By Katherine Long
“We had intended to go to Texas, to Houston, to teach others about something,” Mike Melara said. Instead, “we went to Texas and we ended up learning — learning something about disasters and the human spirit and the role we can play in comforting people.”
Melara, executive director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, and Chris Curry, chief program officer for the organization, were looking forward to traveling to Houston, Texas, for Catholic Charities USA’s long-planned Annual Gathering Sept. 28 to 30. They were going to present two workshops at the national meeting, highlighting their agency’s experience launching two successful social ventures: the Culinary Arts for Self-Sufficiency program, which offers recent refugees and those living in generational poverty training in professional cooking, and Project Joseph, which trains recent refugees and men who are homeless in property maintenance.
Then Hurricane Harvey hit in late August. The storm devastated southeast Texas, leaving catastrophic flooding and upended lives in its wake.
“Originally we thought that the whole Annual Gathering was going to be canceled,” Melara explained in an October interview with the Sun. “Subsequently, we learned that the Gathering was going to continue, but they were going to eliminate roughly half of the workshops so that participants could take part in disaster relief services in the Houston and Galveston area.”
With their workshops eliminated, Melara and Curry had to decide if they would still make the trip to Texas. “It was easy for us — we still wanted to go and we mostly wanted to go now to be able to participate in the disaster relief work,” Melara said. About 500 participants made the same decision, assisting in the efforts coordinated through Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Melara estimated.
Melara and Curry spent their first day of service as part of a group of 55 tasked with sorting donated goods in a large warehouse. Volunteers prepared boxes of food, packaged up personal care items, organized cleaning supplies. Melara and Curry tackled diaper duty, breaking down pallets of baby necessities and reassembling them by size. The volunteers then loaded a truck with the sorted supplies.
The work was rigorous and the temperatures broiling, but “honestly, when you consider what everybody in that community is going through, spirits were high. People just wanted to help,” Melara recalled.
The following day, Melara, Curry, and other volunteers canvassed a small neighborhood about 30 minutes outside downtown, going door-to-door to assess residents’ needs and help connect them with support services.
“Mike and I did an intake on one woman, Maria,” Curry said. “She, her husband, and two kids had been living in a hotel since the storm. Their house was totally gutted.” The same was true across the neighborhood, he said — in front of every house there were piles of debris, drywall, flooring. “Everybody pretty much has to start from scratch.”
Once the volunteers made it through the neighborhood, a truck like the one they had packed the day before arrived and they began distributing goods.