As Houstonians begin to pick up the pieces of their lives following the devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have mobilized into volunteer work crews to provide much needed cleanup of debris for their neighbors in southeast Texas.
The Houston bishops’ storehouse had been preparing for Ike for weeks with food, water, tents, tarps, tools, chainsaws, cots and sleeping bags. Bennie Lilly, Area Welfare Manager for the Southwest Area, said preparation for hurricane season also means having hygiene kits, cleaning kits and food boxes positioned at various locations around the country that might experience the weather disaster.
The Houston Texas South Stake (a stake is comprised of six to eight smaller congregations) of the Church, located southwest of the Houston metro area, is one of several stakes that have fielded work crews every day following the disaster. Stake president S. Gifford Nielsen said: “Serving our neighbors in need has been an outstanding experience for the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are a lot people who’ve been devastated by Hurricane Ike, and we are seeing an incredible outpouring of love as neighbors help neighbors. We have been taught to love the Lord and love our neighbor and we want to express that love through service.”
The Church’s volunteers are instantly recognizable in their yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” T-shirts and come equipped with their own food, water and fuel. They arrive in damaged neighborhoods with chainsaws to take down damaged trees and provide tarps to cover leaky roofs – all free of charge.
On Tuesday, 16 September, 150 Mormon Helping Hands volunteers from Houston and missionaries from the Houston Texas South Mission worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Braeswood area. The bishop of the local Mormon congregation, Craig Hanis, has been very active in recovery efforts in his neighborhood and welcomed the additional Mormon Helping Hands volunteers.
Bishop Hanis explained that members of his congregation have heeded the counsel of Church leaders to be prepared. “Our members are 72 hours into this disaster, and they still have their own emergency supplies. Consequently, we haven’t waited in long lines because we already had water, ice and fuel. We did what we were counseled to do. It works.” As a result, Bishop Hanis’ congregation has been able to respond to the needs of others more quickly.
Bishop Hanis said most of the efforts have been directed towards people of other faiths. Helen Viola, Bishop Hanis’ neighbor, had trouble leaving her home due to a fallen tree. “Bishop Hanis and his three boys cleared out my yard before they started on their own,” she said. “That is the kind of neighbors they are.”
Another neighbor, Tom Herpin, said: “We came back [to the Houston area] yesterday. It looked like a war zone here.” He said that while some companies are charging thousands of dollars to clean up debris, the Mormons are just asking for the opportunity to help out. “That is pretty crazy,” said Herpin. “You don’t get a lot of that.”
Disasters, as horrible as they are, give Latter-day Saints a chance to serve. Randy Ellis, Houston cannery manager and disaster volunteer, said: “We get involved because that’s who we are. We’re trying to follow the example of the Savior. It feels good to help your neighbor. We don’t do what we do to get people into the Church. We do it just to help people.”
Deborah Duncan, host of KHOU TV’s Deborah Duncan Show, heard about the Mormon Helping Hands volunteers and decided to do a segment about them on her show. After watching the volunteers in action, she observed: “It is interesting to me because historically if you look at where people go in times of need and in times of a disaster, they go back to the church. And even though we have all of those government programs today and agencies and entities, people still at the end of the day go back to the church. It is nice to see people out here practicing what we preach.”
Billie Childress’s gratitude is typical of the many thanks the Mormon Helping Hands volunteers received that day. “They have been fantastic,” she said. “They are unbelievable. They are a blessing.”
In New Orleans, Louisiana, where Hurricane Gustav hit, the presence of Mormon Helping Hands has had a major presence as well. To date, nearly 3,000 man days have been logged in cleaning up people’s homes and providing delivery of food and water. Between the two hurricanes, more than a thousand Latter-day Saints have helped their neighbors and their communities even when their own homes sustained damage.