4 Flavors of Jello in Texas

“Hurricanes suck.”


 Hi, Girlfriends and Guy friends, On August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas and became the wettest Hurricane on record.  Houston received close to 51 inches of accumulated rainfall over 4 days, causing hundreds of thousands of homes to flooddisplacing the residents who lived there.  John and I wanted to help.  No…actually we NEEDED to help.  Our hearts went out to the hurting people in Texas.   By Monday, August 28th, we had cancelled our RV travel plans for Colorado and Utah and turned towards the coach towards Texas.  We began researching organizations, and headed to Dallas/Fort Worth by way of Tulsa, OK  on Wednesday, August 30th. But here is the thing. We couldn’t hold on to our plans!  As soon as we decided how to volunteer, just as quickly, those plans would slip out of our hands…like Jello.   Lemon Jello #1

For example, on Thursday, August 31st, John and I attempted to sign up with the RV Disaster Corps, thinking that this would be a natural fit with our lifestyle.  We found out they weren’t ready to mobilize.  Since we wanted to serve right away, we scratched this opportunity off our list, and restarted the research process.


Lemon Jello #2   

On Friday, September 1st, we arrived at Whitney Lake RV Resort, just south of Fort Worth.  We found a volunteer opportunity to help on Sunday, September 3rd, at The Latham Springs Retreat Center just outside of Fort Worth. That day we joined other volunteers sorting thousands of donated items in a gymnasium.  Latham Springs was housing 500 patients and staff from flooded facilities just outside of Houston. The good news is that these 500 evacuees were packing up to return to one of their facilities that had been deemed safe.  The bad news is that we again were without a volunteer serving position.


Researching our Options…again.

We really wanted to serve in the Houston area, so on Monday, Sept. 4th, we called ahead to inquire about RV reservations in the Houston area.  The Thousand Trails Lake Conroe RV Resort, Willis, Texas had sites available.  Awesome.      


Next, we researched Truck Stops in the Houston area for diesel fuel availability and found no shortages.  


We then contacted the church we attended 2 years ago (The Woodlands) in north Houston and found their website packed with opportunities to serve the victims of Hurricane Harvey.   

Next came a bonus.  We found a group called Operation BBQ Relief in our Google search.  I. Am. Not. Kidding. Two of our favorite things rolled together- BBQ and Volunteering.  This was a no brainer!  Lucky for us they accepted our application to volunteer in the center of Houston!    


Off we go!

So Tuesday, September 5th, we drove 188 miles to Thousand Trails Lake Conroe RV Resort, our old familiar territory.  We had stayed in this park during the winter of 2015 and had nothing but fond memories.  We snagged a 50 amp-full hook-up (water, sewer and electric), and settled in.     


Lime Jello Time

Wednesday morning at 6 a.m. we drove 50 miles south, to downtown Houston, joining up with Operation BBQ Relief (OBR).  We opted to join this group for three volunteer days for a couple of reasons.  First of all, in three days they were being forced to vacate the City parking lot they occupied for the past two weeks. (Grr…politics…) In addition, the OBR had been summoned by Florida officials to help with the impending Hurricane Irma, so we grabbed our only chance to work with OBR before they left town.  


After orientation, we jumped into the fun (Oops… I mean, hard work).  The aroma of smoking meat made our mouths water while the mega sound system blasted the appropriate Country/Rock toe-tappin’ tunes.  John and I stood shoulder to shoulder with professional BBQ competitors marveling at their skills and following their directions.    


We worked 3 long days with OBR and had a BLAST.  Did I mention the daily lunch buffet?  Yeah… It was tough…but we managed to scarf down fresh-off-the-grill briskets, pulled pork, turkeys, rice and beans, fresh roasted green beans, and bread pudding with whiskey sauce.


Since 2011 Operation BBQ Relief has served:

1,572,234 Meals

22 States

41 Communities

231 Days Deployed

4870 Volunteers

 Note 6 of the 10 smokers behind me. The BBQ heartbeat of Houston. Pork Butts awaiting the rub. 

Ready to Roll.  Each tin held 30 pounds of smoked meat.

