When Harvey bore down on the Houston area as a category 4 hurricane, then stalled for several days in late August 2017, it dropped records amount of rain, ultimately leading it to be the second most costly storm in U.S. history only behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to a recently released report by the National Hurricane Center.
During its pause over the Houston area, Harvey dropped more than 60 inches of rain, spawned 57 tornadoes, left 68 people dead and did more than $125 billion in damage, according to the report.
When word of Harvey’s devastation reached Cheri Champagne, Catholic Parish coordinator for the Base Chapel on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, she knew she had to find a way to help the victims of the storm recover from its destruction. Having grown up in the Houston area, Champagne still had family there; many of whom were impacted by Harvey. Her brother and his family lost their home in the storm.
Champagne hatched an idea to see if she could get volunteers from the base chapel community to travel to Texas and help residents there recover from the storm. After hearing her idea, Col. Ted Wilson, 88th Air Base Wing chaplain, was 100 percent supportive of the effort.
“The Air Force Chaplain Corps as a whole works to meet the needs of people still in distress and assist in humanitarian relief efforts wherever possible,” said Wilson.
The volunteer work was a great opportunity to demonstrate faith through action and exercise the mission of helping others, Wilson explained.
“This effort gave our community a chance to demonstrate God’s love to others, to grow in their faith and to get out of their comfort zone. There’s something special about folks getting their hands dirty and showing their faith through work to meet people’s immediate needs in their homes,” said Wilson.
In total, 17 people from across the base chapel community volunteered to make the trek to Houston.
“It was truly an ecumenical group comprised of people from the Catholic and Protestant groups on base,” said Maj. Rachel David, Parish Ministries branch chief and one of two chaplains to make the trip. “Our hearts were burdened with the storm affecting the lives of people in Houston and members of our local community. Not only was Cheri’s family affected, but several others in our community had family members who were impacted by the storm.”
The trip was a success, explained David.
“When we first arrived at our work site, you could see the hopelessness and devastation. The needs of that area are still great, even though you no longer hear about it in the news,” she said.
“In just a few short days we could see a change in those affected,” said David. “We could start to see a glimmer of hope back in their eyes.”
Capt. Brenner Campbell, 88th Security Forces Squadron and 711th Human Performance Wing chaplain, was the second chaplain on the trip.
“We have a vested interest in humanity overall and in serving our communities,” said Campbell. “Our mission is to embrace service before self.”
This was also a really good way to get some leadership training for younger people, explained Campbell. Trips such as these are similar to deployment preparation. They give those who have not deployed an opportunity to work in an austere environment and learn how to hit the ground running, he said.
“These opportunities bolster our folks’ confidence in their abilities and their work,” said Campbell. “They get to see firsthand that we can make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
No appropriated funds were used during the trip. It was funded entirely from donations by the Catholic chapel explained Champagne.
“We were blessed with generosity throughout the trip,” said Champagne, who coordinated the logistics of the trip through a childhood friend who happens to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The volunteers on the trip either took leave, or personal time off from work. Active-duty members were granted permissive temporary duty, or alternate duty location authorization to participate, said Champagne.
Champagne’s FEMA friend put her in contact with Parkway United Methodist Church in Sugarland, Texas, who in turn put her in contact with Attack Poverty, a non-profit organization that works to strengthen under-resourced communities.
Parkway provided accommodations during their stay as well as food during the group’s time in Texas. Attack Poverty organized logistics for the areas where the group worked to make best use of their limited time in Texas.
Besides helping a community near her home town Champagne had another reason to celebrate the trip. Her daughter Dixie was one of the volunteers on the trip.
“As a mom going with my daughter was a special experience,” said Champagne. “It was also fun to watch her growth during the trip. Dixie held back a little when we first got there, but by day three she was in there taking charge of projects.”
One of the most motivating parts of the trip voiced by members of the group was getting to meet the people who they were helping.
“Seeing the family photos and talking to the people really personalized the trip,” said Hannah Wegner, Catholic Chapel youth ministry coordinator. “It made us want to work harder and do a better job for them.”