When Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders President Bart Tucker arrived in Texas’ Upper Galveston Bay area a few days after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, the scenes were all too familiar — flooded streets, waterlogged homes and desperate faces. He had seen it all before in places like Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
But this disaster stretched as far as he could see. Almost no one between Houston and Galveston was untouched in some way — massive or minor — by the flooding caused by Harvey’s record rainfall. Only aerial views could truly capture the scope of the disaster.
Having already spoken by phone with numerous churches and local leaders (including the Rev. Keith Uffman, pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church and a member of The Fuller Center for Housing’s international Board of Directors), Tucker knew that the local community would embrace the Disaster ReBuilders’ help. And, looking around, he had no doubt the community needed all the help they could get.
“I began to assess the devastation, and that was a pretty easy assessment to make because there were so many thousands and thousands of homes that were flooded and destroyed,” Tucker said. “It quickly became crystal clear that this is where God wanted us to be, and this was where God wanted us to serve.”
While the disaster may have appeared overwhelming to some, he added that “overwhelming” is becoming all too common when it comes to recent natural disasters.
“The enormity of the disasters that we’re dealing with as a nation is really overwhelming,” he said. “It’s overwhelming to our government institutions. It’s overwhelming to the community of churches. It’s overwhelming to the community of nonprofits. In the last couple of years, we’ve had back-to-back enormous disasters. The loss of human life, the loss of material resources is incredible and difficult to swallow.”
Yet, even with such a widespread disaster staring you in the face, there is only one way to begin addressing it — one step at a time.
“We just go in with the attitude that we want to find the person that needs our help the most and help them — just make a difference on person-to-person basis, make a difference for that one family,” Tucker said. “We know that when we make a difference to that one family, it begins to make a difference for that neighborhood and it begins to make a difference to the community.”
Hitting the ground running
Tucker said that Uffman was instrumental as the point person who helped corral the necessary recovery partners — especially the churches who would help them find local volunteers, identify families and support the hosting of out-of-town volunteers. The Disaster ReBuilders set up a base in the Upper Galveston Bay area with its main church partners being Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in Houston and Uffman’s Webster Presbyterian Church, which sits about one mile from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
While the Disaster ReBuilders usually spend a long time mucking out homes — including removing wet drywall and flooring to prevent mold issues — before they can begin the process of rebuilding after major floods, locals wasted no time prepping homes for restoration even before the base was fully established.
Among those who mucked out homes just after Harvey hit was James Kinzler of nearby Seabrook. NASA brought his family to the area when he was a child, and he became a member of Webster Presbyterian as a youth in 1963. He enjoyed a long career with Exxon before retiring in 2017 not long before Harvey struck.
“It went from ‘I can do anything I want!’ to ‘Holy, moly, there are all these flooded people, and they’re my neighbors’,” Kinzler said after a hot, muggy day of work on the Brenda Barton Memorial Build last week while fellow church members prepared a dinner for volunteers in the Webster Presbyterian cafeteria. He recalled how Uffman introduced him to Aaron Ratliff (then the Disaster ReBuilders’ construction manager in the area before going to North Carolina to lead recovery efforts there), and they wasted no time getting started.
“Aaron and I and some of my buddies from church here, we were gutting houses one after the other,” Kinzler said. “It was exhausting work with a lot of heat — just a tough, tough job. We got done with that after a few months of pretty steady work. “I think we, this area, surprised Fuller by how many people were mobilized locally to do the gutting. The gutting happened fairly fast, so Fuller got to focus on the rebuild fairly quickly, which is a little rare maybe. We had so many churches and so many retired folks like myself that were ready and willing to do it.”
Another local resident, Eddie Sahadun, feels even more blessed to have come in contact with the Disaster ReBuilders. His family’s home was restored by the group last year. Afterward, he accepted a staff position with the local team and has become a hard-working, fast-moving fixture on job sites.
