By Evan Traylor, Associate Director for College Engagement, URJ
A couple of months ago, I found myself inside a broken-down house in Houston, Texas. The paint was gone, holes in the walls, and the roof struggling to stay upright – it was a truly devastating sight.
This house, long before it looked like this, was where Ms. Patricia Crockett raised her family for more than 40 years. It was where they gathered around the dinner table, celebrated holidays, and enjoyed being together as a family. But, like thousands of people in the Houston area, her home was destroyed by the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. One of the costliest hurricanes in United States history, Hurricane Harvey killed dozens of people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes. After surviving this storm and living with one of her children in an apartment for more than a year, Ms. Crockett desperately wanted to get back into her home. And I was grateful to be just one of the many people who would help make that happen.
Volunteering through Act Now Houston, an initiative to mobilize the Jewish community to help the Houston community with the recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey, a group of seven URJ Greene Family Camp college alumni volunteered in the Houston-area to help get Ms. Crockett back into her home. Although not having a ton of home improvement experience, we all worked hard to paint, cut, and place base boards throughout the home. Our project leaders, who had built five other homes throughout the year, gave us the training and tools to make a ton of progress in one day. The most important and special part of the day was when we got to meet Ms. Crockett and hear about her experiences raising a family in the home we were helping to rebuild.
In reflecting on this powerful experience, I loved that we got to get our hands dirty and contribute to getting Ms. Crockett back into her home. But I also know the harm that comes with volunteerism without knowledge. It was important that our group not only knew about the devastation and recovery process of Hurricane Harvey, but how it compared to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. It was important for us to know that poor folks and people of color have been, and continue to be, disproportionately left out of the recovery process for natural disasters. And it was important for us to place this volunteer experience within the framework of a lifetime commitment to activism and pursuing justice in our communities.
In Pirkei Avot, we read: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must do everything we can to fix the brokenness of our communities and world; both through volunteerism and through growing our knowledge and understanding of the issues. With every hole repaired, with every issue learned, we make our world more whole.