 Getting the rub on! 14 inch blade skills.Cherry Jello coming up

We rested over the weekend from our OBR experience.  On Monday, September 11, we were ready for our next assignment at The Woodlands Church located 18 miles from our RV resort.  John and I were impressed to learn that in the week following Hurricane Harvey, The Woodlands had already:

  • Given shelter to over 800 guests

  • Distributed over one million donated items all over the affected region

  • Serve over 15,000 meals to first responders

  • Mobilized over 4,000 volunteers

  • Provided a non-emergency medical shelter for Montgomery County

  • Provided over 100 boat rescues

We signed up for a “mucking crew”.  After a 30 minute safety orientation, we donned our bright green Disaster T-shirt,

joined our team leader Denise, and a crew of volunteers.  


Walls of Stench and Memories

It would take us 30 minutes to arrive at our assigned home: Mr. Clyde’s residence of 52 years.  On the drive there, I wanted to prepare John for what he would see and smell. (Mr. Clyde’s home would be his first muck out experience.)


I knew what the area would look like because in 2005 I had volunteered after Hurricaine Katrina hit New Orleans. It is impossible to describe the real life mess, the odors, the desolation, the lack of infrastructure, that is reality after a massive Hurricaine. You drive around, unable to see the homes due to the piles of household appliances, ruined personal items and wet drywall that line the streets.  


As we drove to our work site, visceral memories of the lower 9th ward flooded my mind.  My throat tightened and tears burned my eyes as we navigated down these streets:  



Our assignment was to proceed with Phase 2 of the mucking out of Mr. Clyde’s home.  Phase 1 of mucking was completed in the days before our arrival.  Those Phase 1 volunteers removed all the furniture, appliances, flooring, and drywall, from the first floor of his 4 bedroom home, and piled it at the curb.


Serving Mr. Clyde

Yes, our eventual goal that day was to complete Phase 2 of mucking, but, as Denise reminded us in our orientation, we were there to serve Mr. Clyde.  


No matter what that looked like.


If he needed to help us and be in the mix of our work… honor it.

If he needed to talk to us and take us away from our mucking duties for an hour… honor it.

If he needed to cry on our shoulder… honor it.

If he needed to vent his anger… honor it.


Denise said we didn’t have to finish Phase 2 in one day. Other teams could come the following day if need be.


Transitioning from strangers to team members 

Our team poised to tackle the Phase 2 venture.  Our assignment included:

  • Remove all the drywall screws and nails from the 2×4’s studs of each room.

  • Tear out any remaining drywall around window frames and doors.

  • Shovel leftover debris from the inside of the home.

  • Bag ALL debris and haul to the curb in wheel barrels.

We worked one room at a time. We soon had a rhythm and plan, tackling the thousands of screws and nails and muck that dared to challenge us.  The taller men and women scaled ladders to take care of the ceilings while those of us more vertically challenged addressed the lower walls and floors.


Mr. Clyde’s Voice

Starting hour 4, I commented to Mr. Clyde about his BBQ grill outside on the pile of rubble.  


That was all it took.  


The next hour, he shared dozens of stories with me- his voice muffled behind his masked face. He spoke of meals he had prepared on that grill, the celebrations that occurred in his home, recipes his mother had taught him on baking, how he and Betty celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary two years earlier, where his children lived, previous floods they had endured, photos of his grandchildren, how he planted all the garden in the area off the garage, and how God had blessed him with lovely neighbors, family, and, his beautiful bride of 52 years.


It was my most productive hour of service that day.


Team bonding 

  • As I rejoined my team, I learned that Stacy, the 20 something volunteer, and I had lots in common.  She was applying to nursing schools in the Houston area and had been a medical product rep in St. Louis where I grew up.  Coincidentally, she worked where I used to!  Stacy questioned me about my RN days working at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and the ever present expansions of the Barnes/Jewish Hospital complex on Kingshighway by Forest Park.  We reminisced about our favorite St. Louis places;  Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, The beautiful Free zoo, The Hill, The Arch, Imo’s pizza, and White Castle!    

  • Tom, another volunteer, had driven from Springfield, Mo. and randomly chose The Woodlands as a place to serve. Oh, and he was an ER doctor, who was a triathlete.  He and John shared tales of backpacking trips, and stories of unusual orthopedic conditions encountered in their careers.  Tom told us he and his family took last year off and traveled to 23 National Parks IN THEIR RV! Crazy coincidences.   

  • Denise, our leader, was retired from the marine corps.  She ran a tight ship of concern and safety for all of us.  She was cool.

  • Alfredo, another young volunteer, shared stories from his prior week and how he rescued several people with his fishing boat.  His quivering voice and watery eyes could not hide what he was still processing.  

