Tag Archives: charity

Six Weeks After the Storm

On Friday August 25th, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Coast, leaving 82 dead, thousands injured and thousands without power. For a large swath of the Texas coast, homes, and lives, were ruined.

Six weeks later, in the coastal area from Port Lavaca to Corpus Cristi, this was the scene in nearly every residential neighborhood. Houses covered in blue tarp where roofs were punctured and windows were shattered. Debris was piled up by the side of the road waiting to be hauled away. Texas still in mourning.

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Even driving through commercial zones, evidence of this recent destruction was all around.

After years of studying the weather, admiring storms from afar, and analyzing storm data, I decided it was time for me to actually chip in and help those whose lives are affected by these wonders of nature.

I flew to Houston.

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I rented a car.

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And I drove down to Victoria, TX, roughly two hours southwest of Houston, a place where people were still cleaning out from the storm.

But first, stayed at a seedy hotel on the Southwest side of Houston.

Seeing security officers, police lights, and being solicited made my accommodations for the remainder of the trip, in the gymnasium of Faith Family Church in Victoria, TX, feel quite comforting (as I knew I would not get robbed here).

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I actually found the accommodations made for us volunteers quite fitting. I had seen so many scenes in the news, where storm refuges were sleeping in quarters similar to this as they ride out or recover from a storm. While not exactly living the entire experience as those affected by these storms, it still, just, felt right.

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I also have to give a huge thank you to the organization I volunteered with, Samaritan’s Purse. They arranged the sleeping quarters for volunteers, and even provided us with three meals a day. This makes volunteering for disaster relief efforts quite inexpensive. I only had to pay for my flight, the rental car and gas, and that cheap hotel. Oh, and I decided on my way down to stop at What-a-Burger, because, when in Texas, right.

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The odd thing about volunteering for hurricane relief efforts is that each day had a flow that almost resembled many of the outdoor adventures I regularly take part in, like adventure cycling, backpacking and skiing.

Each day would start off breakfast. We would eat together, pack our lunches, and head out. We would spend most of the day outside, being physically active. We’d return in the late afternoon, shower, change, and then all eat dinner together. That flow felt natural to me.

What wasn’t natural to me, as both a “city-boy”, and a “millennial” was the work. We just don’t learn how to work with tools.

Thanks to volunteering, and the patience of the other volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, I ended up learning a thing or two.

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Last year, when I read The Happiness Project, I was introduced to the concept of “fog happiness”. According to author Gretchen Rubin, fog happiness occurs when an activity does not necessarily bring you joy at the moment in which you are partaking in it. Rather, the happiness is spread out over a much longer time span, often both before and after an event. In a way, it is the antithesis of instant gratification.

The combination of seeing the result of my work, and knowing that I was part of a bigger mission with a clear positive outcome produced a clear example, for me, of fog happiness. Sweating in 90 degree heat, in October, with humidity only achieved on Long Island in the dead of summer, does not necessarily feel as good as sitting by the beach, or partying. I was, however, fulfilled.

As it turns out, I did get to go to the beach! Samaritan’s Purse, being a Christian Organization, takes Sundays off, giving me a chance to visit the Texas Gulf Coast.

The drive gave me a chance to see the true extent to the destruction all around me.

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I had hoped, maybe even believed, that six weeks after the storm the recovery effort would be further along than it was. Everywhere I drove, I kept seeing the same thing. It made me appreciate the true extent of the recovery effort, and how small of a part I really played in it, as I was in Texas for only four days. There were may volunteers who signed up for the entire effort, and will be there through the middle part of November.

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The four days I spent in Victoria felt like a trip back to the past, both with respect to my life, and society as a whole. The showers felt like dorm room showers. The presence of a lot of people doing the same thing all day felt like high school or college.

Also, the behavior and expectations felt like a trip back in time. Men and women slept in separate rooms. The organization did not permit one man and one woman to ride in a car together unless they are married. Phrases such as “I’m looking to nail something”, which have taken on newer, more sexually expressive meanings in the past few decades, reverted to their older, more innocent definitions.

IMG_1557 (1)I visited over half a dozen homes. Most of the people who needed assistance were people who have some other kind of poor circumstance; disability, previous home damage, etc. I even encountered someone who had recently had two strokes!

Oddly enough, although I felt appreciated for the work I did, it felt like some of the victims who I encountered were most appreciative of having some companionship when I would sit down and talk to them. In several instances I could sense a sadness in the eyes of those I was helping that had to do with factors beyond the storm. Worry about friends and family taking the wrong direction in life. Sadness about certain life events. Being lost. Perhaps most powerfully, being lonely.

It reminded me of the loneliness epidemic, as well as all of the other less obvious forms of human suffering currently going on. People are good at paying attention to suffering when its obvious. Other more subtle forms of suffering, such as loneliness, lack of fulfillment, lack of direction, and the feeling of being exploited by others, often go unaddressed.

I may not have the capability to travel to every major disaster and physically help the way I did this past weekend. What I can do is try, each and every day, to do something about all these other forms of suffering going on. These are the kinds of suffering I see every day. These people need help too.

