120 Texas students spend week helping in Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts

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Students from across Texas are helping homeowners dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, and learning vital and handy skills themselves. Rachel Denny Clow, Corpus Christi Caller-Times

A summer retreat doesn’t typically involve repainting strangers’ homes, cutting wood for someone’s house siding or helping clear out a demolition-bound trailer. 

But for one week, students from across Texas came together to help residents still affected by the destruction of Hurricane Harvey nearly two years ago.

Roughly 120 students arrived Monday at First Baptist Church of Portland.

The students were connected through baptist church youth groups and led by BOUNCE Student Disaster Recovery. 

They all came prepared to lend a hand.

More: Harvey recovery: Your Hurricane Resource Center

The group was separated into several teams that travel to Corpus Christi, Aransas Pass, Rockport and Sinton, helping homeowners remodel and clean their affected house.

The youth groups, made up of students from sixth grade to those in college, are instructed by team leads who show them how to properly cut wood, repaint or do landscape work.

“These kids are eager to do it,” said James Wilburn, one of the team leads. “So eager to give up their time to come out and serve others. They don’t all have the experience to do everything that we’re doing, but they’re willing to learn.”

More: Lawmakers worry about pace of Hurricane Harvey recovery effort

Hurricane Harvey reached Category 4 intensity when it rumbled ashore Aug. 25, 2017. Its 130-mph winds leveled scores of homes, businesses and schools throughout Aransas, Refugio, Nueces and San Patricio counties, before moving on to Houston and Louisiana. 

If you were thinking this was a relaxing summer camp for students, think again.

There’s real work involved.

Students wake up early for 6 a.m. breakfast. 

After that, they head to their sites by 7 a.m. and work until 4:30 p.m. Work can involve anything from repainting damaged walls to clearing debris from properties.

Following dinner is a nightly worship service. They sleep at the First Baptist Church of Portland in sleeping bags or on air mattresses.

More: Near Rockport, neighborhoods seek resurrection from Harvey damage

Emma Ethridge, 17, helped paint and install siding on a storm-damaged house in Aransas Pass, which was among the communities hardest hit the storm.

The Austin teen said she hopes recovery efforts continue to help the Coastal Bend, despite the fact Harvey isn’t as high a priority for many, now two years later.

“It’s sad to see that some people have been living like this for two years because they don’t have enough money to fix it (damage), or insurance isn’t helping them or they don’t know how to fix things themselves,” she said. “We’re really lucky to be able to come and help and be able to get people up on their feet.”

She said her faith motivates her to give back.

“You can be a Christian, you can talk, you can read the bible and you can tell God’s word. But it’s really a big difference if you’re serving other people like you’ve been called to,” she said. “You’re making a difference for people that went through hard things that you haven’t.”

More: Hurricane Harvey memories strong for Armonie Brown as Refugio rebuilds

The youth groups had to pay or raise enough money — about $270 per student — to cover the trip’s personal expenses.

The students also donate during church offering to help fund other relief efforts in the area.

Most students often don’t get to see the homeowners before they go on to the next work site.

Ethridge’s group helped a woman named Ruby move out of a trailer home that was being demolished into a new one earlier in the week. When they met Ruby, she said she was glad she never lost her faith in God despite her losses, and now she’s seeing the results.

Wilburn said that moment was humbling for the students.

“She still will never get back all the things that she lost,” he said. “But to have someone come to help restore some of the things she lost, she was so grateful.”

Cecily McIlwain, BOUNCE’s communication and missions specialist, said although the work isn’t glamorous, these missions have often become the main summer retreat for many youth groups. 

“It is a really unique group of students who end up coming and being a part of these projects,” she said. “They’re changing communities, they’re changing people’s lives.

“It’s hard to get people to buy into ‘Let’s just go serve people for a week,’ but we have exceptional students who are happy to do that.”

Similar BOUNCE groups have traveled to Houston and Galveston to aid in recovery efforts in those communities.

A new BOUNCE group will travel to Victoria on Monday.

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