Tired, dirty and sore

  • By the end of the afternoon my cute rubber mucking boots were covered with a brownish sticky paste of wet sheet rock mixed with who-knows-what and no longer matched my bright green volunteer shirt.  

  • My 60-year-old hamstrings were stinging with each deep knee bend to fill the industrial sized dust pan with sludge.

  • My glasses were spotted with!*#{! and fogged from my hot breath escaping my face mask.

  • Mr. Clyde was perched on the tailgate of someone’s pickup truck- his slumped shoulders reflecting his feelings.

  • Our whole team was quiet, tired, and hungry, because eating is not appealing when contaminated with and surrounded by stench and filth.


Time to go…

Hugging:  We hugged on Mr. Clyde and he allowed us to take photos of him.  We joined hands with him and prayed for him.

Bonding: We hugged our new friends and fellow work crew promising to keep in touch through social media.

Progress: We left Mr. Clyde confident his home was ready for Phase 3 of mucking; application of mold remediation spray to every surface of his home.


We left Mr. Clyde’s home almost like a funeral procession. Strange.  You don’t celebrate the hard work.  You just leave.  


The Unexpected Orange Jello

We thought we would be Mucking all week, but, once again we were wrong.  God decided to take our “plans” and surprise us with yet another serving adventure.        


It started with the poison oak.  


I woke up on Tuesday, September 12th, scratching a poison oak rash on my forearm that was inflamed and itching like crazy.  I could not take the chance of getting it infected from the mucking operation- so we opted for the Orange Jello surprise.  


John and I showed up at the Disaster Relief offices at The Woodlands Church and shared my poison oak story.  The staff was sorry to hear of my dilemma, but thrilled to have us in the office.  They were especially excited when they learned I had specific experience setting up a first response phone system and that John and I could operate rather independently. 

We manned the phones and operated like an E.R. Triage.  We organized data and canvassed local agencies and churches to document who was providing what services.  Here is a glimpse from our 4 days:

  • Jacob, had three children, had Leukemia, and would be evicted by midnight.  All the Houston shelters were full or closing down.  It took most of the day, but we found a church member with a big home and a bigger heart who offered her home to his family.    

  • Kristine was attempting to find clothing and baby items for her friend who spoke no English and  had 7 children.

  • Robert, confined to a wheelchair, had nowhere to go, and no family in the area.

  • Mary had a car crash into her home the day before Harvey hit, then the rains flooded her home.

  • Dozens needed their home mucked out and needed to get on the list.

  • Most people had no flood insurance.

  • Dozens called in to volunteer to help. 

At the end of most phone calls, we’d ask the caller if they wanted us to pray for them.  Not one person turned us down.


John and I were exhausted at the end of each day.  The hours were emotionally draining, but every once in a while we’d get surprised with moments of joy like:  

  • Vena, who was a gas station attendant, called to share what she heard first hand from customers -how The Woodlands Church made a difference in peoples families. Even though she was searching for shelter, she wanted the staff at The Woodlands to know what a difference they were making, and would we make sure to pass it along?

  • Keith called and had no gas in his car and did we know of anyone who had a gas can who could bring him a gallon? Oh, and the reason he needed gas was so he could go volunteer at a shelter. 

  • Mary, who was crippled, was calling for her friend who needed baby formula.  Mary had taken this woman and her children into her home.  When I asked what Mary needed she answered “Not a thing. My children are all safe.”  


This has been a tough couple of weeks.  I’ll still be processing my feelings long after we leave the state.  


I want to send a huge Shout Out to the Disaster Team at The Woodlands Church; Debbie, Jessica, Scott, Hunter, Russ, Penni, and Britanny.  You all Rock.  


So there you have it.  

Our desire to help in Texas ended up being a 4-flavor-Jello-experience.  


We entered this state two weeks ago feeling impotent. We had no clue what we could do to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey.  Luckily, God had a plan for us.  All we did was show up- making ourselves available.


Yes, our serving opportunities were physically and emotionally challenging, but at the same time, it was a privilege to serve strangers in their time of need.  


John and I will leave Texas later this week  and rejoin our previous travel plans.  The feeling of impotence we arrived with has been replaced with vitality.  We have been infected with the healthy addiction of serving…

…and wonder what our next opportunity might look like.


And one more thing.


Those affected by Hurricane Harvey don’t get to drive away in an RV, leading me to conclude:


                      “Hurricanes. Still. Suck.”   -grettytheunlikelyrver 











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