by Mindy Michaels

As a native Houstonian, it was heart-wrenching to watch the news as Hurricane Harvey settled over the Texas Gulf Coast and dropped over 4 feet of rain in 4 days. At home in Austin, I streamed local KHOU news and watched images of emergency personnel, courageous civilians and news reporters evacuating people from their flooded homes and cars. For days I was glued to my phone checking in on family, friends, colleagues, and the teens I work with throughout the year. For me, watching and tracking the destruction of Harvey was an emotional roller coaster that left me feeling paralyzed and helpless.

How could I help my hometown? How could I as a camp and youth professional be supportive of my colleagues, teens, and families, who were evacuating from their homes? What could I do from afar?

The week following Harvey were a blur. Our GFC team managed to launch and open the Houston Hurricane Harvey Day Camp in partnership with Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston (ERJCC) and Congregation Emanu El Houston, while still running our largest teen event of the year—NFTY-TOR’s Summerpalooza. In the course of a week, our team provided childcare and reprieve for hundreds of families in the Houston area; our teens raised over $5,000 in gift cards and monetary donations; and moreover, the Jewish community was rallying across the country and around the world to support the Gulf Coast Jewish community as well as Harvey victims outside of the Jewish community. It still didn’t feel like enough.

With a congregation hosted teen event scheduled for late October, our team was in a predicament—How do we move forward with a scheduled event in Houston? How do we ensure that we are empowering our teens across the region and our movement to respond to the needs of hurricane victims? How do we create a teen powered program with opportunities for meaningful, educational, and effective response to the Hurricane Harvey?

We found our answer in Hurricane Harvey Houston Mitzvah Corps.

In four weeks, we crafted a program in partnership with URJ’s Mitzvah Corps, Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism (HCRJ), ERJCC, Red Cross, All Hands Volunteers, and local Houston partners to create an immersive weekend for over 100 teens and volunteers from around our Texas and Oklahoma region and the country.

We began our Mitzvah Corps weekend celebrating Shabbat together at HCRJ and hearing from Gulf Coast teens about their experiences as evacuees. Teens described evacuating their homes with their families and pets by foot and boat. Some families ended up in hotels, others in shelters, and some were lucky enough to find shelter in dry homes of family and friends. Teens who shared their story with our community described Harvey as the most difficult experience of their life, and yet they also had an appreciation that they were lucky and that 7 weeks after the storm they were ready to help families in need and work to rebuild their city and communities.

On Saturday, we “prayed with our feet,” and got to work across the city. Our volunteers were INCREDIBLE! It is simple to summarize our volunteer efforts in numbers:

  • Cumulative 500 volunteer hours with 5 organizations across the city of Houston.
  • Sanitized and packed over 2,000 cots at the Red Cross Headquarters.
  • Helped to clean out 4 homes in a forgotten apartment complex in Northeast Houston.
  • Loaded 4 truckloads of pre-school furniture, school supplies, and school records to move the Betha Alyce Early Childhood School to a temporary location at the Merfish Teen Center.
  • Folded and packed over 13,800 pairs of underwear for families in need with Undies for Everyone
  • Handmade over 30 mezuzot for dozens of Jewish families
  • Handmade dozens of holiday cards for Count Me In, Inc. for their Hanukkah gift drive.

While the impact of our volunteer efforts was widespread and invigorating, the lasting impression the experience of volunteering and learning about disaster relief alongside our teen volunteers is something I will never forget.

Our volunteers cleaned out homes had not been touched in 7 weeks after the storm. With residents still in Red Cross shelters, our volunteers saw first-hand the destruction of the storm and how natural disasters can highlight socio-economic inequalities. Our programming and volunteering highlighted how long-term and effective disaster relief looks to providing immediate physiological needs, long-term health and infrastructure needs, and how important it is to address the sense of loss that comes with losing one’s possessions and sense of security.

Our participants and staff left the weekend with a deeper understanding of how to make a difference after a natural disaster. Teens who were victims of Harvey themselves left with a newfound sense of purpose and ready to continue volunteering.

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21 Pirkei Avot)

We left Houston knowing that what we had done was not enough, but feeling empowered and motivated to do more and continue to support victims of Hurricane Harvey to recover and rebuild.

Mindy Michaels is an Assistant Director at URJ Greene Family Camp, as well as the Regional Director of NFTY Texas and Oklahoma Region.