This September, one of our Jaycees, Ben Seitz, was able to travel to Houston to help support the relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey. We are so proud to be able to share his experience in Houston with our St. Paul community. Here’s what he had to say:
Day 1: September 23
“I grew up in a household that put service to others as a priority. The Catholic dogma of serving Jesus in others stuck with me well into adulthood. I would witness disasters and yearn to have boots on the ground to help. Helping was not always practical. I remember trying to volunteer with flood relief in East Helena, MT. I showed up with boots and a crew, but nothing to do. At a minimum we were not needed, at most we were in the way. I learned then the lesson of being useful help. If you aren’t useful help, stay home and donate money to those who are.
Years later I witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Normally I would have passing thoughts about helping then go back to a comfortable life. But my circumstances were different. I had a job with generous leave and compensation, which at a minimum meant I could afford to take time off and travel for relief efforts. But again came the question of useful help. Could I actually show up and be useful help without being a burden to house and feed? What I had this time that was different than previous years was a connection to people around the world who had a common purpose: empower those that empower others. The Jaycees were that connection, one strengthened by a connected world that has few digital borders.
I saw on my Facebook feed that many of my Jaycees friends in Minnesota were donating to the Houston Asian Jaycees Foundation as they were actively assisting with relief efforts. Given the Internet that gave us CouchSurfing and later AirBNB, the concept of asking strangers for housing is not strange. Would Jaycees in Houston accommodate a stranger from Minnesota solely on the basis of being a fellow Jaycee?
I asked and the answer was yes. For the first time in my life I could travel and assist with relief efforts, provide useful help and not be in the way.
The Jaycees offer the opportunity for young people to make a positive impact in the community, whether local or global. Part of the Jaycees creed reads “…service to humanity is the best work of life.” Throughout the world I will find fellow humans who share this creed. My motives for going to Houston were never questioned; amongst Jaycees, it is understood with no need for explanation.
As I write this I am about to land in Houston. It is a late Saturday night and I no doubt have plenty to do the next day. Without this connection with the Jaycees, I would be enjoying a comfortable evening while many go without. But because of the Jaycees, I can have boots on the ground and can be useful help.”
Day 2: September 24
“Volunteer fatigue. I heard these two words from multiple Jaycees after arriving. These folks started working on shelter needs right away after the hurricane and have been helping strip homes since. They have full-time jobs and spend their days off with relief efforts. At this point, they are used to it and take it in stride.
I see a different kind of fatigue with the homeowners we are helping. We may show up and help for a day but the homeowners are in it for the long haul. They shoulder the burden of getting their house stripped and cleaned before contractors can come in and rebuild. They are living in one place while gutting their homes, nevermind work or loss of income from not working.
We helped a couple whose house flooded after the reservoirs were released into the bayou to prevent a flood of water breaking loose into Houston. They are victims of lifeboat ethics; flood one neighborhood to keep the rest of the city from flooding. Driving to their house, the neighborhood seemed untouched until you turned the corner. The next block had waste in every yard. Standard procedure is to haul everything to the curb and let the heavy equipment operators strip it off the lawn and dump it into large trucks.
The work is not easy. Masks, gloves, and eye protection are mandatory. It is dry hot in Houston but working inside shields us from the sun. We still sweat more fluids than we drink. There is no stepping outside for fresh air as the whole neighborhood smells like a mix of swamp and sewage. When we are done we looked at what we accomplished with a mixture of pride and disappointment; pride because we made progress, disappointment because the job is long from done. We did our day, but the homeowners have many more ahead.
The Jaycees have a simple way of finding people who need help. Drive to a heavy hit area, walk around asking residents if they need help until someone says yes. It didn’t take long for us to find owners of neighboring condos that needed help to fill my Monday and beyond. There is a large condo complex where every first floor unit was flooded and had to be stripped. Waste is piled everywhere on the grounds. The curb is lined with soggy couches. It is estimated that it may take 3 months to haul all the waste away. The Jaycees down here are balancing the demands of their own lives with the addition of seemingly endless relief needs. Hobbies and pastimes are placed on hold. “I haven’t biked in weeks, can’t do it when people are in need,” says one Jaycee. Those unaffected by flooding could certainly maintain their comfortable lives but they give themselves to others instead.
I can tell the Jaycees are in it for the greater community. I don’t know if/when they will shut off. My time with them pales in comparison with the greater vision of helping fellow humans in the community rebuild. However big our work seems in one house is dwarfed by the greater need we can’t meet with our number and time. But community repair is just that, one house at a time.”
Day 3: September 25
“Today we helped some condo owners with demolition inside their units. We met them the prior night and immediately language was a barrier for me. My host translated but today we didn’t have a translator. Frank was the owner and we communicated mainly with hand gestures and taking tools from each other to demonstrate how properly destroy the interior of his home.
The Jaycees come dressed for hazardous conditions. Boots, jeans, eye protection, gloves, and face masks. Frank was sporting shorts, flip-flops, and a shirt. We offered him some protective gear but he declined, stating in rough English that he had to get to work shortly. I was nervous working with him, hoping he didn’t step on a nail or have metal debris fly in his face, nevermind mold, fumes, sewage, and other hazards that we shouldn’t breathe. I don’t know if he was unaware of the risks or if he knew and was indifferent. It was concerning to see homeowners not take safety precautions, but they are adults and it’s their house.
