Baptist camp welcomes treatment facilities' residents
Pam Reed, executive director of nonprofit Devereux Texas, called Latham Springs Camp and Conference Center, located 25 miles northwest of Waco, since, after all, it had twice provided shelter during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.
"In 2005, preparing for the evacuation [for Katrina], we reached out to camps all around Texas, and Latham Springs said, 'We're here for you.' We made contact with them and immediately became fast friends," Reed said.
As Harvey threatened, Reed again turned to Latham Springs for help.
"This is a camp we are very familiar with. We love the people. We love the environment," Reed said.
"The kids are really having a good time. It's very peaceful, and there are lots of fun activities: nature walks, 'human foosball.' It feels like camp," she said. "And when you are in a crisis or disaster mode and you can come to a place like this, you get relaxed very quickly and the kids calm down. They get their basic needs met and they start to feel like kids, and they have fun."
Reed and the Devereux Texas staff brought more than 200 children and intellectually and developmentally delayed (IDD) adults from facilities in League City and Victoria, accompanied by more than 125 staff members, including teachers and medical personnel.
Once they arrived on site, various needs quickly became apparent.
"Mike [Wilson], the camp director said, 'What do you need? How can we help? He put people in action, contacted the sheriff and reached out to [Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief]," Reed recounted.
Reed also praised the surrounding community's generosity for providing donations, describing the circumstances as a valuable "life lesson" for the children and youth to look beyond themselves.
"It's a wonderful experience for our kids to see all these people whom they have no connection to coming here to help," Reed said, calling the "concept of volunteering" a bit confusing for some kids who wondered why strangers would offer assistance.
"Maybe someday they'll have the chance to do what's being done for them today," she said.
Reed said their date of departure from Latham Springs is "a bit of a question" while repairs are being made to their Houston-area facilities.
Wilson took note of disaster relief volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention on site and their selfless efforts.
"Watching the way God's folks step up, what a testimony it's been to these people," Wilson said. "They will come to the office and ask for this or that, and often while they are still in the office, the need is met as someone drives through the gate."
Meanwhile, an SBTC DR laundry trailer from Lake Athens Baptist Church began operating over the Labor Day weekend in the recreational vehicle section of the 400-acre camp, apart from the main cabins, lodges and dining facilities.
Inside the trailer, with dryers humming, DR volunteers Danny Partridge and Jerry Hamilton from the church said they expected to continue washing, drying, folding and bagging nearly 50 loads of laundry each day. Lake Athens pastor Mike Curry and his wife Pam staffed the unit during the first part of the weekend.
The trailer shell was made available to Lake Athens by the North American Mission Board and the SBTC, Partridge said, explaining that church members wired and finished the inside, adding four stackable washing machine/dryer units and otherwise outfitting it, paying for the improvements with donations. The trailer also features three showers, including one that is ADA compliant.
Lake Athens' deployment marks the "maiden voyage" of the church's laundry trailer, SBTC DR director Scottie Stice said.
The work continues
Throughout southeast Texas, disaster relief operations continue in numerous locations throughout the hard-hit region.
In Rockport, where Harvey's onslaught crippled electricity and water services, SBTC DR teams moved into the parking lots of Coastal Oaks Baptist Church, with its facilities being used for distributing food, water, clothing, baby items and pet supplies to those in need.
"We served 75 families yesterday [Aug. 31] and three times that many before lunch today [Sept. 1]," said Andrew Barlow, Coastal Oaks associate minister, whose own home suffered extensive damage from uprooted trees.
"As the need became evident for a distribution center here in Rockport, we had to make the call. You either use it or you don't. We decided to use it. We are staying at capacity. As donations are going out, more are coming in," Barlow said.
Coastal Oaks escaped severe structural damage from the storm. Brick facades on the church gym were shorn off the building and trees were uprooted by violent winds that made the region resemble one ravaged by a tornado.
Mike Phillips, fresh from a DR mud-out deployment to Illinois, brought a chainsaw team from First Baptist Church in Bellville and was joined by volunteers from Del Rio, Borger, Pflugerville and Wimberley.
"We had a week and one day [between disasters]," Phillips said, his voice raised over the buzz of chainsaws as his 12-man crew sliced through trees threatening a home, the first of three work orders scheduled on the block.
Assembling a chainsaw crew for Rockport was easy because many people were "ready to come down," Phillips said.
