Stories from the Storm

Houston Chronicle, August 27, 2017                                                                    
Volunteers turned away, find they're needed elsewhere.

Shazia and Noel Hart have been waiting for this moment all week.

They're sitting at a table, laptop and iPad up and running, at Avenue CDC, a HUD-certified housing counseling agency. They type along as Berenice Yu, a director at the organization, gives them important step-by-step directions. Over the next several days, they Harts will be a couple of many volunteers knocking on doors and offering to help Harvey victims apply for FEMA funding.

And it feels so good to be useful.

When the hurricane first made landfall, Shazia Hart was out of town, in Miami.

"I had a few days of just panic. Nervousness. Worry," she says. Eventually, she got out of Miami. But it took four flights to get her home. She connected through Ft. Lauderdale, Raleigh and Charlotte before landing in Austin, where her husband Noel picked her up and drove her back to Houston.

"All I wanted to do was get home," she says. "And I have a home to get to. But other people have more stress than that. So I wanted to help them out."

On Tuesday, Noel gave his first go at volunteering. He headed to the George R. Brown Convention Center, along with hundreds of other civically minded Houstonians. But the waiting line for volunteers was so long that he left after two hours.

"I felt a little useless. But at the same time, I was also kind of excited that our city had so many people out there trying to help that we were having a problem trying to find places to help," he says. "There were just so many people that wanted to help. Volunteering is almost like trying to find a really high in demand job at this point."

The couple tried again on Thursday. They headed to the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. But again, they were fully stocked with volunteers. So they went to Lakewood Church. Same story.

They returned home and combed through their possessions, finding unopened toiletries and art supplies, among other items they could donate. And they checked their inbox to see a note from a friend, offering yet another opportunity to volunteer: Avenue CDC was looking for people to help reach families throughout their mix-income housing developments. They needed about an hour of training and some availability over the next few weeks to help explain the best way to apply for FEMA assistance, and help people navigate the convoluted system.

No one was knocking down the housing agency's door to volunteer. At Friday's training session, there were only about a handful of people, and the Harts were happy to be among them.

It was a long road to find a place where they felt useful. But all the starting and stopping was worth it, says Shazia.

"When we went to go help at the mosque, I was disappointed that they didn't need any volunteers, and they didn't need any donations," she says. "But then I looked at it on the other side, like it's a blessing that so many people have come together to do that."

It's also an invitation to seek out needs in other parts of town – in a place where she never normally would have looked.

"So I can bring the things I can help with to someone else," Shazia says. "And I can go to another neighborhood, and help someone sign forms that maybe they don't know how to fill out."

-- Maggie Gordon


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