Frank had to leave to go to work. I worked with Anthony, a Houston Jaycee for the day on Frank’s condo. When I was about to leave for the day, Frank came back with his son who could act as a translator. It occurred to me Frank’s new routine was wake-up, strip the condo, go to work, strip the condo some more, then repeat the same routine day after day until it is safe for habitation.
The 2nd story condos were not damaged by the floods from the reservoirs being opened. The 2nd story condos were habitable even if the outside wasn’t. I saw a mother walking with young kids wearing face masks. No doubt the insides if the 2nd story condos smelled from the gutted main floors, sewage in the grass, and mounds of trash on the curbs. Despite being spared of damage to their condos, these residents still have their quality of life diminished, especially for those prone to lower respiratory conditions.
A group of 9 volunteers arrived by van to help with a neighboring unit. They were from the South visiting Dallas for a trade show. Nine people working hard in a small condo made for fast work except for floor tiles. Various methods were deployed to efficiently pull floor tiles and it eventually turned into an unsustainable he-man show of rapidly pounding the tiles with a hammer. The men took turns and tapped out after a minute each, panting hard. A lesson in not having the right tools. I’m sure whatever power tool that could have gotten the job done are sold and rented out all around Houston.
The Jaycees here are still coordinating relief efforts in the evenings after work. They are reviewing grant applications for funds and supplies for rebuilding. Dallas Jaycees are coming down with drywall donations. It’s a difficult process to determine worthiness for funds and supplies. Even if it’s heartbreaking to turn down 9 out of 10 applicants, it’s still worth the effort to help the one applicant. And that is the best we can do; help out one at a time. The more groups that are helping one at a time the more people are reached.”
Day 4: September 26
“One is a lonely number when it comes to stripping a home. I was solo today, which means I had to be careful not to do anything too risky as no one would be around to render assistance if something unfortunate happened. I get a small sense of how homeowners might feel; progress is only so fast when working alone and the tasks that require two people have to wait.
A lady walked up to the condo unit I was in and asked for help with a mirror. The mirror spanned the entire wall in four sections. We balled up paper towels in our ears as crude hearing protection in case these 8-foot mirrors came down and shattered. We were able to pry the mirrors off the wall and remove them from the unit in few pieces. Shattered glass would have been an ugly cleanup. The owner was grateful and insisted on taking my picture.
A few hours later I was taking a break at the rental pickup truck when someone walked up and asked me if I was “the guy that can do mirrors”. Word spread quickly and wall-to-wall mirrors was a thing here apparently. These mirrors were three panes instead of four and took two people to carry out. By chance, we were able to remove two full panes without breaking and the third pane came out in three pieces.
As I sit here with my host Kevin, he is already looking up what Jaycees in Florida and Puerto Rico are doing. Despite the need in their own backyard, the Houston Jaycees are cognizant of the needs in other areas. Resources are stretched thin with relief efforts for multiple disasters that almost seemed to coincide with each other. I’m sure JCI USA is scrambling with relief efforts for Houston and Florida. Admittedly, I don’t know where Puerto Rico lies in the org chart but that situation will also demand a lot of attention. I know that Jaycees throughout the world will pull together to assist Jaycees with boots on the ground in the disaster areas.”
Day 5: September 27
“If Tuesday was “Mirrors Day” then Wednesday was “Doors Day”. Anthony (Houston Jaycee) and I helped a couple remove doors and door frames from their condo. A long crowbar is the most useful tool for house demolition. I should have stood on the side of the road with a sign that said “Have crowbar, will demo”. Most folks we’ve helped didn’t have the right tools to demo their property efficiently.
They also didn’t know how much of their homes to strip. The area we helped was primarily Asian with most folks speaking little or no English. Maybe they didn’t understand directions on how to demo their property or treat mold. The common adage was strip everything two feet and above the floodline. We went to the ceiling with the folks we helped and found mold the entire way up. It concerning that some folks will rebuild with mold still in their homes. The condo owners are really not doing well; do they even offer flood insurance for condos?
Today was my last day helping with relief efforts. We accomplished a lot for the small team we are. It would take countless lifetimes for one person to help every impacted household in Houston. There was an overarching sense of finality as I finished up with the condo for the day. And by finished, I mean finished for me, not the homeowner. Hopefully we put them ahead a week or two with the work we did. Still plenty to be done.
The Jaycees as an organization empowered me to come down here and make a difference in this community. With the Jaycees I learned what fellowship with Jaycees from other chapters really means; we are connected around the world and help each other. The Houston Asian Jaycees were assisting with relief efforts on Day 1 and set the framework for helping those in need. I just tagged along and went to work, much of the necessary tools and communication already established. Everyone I met with down here has thanked me for coming. Humbled, I insist that without their efforts and hospitality I could not have made a difference. Now only for those countless lifetimes to keep helping the people in need, here and in other recent disaster areas. The Jaycees will be in those areas; JCI stands for Junior Chamber International, emphasis on international. We are global citizens striving to make an impact in our communities. Houston is just one example of a community being served by Jaycees. I am thankful for my time here.”