MEDFORD — The first of seven teams of local volunteers for Helping Hands International will head to Houston Sunday to begin the tedious process of helping to restore the region affected by Hurricane Harvey.
Representatives for the organization, a nondenominational ministry based in Medford, said they would help with cleanup and tear down of flooded homes in the region and offer comfort to victims.
Founded in 2005 by Medford resident Ron Ashpole, Helping Hands facilitates mission trips for the local community, around the United States and internationally.
Ashpole said his organization would send seven teams for a week each for seven consecutive weeks to provide aid for those affected by the storm.
Harvey was the first hurricane stronger than Category 3 to make landfall since 2005, dumping record levels of rain and causing massive flooding.
Ashpole said Helping Hands began its mission projects during a similar hurricane season, leading teams of volunteers to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Outside of U.S. aid, Helping Hands conducts mission efforts locally and internationally with house-building efforts in Mexico each year in addition to projects for communities in Africa and India.
The trek to Houston, Ashpole said, would be “one of the more inexpensive missions for volunteers,” who pay their way with just a $50 van fee and whatever the cost of an airline ticket would be. A home base is being provided for volunteers with meals and a place to sleep inside a local church.
Once there, Helping Hands volunteers will piggyback on efforts in place by Samaritan's Purse International Relief (www.samaritanspurse.org).
Ken Snelling, a Helping Hands team leader and local architect, said each of the seven teams would help to move the region forward by cleaning up massive damage left by Harvey.
“They will send us to a house every day, and there might be one to two teams including us and whoever else is there. We go to a person’s house who has lost every single thing they own — clothes, furniture, everything. We clear everything out and then we cut the drywall at four foot high, strip it out, take out insulation and, the last thing we do is walk through and spray disinfectant,” he said.
“After we’re done, FEMA comes by — and the pile in the front yard is the size of a school bus — and they have a hydraulic lift that picks up everybody’s worldly belongings to put into a huge landfill. And this will go on for months and months.”
Ashpole said the work is both heart-wrenching and satisfying for volunteers.
“We have done multiple natural disasters around the country, but our Houston effort is one of our largest to date. We started by sending families on trips to Mexico to do house building, but Katrina was our first disaster relief in the U.S.,” Ashpole noted.
“A lot of people want to know how to help when something like this happens. It’s pretty amazing to be able to send somebody to help for just $50 and a plane ticket. Sometimes we have people willing to help, but without a ticket, and we’ll pair them up with someone who can’t go but they’re willing to buy a ticket. There are ways for everyone to help out.”
Ashpole said teams who had signed on to volunteer couldn’t get to Houston fast enough.
“Watching the news — and hearing they were predicting it would be one of our worst national disasters because of the number of people affected — we knew right away we would send volunteers,” he said.
Snelling said national attention wanes quickly after a disaster.
“We haven’t really heard the word 'Houston' in the news for a solid week. There’s a lot of coverage during the disaster, but then we’re on to the next news item, so the funds stop coming in to help those who were affected. It’s going to be years before they get Houston cleaned up,” he said.
Snelling said giving victims of natural disasters a sense that they were cared about benefits volunteers as much as those receiving the help.
“We’re there at this devastating time. We’re working to empty things out and strip them down, and you literally see their entire lives and all their belongings are ruined. One guy had 800 to 1,000 records, just stuck together. Another lady sat in her yard trying to smile and to thank us and she just cried for eight hours. It was absolutely heartbreaking,” Snelling said.
“In addition to stripping the houses down, we have team members who just comfort them and sit with them to talk. Before we leave, the last thing we do is give them a nice leather-bound Billy Graham bible. Our purpose in going is to show them that someone cares.”
For information or to donate, see http://helpinghandsinternational.com or call 541-621-0134.
— Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.