At 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday, while many residents of Halifax, Virginia, slept, a group of 4-H teens began a two-day journey to Rockport, Texas, for spring break.
These students rejected the usual beach vacations or lounging at home and instead chose to spend a week volunteering in a community still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
Rockport, Texas, received some of the worst damage from the Category 4 storm when it hit the Gulf Coast in August 2017. The hurricane caused property losses valued around $420 million and approximately 6,000 Rockport residents lost their homes entirely.
“Rockport, Texas, is where the eye of the hurricane hit. We felt like that would be a place that would need assistance for a long time,” said Sonya Furgurson, the 4-H agent in Halifax and the service trip organizer.
Ronnie Carson is just one of the residents who had to rebuild from nothing. Her home of nearly a decade was gone, and the beautiful trees she once spent her Sundays under had fallen. At first glance, the scars on her property left by Hurricane Harvey almost go unnoticed. She has rebuilt her home, restored her front yard, and moved forward a little more each day.
But with a second glance, you can see the debris, the impassable backyard littered with fallen trees, and the long road Carson and many others are still walking to recovery.
“It was a total disaster area. The house was totaled. All the windows were broken, the floor had fallen in, nothing left of the roof really,” Carson said. She, like many other Rockport residents, didn’t know where or how to begin recovery, relying on volunteer efforts to bridge the gap. When the 4-H’ers from Virginia arrived at Carson’s home, they cleared the fallen trees and debris, allowing Carson to walk on a part of her lawn she hadn’t seen in months.
In the months since Hurricane Harvey, Rockport has made progress toward recovery thanks to relief funds, FEMA efforts, and the work of volunteers. Massive amounts of debris have been removed, and many residents and business owners have rebuilt. But when the students got to Rockport, it was clear that there was still a lot of work to be done.
After a two-day bus journey, the 27 4-H members and nine adults traveling from Virginia to Texas arrived at the hub for volunteers and crisis clean-up, the First Baptist Church of Rockport.
Their first sights were the massive piles of debris collected from across the county that one can’t help but piece together in their minds into the vibrant coastal community they once made up. Driving down the main road in Rockport, the empty storefronts and cleared lots are obvious. Entire forests were laid on their sides, and many families were staying in parked campers while their houses a few feet away were unlivable.
The teens cleaned up debris and the remnants of the homes that had been destroyed. They put up drywall and painted. One day, the 4-H'ers demolished an unlivable home so the family could build a new one in its place. They helped people move into safer houses and did yardwork for people who hadn’t been able to go on to their lawns for months. It was a week of hard work, but the teens found satisfaction in service.
“This trip gave me more satisfaction than going on a vacation ever would,” said Sarah Wolfe, a 16-year-old 4-H'er. “I would rather help people less fortunate than I am and do what I can.”
Perhaps the most important thing Wolfe and the other 4-H’ers did was get to know the residents of Rockport and show their support. The 4-H members spent time talking to the homeowners on the job sites, learning about their struggles since the hurricane. They also spoke with those running the Volunteer Reception Center about how far the community has come and the needs they still have. The group spent two evenings with Texas 4-H’ers, learning about the impact of Hurricane Harvey on their peers.
“I’ve met so many people here that have had an impact on my life. We take for granted what we have, and these people have lost everything. I’m glad I could help rebuild at least a piece of their lives,” said Wolfe after a week of meeting the residents of Rockport. All the teens left Texas feeling more appreciative of what they had and eager to find other ways to help.
“I think the biggest thing the 4-H’ers have done is to bring hope to a hurting community. Their residents were so down, and they didn’t know where to start. Having young volunteers willing to drive so far and to spend their spring break helping out really made an impact,” Furgurson said.
To support the Rockport Volunteer Center and Crisis Clean Up efforts, visit fbcrockport.net/.
-Written by Caroline Sutphin