"Our focus is to help families where there is what we call a priority one situation, where we need to get trees off the house and the situation is dangerous," he explained, gesturing to uprooted trees in the home's side yard that would be left alone because they posed no threat.
Around the corner, Sharon Sanders, who attends Coastal Oaks, surveyed the ruins of her trailer and waited for an adjuster.
"I'm tough," Sanders said. "I have ridden them all out except one in the 1960s when I got stuck on the highway." Although she sheltered from the storm nearby, she was back to pick up the pieces.
Back at Coastal Oaks, DR volunteer Debby Nichols said she had committed to a month-long deployment and was in charge of a unit from Texarkana tasked with feeding the 35 SBTC DR volunteers on site.
"This is my first deployment without electricity and water, which makes it a bit difficult to cook," Nichols said as generators hummed behind her.
"It's hard to stay cool at night, too. But it's all right. I have a home to go home to [in Texarkana]," she said.
George Yarger, SBTC DR logistics officer and head of communications, arrived in Rockport with men from his home near Mabank, bringing the SBTC's DR communications trailer, equipped with ham radio equipment, satellite potential and computers.
This deployment, Yarger said, is different in terms of communications, with unreliable internet and no power. "Whatever we can get on our cell phones," he said, "is the only data we have.
"One of our main jobs is to make sure each crew on the field has a clear line of communication in case emergency services are necessary," Yarger said.
"Mosquitos became a problem today. The hurricane seemed to have blown them away," he added. "Unbelievable bugs" have returned, but: "We found if we turned the lights off, it was not a problem. I was having to type around the bugs." Chainsaw crews also mentioned swatting mosquitoes.
Yarger said the deployment had been smooth so far in terms of logistics and the moving of equipment, despite the lack of electricity.
"I'm responsible for basically anything that doesn't have a soul," he said of his role as logistics officer. "Equipment makes the work happen, but ... we are here because the work allows us to share the love of Jesus Christ with people."
Yarger said he loves it when people ask, "You mean there's no charge for this?"
He said he answers, "Of course there's a charge for this, but it was paid for with the blood of Jesus Christ. We have come here to share that."
"There's always someone who needs the touch of Christ," Yarger said.
Chaplains Brenda and John Fuller of Grand Saline had such an appointment on Aug. 31 when a middle-aged man named Carter prayed to receive Christ when the Fullers were assessing his house for damages.
"As far as the work in the Texas Gulf Coast goes, Yarger said, DR crews are "going to do big jobs for a long, long time."
In Houston, on the future site of Bayou City Fellowship's new sanctuary, a metal building has been turned into a makeshift headquarters for disaster relief.
Cases of water, cleaning supplies and food sit stacked several feet high as volunteers scurry to organize donations that keep pouring in.
Across the room, church members work long hours in dispatching demolition crews to homes where floodwater from Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc.
"The great thing about Houston is Houston is a working people, and our church is a working church," said Curtis Jones, Bayou City's pastor.
Even while the storm was dumping heavy rains on huge swaths of Houston, Jones said the church rallied to meet needs. Men from the congregation went out in boats to rescue individuals and families trapped in their houses, and the church set up a disaster relief page on its website to start accepting donations and mobilizing volunteers.
"I think this moment is the point of all those sermons for all these years. When our neighbor needed us most, we showed up and turned up in Jesus' name," Jones said.
Like Bayou City, Champion Forest Baptist Church has utilized its facilities to collect supplies and, as of Sept. 2, the church had sent more than 1,000 volunteers out into the city for cleanup.
"This is an opportunity to be the Gospel, to offer something with no expectation of anything in return, just truly giving and loving," said Jeff Skipper, Champion Forest's mobilization pastor.
Outside of Houston, churches from throughout the state and nation have also extended a helping hand. Regardless of church size, Bayou City's Jones said there is plenty of opportunity for everyone to take part in relief efforts.
"Every church, no matter what the size has men and women who can do sheetrock and who can do plumbing, and we're going to need all those things," the pastor said. "We're going to need all those little churches who can send us teams of 10 and 20 people for the next six months, at least."
Although the process of restoring the city is likely to take years, Jones is hopeful that it will lead to a transformed Houston, and most importantly, to transformed lives.
"Houston has been plunged beneath the waters, and I'm hoping that God will raise it up to newness of life. That's only something He can do. We can rip out sheetrock, but only God can transform a life, and definitely only God can transform a city."
Get up-to-date information, find opportunities to volunteer, and give online at sbtexas.com/harvey.