Back on the Reservation

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit an Indian Reservation for the first time in my life.  I learned quite a bit from that visit.  I learned that these reservations do not look like many of us imagine them to.  I also concluded that our history is complicated.  I do not have a good understanding regarding why relations between us and the Native Americans progressed the way they did, and it would be disingenuous for me to take a position on these issues.  However, I did see people in need due to their circumstances.

There are some things universal about helping out those in need.  Contrary to some people’s belief, helping out those in need is not dependent on ideology, wealth, or status.  It is only loosely dependent on what someone believes about the person (or people) they are helping.  Caring parents will often bail out their children with financial or housing support even if they believe their child had been lazy, stupid, or malicious in the behavior that led them into trouble.

In my belief, in order to be genuine in helping someone out, there are two necessary conditions.

  1. There must not be coercion.  This one is obvious, being forced to help someone out, or forcing somebody else to help someone out is not genuine charity.
  2. There must be no expectation of a reward.  This includes not only a monetary reward, but also the guy who does charity work and then starts telling girls at the bar about it to help him get lucky.  Or, likewise, anyone that hopes for any praise or increase in status from their charity work.  To be fair, rewards can come.  But they have to not be the reason for it.

For this reason, I was hesitant about writing about this in my blog.  It could come across that I am trying to show off that I did charity work.  I am really just trying to explain the reason I went back to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as it is one of the poorest places in the country.  But, you have no real way of knowing that for sure.  Maybe I could have left this whole part out.

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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is in Southwestern South Dakota, with it’s southern border being the Nebraska/South Dakota border.  So, as soon as we entered South Dakota, we were on the reservation.  Last week, this area got an unexpected early season blizzard.   In the Black Hills, to the north, some places got over 40″ of snow.  This is something that rarely ever occurs in mid-winter in this part of the country, let alone in early October.  Pine Ridge, more on the southern flank of this storm, got about 12″, still a lot, and the evidence of this snowstorm could still be seen.

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The task yesterday was tiling, and we put up tiling like the one pictured above at a couple of houses in this neighborhood in Pine Ridge.  So, just like the day before,  I learned a new activity.  In fact, I continued on the theme of expanding my comfort zone, as over the course of the day I became comfortable using machinery that initially intimidated me.

Spending an entire day on the reservation, I made a couple of observations I hadn’t last time (when I was only there for the morning).  Last time I felt that the reservation may have just as poor as some of the dispirited urban neighborhoods I had previously observed, but not as dangerous.  However, I was only there for the morning, which tends to be the least dangerous time of day.  I noticed this hole in the window of one of the homes I helped work on.

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This hole in the window may just be more evidence that the area is poor and do not have the resources to repair such a thing.  Still, I wonder who it got there.  Stray bullets from gang related activity tends to be one of the biggest fears one has about visiting poor neighborhoods in the United States.  Either way, I am not about to go ask the homeowner how this happened- that would be rude.

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I was also quite astonished by the number of stray dogs in the neighborhood.  All day long, I encountered stray dogs just wandering up and down the street.  I recall one of my former co-workers in Chicago telling me that stray dogs were common on the south side, but I have no idea what that meant.  Occasionally I would see a stray dog in my neighborhood, but usually there was someone there to call animal control, or try to find them a shelter.  Here they were everywhere, wandering in and out of people’s yards, sometimes getting into people’s trash, and even pooping in the yard (which I was lucky to avoid).  I guess I just wonder why there is a different attitude towards dogs here than what I am used to.

The return trip also gave me an unexpected surprise; the quintessential Nebraska experience.  For me, this means thunderstorms and steak.  On the return trip southbound across the Nebraska Panhandle, we encountered a series of really fun storms, with lots of lightning.

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Thunderstorms are my favorite type of weather, at least from an observers point of view.  There really is nothing like the raw, natural power of these storms.  I also love the differentiation within the storms, and how abruptly things change inside a thunderstorm.  With the heavy rain, frequent lightning, hail, and abrupt wind changes, there is so much to see.  There is so much going on I feel like I can make a diagram like those Xs and Os the football commentators make.  It is the weather phenomenon for people who love to see all things energetic.

It is also the weather phenomenon for people who love efficiency.  Seattle and Kansas City average about the same amount of annual precipitation (37-38″).  However, in Seattle, precipitation occurs 155 days per year, while in Kansas City, precipitation only occurs 104 days per year.  Kansas City achieves the same result with 41 more rain-free days.  In addition, many days with thunderstorms are mostly sunny for large sections of the day, with the exception of the hour or two when the storms are rolling through.  Overall, many more productive hours.  For me, it is the long, humid day, followed by the abrupt thunderstorm that makes the Great Plains what it is.

We stopped at a steakhouse called Cantu’s in the town of Bridgeport, NE right after we finished rolling through the storms.  The place is right on highway 385, the main street through the center of town.  I have many times stopped at random places I encounter on the main streets of towns while driving through.  I really like doing this because it gives me a sense of what makes that town unique to every other town I have ever been to, something I won’t get by eating at a chain restaurant.

Of course, I have had a variety of experiences, ranging from great to horrible at restaurants like this.  However, when on the Great Plains, particularly in areas near a lot of ranches, I’ve have mostly good experiences with steakhouses.  The trend definitely continued today.  I really enjoyed my sirloin steak at Cantu’s.