“When Fuller Center rebuilt my house, it was a big, great blessing for me and my family,” he said. “I started working with Fuller in rebuilding my own house. Later they asked me to start working with them, so of course I said yes. That’s a big blessing for me. I enjoy every moment with this organization.”
Volunteers come from all corners
The area would quickly become one of the busiest destinations for Fuller Center volunteers looking to serve communities in need, though those willing hands would go on to be divided between similar Fuller Center recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and North Carolina.
Most Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders volunteers who serve in Texas take advantage of the free lodging provided by Clear Lake Presbyterian that is included with the $100-per-week volunteer fee that goes toward construction costs. That fee also covers a t-shirt, lunches, breakfasts and dinners. Dinners are not provided on Wednesday nights, though, when volunteers are encouraged to go out on their own and experience local tastes of Texas. (Click here for FAQs about volunteering with the Disaster ReBuilders in Texas.)
Volunteer Cecilia Fuentes only recently learned about The Fuller Center and was wary of volunteering in Texas because the volunteer fee seemed a little low. There had to be a catch, she figured.
“I didn’t think it was going to be something that I could enjoy for such a low fee,” said the systems administrator from Pennsylvania. “When I came here, I didn’t know much about the organization. But now I know a little bit more and that they actually care about people in need and also the people volunteering. Honestly, it’s amazing!”
Last week also marked Maya Hooks’ first blitz build experience. The nursing student from Shreveport, Louisiana, though, knew plenty about The Fuller Center for Housing as her mother Renee has worked with the Northwest Louisiana Fuller Center for Housing, a position into which Renee was recruited by Millard Fuller himself, as well as Glen and Brenda Barton. The Barton and Hooks families would go on to become close friends, and that is what brought them to Dickinson, Texas, last week for the Brenda Barton Memorial Build. Maya said this will not be her last build.
“I have learned so much being here helping build the house,” Hooks said. “It was a very humbling experience, and God knows I needed that. As a young college student, life can get hard. But working out here has taught me more than just nailing a wall. I think it’s bringing me together to where I need to be.
“I got down and dirty this week — dirtier than I’ve ever been in my life,” she added with an ever-present smile. “I’ve lifted things that are heavier than elephants. My feet hurt all day long, but I still push through it because at the end I know that somebody’s going to be very happy that they’re going to have a new house. That’s going to be so amazing.”
Pennsylvanians Barry and Marcy Dobil knew plenty about The Fuller Center and its history before volunteering last week with the Disaster ReBuilders in Dickinson. They have volunteered over the past decade on various projects with both Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center. Like many, they volunteer simply out of a sense of service, whether it is in a disaster zone or anywhere there is a need for simple, decent housing.
“It’s a selfish motive — and by ‘selfish’ I mean you get more out of it than you put into it,” Barry Dobil said of their volunteer efforts. “We’ve been doing this for about 10 years in various efforts on different projects. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been married for 46 years with nine grandkids, so it’s important to give back. And this is a great way to give back.”
Marcy Dobil added, though, that there is something special about Texas.
“We enjoy meeting people as much as we enjoy building,” she said. “It’s just fun, and we like to experience new places. And Texas is a great state. Love Texas! Everybody’s friendly.”
Katie Robinson should appreciate that sentiment. She is a Texan herself, albeit from North Texas. She is among the many people who repeatedly volunteer with the Disaster ReBuilders, having also worked on flood-damaged homes in Louisiana and North Carolina.
“We learn a lot, for sure,” she said. “We gain a lot of skills and meet a lot of people from all over the country. You have a lot of fun. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s like being on vacation.”
While the word “fun” might not seem fitting for disaster recovery work, Tucker said it makes all the sense in the world and is a key reason the Disaster ReBuilders see familiar faces returning to work with them.
