is a kind, compassionate human being who lives her faith by helping others.”  Having dedicated 38 years of her life to teaching youngsters, La Belle Femme decided to join the Disaster Relief team, a labor of love  she undertakes with kindness, humility and a deep conviction that her neighbor is anyone in need.

Instead of locating at a church, the local team of volunteers was deployed to Houston’s NRG Convention Center; the upper floor conference rooms were designated as sleeping quarters for the hundreds of volunteers, and three large areas on first floor were designated for single men, single women, and families, respectively. While large conveniently located locker room shower areas were reserved for the displaced, portable trailer-showers on wheels (in clusters of 6-8 showers per trailer) were exteriorly located some  half a mile away from the volunteers’ sleeping quarters.

There is no doubt that excellent planning and much organization went into the planning and coordinating of these relief efforts. A medical clinic was located at the front of the convention center, including free medical care and free prescriptions as per need were provided. FEMA set up an area for those wishing to fill out application forms, Social Security manned another station, and the Texas Driver’s License Bureau provided services in an adjacent area. In addition to meals, cots, bedding , showers, and other amenities, free diapers were provided to families with young children.

In addition to displaced families, mostly middle and lower income ones, the homeless and those afflicted with mental and emotional challenges found refuge where they no doubt had plenty to eat and an environment in which they were accepted, respected, and nurtured.

An abundance of the milk of human kindness flowed in myriad acts of kindness. In the five day period the team prepared some 30,000 meals, meals that were served and delivered by the Red Cross. Accompanied by her daughter, a North Carolina woman, formerly the owner of five restaurants and now a Red Cross volunteer, appeared on the scene to use her skills to help coordinate the food services. A New York gentleman, the owner of a Smoothie truck, showed up in his truck to serve Smoothies to people of all ages. Pulled by an18 wheeler truck, possibly the world’s largest BBQ pit smoker was driven from Brenham, Texas, and parked in front of the Houston Convention Center. The owner of this six figure 75ft.smoker (an outfit that is capable of barbequing 8,000 lbs. of meat at one time) decided that on Labor Day he would serve brisket, his Texas specialty, to the displaced. Kinda gives Texans bragging rights about everything Texas is big, including, unfortunately, the biggest hurricane to hit the state. Coincidentally, my preacher’s sermon this morning expounded on Jesus’ feeding the masses with a handful of loaves of bread and fish. An elderly volunteer, whose reliance on a walking cane was her means of mobility, dedicated the five days to reaching out to others, encouraging them and showering them with kindness and hope. The latter gives credence to the adage “each according to his abilities.” 

One volunteer commented on Donald Trump’s brief photo op (a few minutes  of much needed national unity) during which the nation saw only superficially the extent of the agonizing misery of the displaced. “And once he was gone,” said the speaker, “we got to go back to work.”  During a one-hour drive through a middle class neighborhood the volunteers witnessed street after street of apocalyptic images of mounds of household items, furniture, sheet rock, and appliances piled, along the sidewalks and front yards, in an abstract cacophony of shredded debris, as though they were monstrous bookends vying with each other for morbidity across a forlorn street to see which is the uglier of the two. And as La Belle Femme commented, “It is almost surreal. I have a new sense of gratitude for things I’ve taken for granted. I can drive anywhere, eat, go where I want to go, I am glad I have a home. I have a renewed faith in humanity.”

When news of Irma’s growth from a cluster of clouds into an ominous hollow cyclonic orb of destruction was announced, La Belle Femme’s concern for her Florida-based mother, sisters, and their families grew. And as I write these concluding words, Irma is fully armed, primed, and determined to toy around with the entire state of Florida as though she were merely a rag doll.

More than once TV clips reported on flocks of birds flying in the hurricane’s eye, a 30 mile diameter area of placidity and safety, a zone in which the feathery stock have learned to work with, instead of, against nature.

And what a lesson this should be for the human race, a greedy, selfish, exploitative lot whose destiny is linked to whether we work with, or against nature, with, or against each other.

And thousands of volunteers from across the nation will descend on Florida “Because they Could, and Because They Should.”

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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