This article was originally published by Jewish Herald Voice on April 4, 2019
Hillel students from California participated in an alternative spring break program that brought them to Houston, where they spent a week rebuilding a home that was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.
Located in Kashmere Gardens, one of Houston’s historic African-American neighborhoods, the wooden clapboard house flooded during the August 2017 storm and sat for more than a year in disrepair with all of its destroyed contents inside.
Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation connected the homeowner, who is elderly and intellectually disabled, with SBP, a disaster-recovery network that was launched in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. SBP, in turn, has coordinated with initiatives, such as Act Now Houston, to recruit volunteers and rebuild homes in Kashmere Gardens.
“I’ve sanded, painted and now I’m learning how to spray wall texture,” said Mahta Reihani, a senior from University of California Irvine.
“Even though I personally won’t be here to finish the rebuild, it feels good to know that I was one of the volunteers who made a contribution,” she told the JHV at the job site on March 28.
Reihani, who was born in Iran, said she is the Tikkun Olam intern at her local Hillel and she encouraged other students to sign up for the alternative spring break program.
Ocean Noah, a second-year student at San Francisco State University, also helped organize the trip to Houston through her Hillel.
“I recruited really hard, because community service is really important to me,” said Noah, who previously participated in a Hillel-organized alternative break in Santa Rosa, Calif., to help that community rebuild after wildfires.
After several days of painstaking prep work on the Kashmere Gardens house, Noah spent her final day on the rebuild painting quarter-round molding.
“I was expecting that we wouldn’t be able to see results, but we finally are, and that’s really exciting,” she said.
Sophie Perrault is one of three project managers from SBP who is coordinating volunteer crews at the Kashmere Gardens house. Over the past three weeks, about 100 different volunteers worked on the project, she noted.
“When we started, there was a hole in the side of the house, and all of the siding was missing,” Perrault said. “It sat here, basically abandoned for over a year, with all of the homeowner’s stuff in it.”
Volunteers have been crucial to the home’s rebuild, she noted.
“The volunteers speed up the process enormously,” Perrault told the JHV. “If it were just the three of us project leads, the last stage of the rebuild would have probably taken us three to four weeks, instead of a week-and-a-half.”
She added, “The more volunteers we get, the more homeowners we’re able to reach.”
With so many college students participating in alternative spring break programs in March, SBP was able to run two shifts per day at the Kashmere Gardens house, Perrault noted. As the crew of Jewish students from California arrived for its p.m. shift on March 28, a group of Muslim students, organized by Islamic Relief USA, was wrapping up the a.m. shift.
“There’s a lot of discussion about alternative breaks, like why should we go somewhere else instead of staying in our own community,” said Emily Simons, a Hillel staff member from San Francisco, who helped lead the delegation to Houston.
“Our approach is to do both,” she said. “The reason we go to new communities is to gain new perspectives and to learn more about events, like hurricanes and wildfires, through personal stories from those who were impacted.”
The group’s experience in Houston, Simons noted, highlighted the role that Jewish community continues to play in helping the city recover from Harvey.
“It’s important for the students to see that the Jewish community is everywhere, and we’re all connected,” Simons said. “We want them to see that when you’re in a position to help someone else, you do, and when you need help, others will be there for you.
“It’s a circle of giving,” she said.
Act Now Houston is an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, working in partnership with Repair the World and the Leadership Coalition for Jewish Service. The initiative’s program manager, Sacha Bodner, said Act Now Houston, over the past 19 months, has engaged more than 2,000 volunteers, who have contributed more than 23,000 hours toward helping Houstonians recover from Hurricane Harvey.
“Our initiative has connected volunteers and engaged them in learning and understanding what is needed after a disaster,” Bodner told the JHV. “It’s shown how somebody with no prior construction or contracting experience can come in and really make a difference.”
Even though many homes that were impacted by Harvey since have been rebuilt, there are many more, particularly in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, still in need of repair, Bodner noted.
“Experts say it’ll be a 10-year rebuild for Houston,” he said. “Recovery looks different in Meyerland, compared to Kashmere Gardens.
“It’s 19 months to the day,” Bodner said. “The Jewish community has been showing up during this time, and it’s important that we keep showing up to ensure that Kashmere Gardens and other communities will recover from Harvey.”
Act Now Houston’s effort to engage college students in Harvey recovery has three main components, according to Bodner.
“Besides the service projects, themselves, we do learning before we roll up our sleeves, and we have reflections afterward,” he said. “These three things, together, give participants a sense of connection to each other, to the community and to the greater mission of tikkun olam.”
After learning how to add texture to a section of fresh drywall in the Kashmere Gardens house, Reihani said her time in Houston has demonstrated how she can help others.
“Being on this trip helped me understand that I’m able to do so much more than what I thought I was capable of,” she said.
Her fellow Hillel student, Noah, added: “In talking with others about what kinds of service are helpful, and what isn’t, I’ve learned that the best way to be helpful is to ask how to help.”
Bodner said Act Now Houston continues to recruit volunteers for Harvey recovery. To sign up for a project, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit werepair.org/act-now-houston.