Team one reflects on what they saw in Houston as team two prepares for the unknown

Photo courtesy of Sasha Santillian

Last weekend, the Center for Student Action (CSA) sent a team of APU students and faculty to Houston to serve in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. This weekend, a second team will be flown into the devastation to provide aid in local communities that have undergone catastrophic flooding and water damage.

Originally, the CSA only intended to mobilize funds to affected areas in Texas.

“We found that students, staff and faculty wanted to do more than just donate. We decided about two weeks before the first trip to send students,” said Karen Rouggly, the CSA’s Director for Mobilization.

Rouggly expressed that organizing action teams usually takes about eight weeks, so coordinating these trips in two weeks came with several challenges.

“We’ve faced things that naturally come with natural disasters, that most people don’t anticipate,” Rouggly said. “Trying to provide transportation on the ground is hard. The city lost about 50,000 rental vehicles and 100,000 personal vehicles due to flooding, so trying to book rental cars has been more challenging.”

When the CSA initially decided to send two teams, there was a 25-student limit on sign ups. However, within the first 17 minutes, there were over 50 students signed up.

“We knew we needed to do more,” said Laurelyn Shaw, the Senior Program Coordinator for Action Teams .

Over 60 students and faculty will be in Houston this weekend with a primary focus on water extraction. In homes where families have expressed a need, students will be ripping out anything that was underwater, such as kitchen appliances, walls and stairs.

“We’ll be breaking the students up into three working groups to go into different communities to stop talking, and start acting,” Rouggly said.

Much of CSA’s efforts in Houston is rooted in responding to God’s call. Shaw hopes that APU will “continue to see disaster relief as a priority for our community, as well as be a way to empower the local church to be the body of Christ.”

Rouggly explained how students on team one were surprised how grateful some communities were for their help.

“Some of the church members couldn’t believe that our students cared enough to pay their own way to come and help,” Rouggly continued. “The perception of what students were expecting to see was quite different––for instance, you can’t see black mold in the walls, but you know it’s there. So having to wrestle with the things the media shows versus what the situation is like now was a challenge.”

When students arrive in Houston, they are trained by members of a local church that the CSA has partnered with. Shaw explained how the church gives a thorough overview of the work that students will be doing.

“The church that we’ve been working with has been doing an incredible amount of legwork there in Houston,” Shaw said. “Last week, our students helped three families, but the church has worked to mobilize many more volunteers than just our students.”

Senior nursing major Samantha Ritzert was part of team one and shared how hospitable the local church’s host families were.

“My [host] family stayed up late and got up early with us, made us breakfast and loved on us,” Ritzert said. “There were as many as 10 of us taking over their homes. Different life groups from the church made us meals, and they were a college student’s dream. It didn’t seem like a fair trade; we received all this love, support and hospitality, and all they got was a group of college kids providing untrained labor.”

Ritzert explained when the team first arrived, it didn’t appear there had been a hurricane because the exterior of the houses didn’t look directly affected.

“It looked normal,” Ritzert said. “But when we arrived at the neighborhoods, that’s when you would start to see the trash piles as people tried to clear the water damage from their homes. There were streets where every house’s insides had been moved to the curb.”

In comparison to other relief efforts, such as mission trips, Ritzert found this one to be much more difficult.

“I had experienced the joy of building homes for people, but this was an emotionally difficult comparison to have to tear someone’s home apart,” Ritzert said. “The damage lasts after the water recedes––houses have to be torn out and rebuilt.”

Many people within these communities are lending a helping hand to their neighbors and sharing scarce resources.

“Repeatedly the people we met shared how community is built from disaster––people are meeting their neighbors for the first time and trying to take care of each other,” Ritzert said.

When senior psychology major Dominique Thomas first heard of CSA’s hurricane relief efforts, she immediately knew she wanted to help. Thomas will be flying out to Houston this weekend with team two, unsure of what lies ahead. She is ready to “help families get back on their feet.”

“I am most looking forward to getting a better understanding of what all these families have gone through and are still going through, and getting to help them and build a relationship with them, even if it is only for a short amount of time,” Thomas said.

After Action Teams return home and efforts continue in Houston, Rouggly hopes communities will “recognize that we see them and we want to journey alongside them in their time of need, [and that] they see our students as a physical representation of a God who loves them and has not forgotten them when it seems like all might be lost.”

Shaw hopes students will continue to see the importance that action trips make to those in need.

“[Students] absolutely have a role to play in helping others. Ultimately, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves,” Shaw said. “Our office sits, quite literally, at the corner of the Great Commission and the Great Command––that’s no accident. We want to position ourselves to love our neighbors as ourselves, and go into all places to bring the good news of Christ Jesus. I hope these trips teach students how to do just that.”