“I know that they feel the call to serve their neighbors in need as strongly as we do,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing to feel like we’re doing exactly what Christ wants us to do, but it’s another thing to have just a barrel of fun doing it. We really enjoy doing what we do. It’s fun to serve together side-by-side, making an incredible difference in the lives and the home of the family that we’re serving.”
Kinzler said the volunteers restore more than homes. They help restore the faith of his neighbors — including faith that their fellow Americans really care and that they are not alone.
“You get tears and people asking, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you coming to help me?’ and questions like that,” he said. “It kind of gives me goosebumps to talk about it. We had a lot of local early on for the first few months, and then folks came out of the woodwork from all over the place. Folks came from everywhere. That was a pretty cool thing, having people come alongside us. I think it’s great in a nutshell to have the people who can do help those who need so much.”
Plenty of work remains in Texas
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey’s watery assault on Texas always garner a lot of media attention and public concern in their immediate aftermath. Unfortunately, the attention and concern always shifts to the next disaster or tragedy. That is when the recovery process seems even harder as desperate families feel forgotten, and resources for recovery efforts are harder to come by.
Fortunately, the Disaster ReBuilders’ track record of success the past two years in the Upper Galveston Bay area have helped them secure funding to continue their much-needed work. Included in that support is a $500,000 grant from Catholic Charities and $100,000 from the Red Cross. This will allow the Disaster ReBuilders to add new homes to their Texas portfolio. In fact, the Brenda Barton Memorial Build house for homeowner partner Dorothy Thomas was one of the first three new Fuller Center home builds in the area with more to follow.
“We mostly have been gutting and rehabbing homes for people who were under-insured or not insured,” said Peter Salemme, who has an extensive history as house leader for both Habitat and Fuller Center builds and who now serves as the Disaster ReBuilders’ Construction Manager in Texas. “Some of the houses we look at, they were distressed before the storm anyway. The first three have been knockdowns — the people move out, we knock the house down, then build a new house on their land. It’s a nice new home that will last a long time. Also, we are elevating those homes, too — three or four feet above where they used to be — so if, God forbid, there’s another flood, at least we’re up a little higher.”
Most build leaders will tell you that new home construction is simpler than a major home renovation, but Salemme has a special place in his heart for the damaged homes he has helped restore.
“With a new home, you get a blank canvas, you’ve got a chance to do things right — plumb, level and square,” he said. “But me personally, I like the rehabs better. I personally experience the heart of God through that because those old junk houses look like me, look like us. We’re all sinners. God could very easily take you and put you in that dumpster. But, no, He chooses, ‘I’m gonna restore this man to his original ideal, his original splendor.’ So, we’re all under construction.”
While Tucker is grateful for the hundreds of volunteers who make the Disaster ReBuilders’ work in Texas possible, he said the dedication of construction-savvy people like Salemme and the entire Texas team is the most critical element of the hands-on work.
“They’re the backbone of it,” Tucker said. “There’s a lot of skilled construction people in the United States, but those individuals are a breed apart. They not only know the construction business, but they know how to work with volunteers. They know how to motivate and get volunteers excited about doing things they’ve never done before in their life.”
Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell had the opportunity to see the Disaster ReBuilders’ operation up close last week as the Brenda Barton Memorial Build began. He remains impressed with how so many elements — including the faith community, construction leaders, volunteers and financial supporters — have come together to ensure success.
“For over two years now the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders have been hard at work in the Houston area helping families in need recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey,” Snell said. “It has been a demonstration of what an effective undertaking like this should be. Our disaster team, under the leadership of Bart Tucker, has brought together donors, churches, foundations and volunteers to do amazing work starting with the messy task of mucking out damaged houses to restoring them and, in some cases, building new. This is Christian charity in thoughtful, efficient action.”
VIDEO: Conversations with leaders and volunteers about the Disaster ReBuilders’ efforts in Texas (16 minutes)
BONUS VIDEO: Peter Salemme answers the question, “If new home builds are easier, why do you love rehabs?” (1 minute)