This June 18th-23rd JTI teens from Greater Boston, grades 9-12, traveled to Houston, TX to volunteer in the Hurricane Harvey relief effort through an Act Now Houston grant from Repair the Wold:
Day 1: Greetings from Houston, where it’s warm and a little muggy but delightful! Our trip is off to a great start…after some introductions at the airport we had a pleasant flight through a timezone putting us in Houston (that’s right, we’re an hour behind you in MA…how are things one hour in the future?).
After landing we picked up our van and headed over to the hotel to get settled. We wanted to start our time in Texas with local cuisine, and we had some delicious BBQ ready for us at the hotel. After a tasty, saucy dinner the group bonded over bowling. On our way into the bowling alley we saw a rainbow and stopped to marvel at the miracles of nature and of course snap a picture. Bowling was a blast, replete with funny names on the score screen, funny shoes, and high-fives as the pins fell.
We finished off the night with a Walmart run, getting some much needed supplies (read: Gatorade and snacks) before coming back to the hotel and calling it a night. I’m happy to report everyone is in good spirits and ready for our first day at the work site.
Day 2: Today was our first day at our worksite. We met Linda, the SBP Volunteer Coordinator and our site leaders, Andrew and Theo (two great guys). We learned a little about SPB and the Houston relief effort…Linda told us it they expect it to be a 10-year recovery from the hurricane, and we got a sense of how much damage was done just a year ago. After some ice-breaking and safety orientation, we got to work on the house, working on painting, installing closet doors, moving and staining cabinets, caulking, painting trim, and tiling the bathroom and more.
Before we broke for lunch, we actually got to meet Ms. Cynthia, the owner of the house. She’s a bright, enthusiastic woman with an amazing attitude and a lot of gratitude. She was very thankful for our help, especially for our coming all this way just to help her, someone we’d never met before. She told us a little bit about herself and what she’s been doing and where she’s been living since the hurricane, but our group is part of the final push to get her home ready (they expect it will be done in about three weeks). It was such a moving moment to meet Ms. Cynthia…one of the teens commented later that seeing who we’re doing this work for made her work differently; it gave the jobs more weight and she wanted to do a better job because she knew the person we’re helping is so nice.
We finished up for the afternoon and came back to the hotel for some much needed rest and cleaning up. Did I mention it is HUMID? Sadly it’s been raining on and off all day…one minute it’s fine and the next the rain is pouring. Fortunately we’re inside most of the day. We debriefed the day a little before heading out to the Astro’s game which was fun, but as I said went a little long. We couldn’t leave, though, because tonight had the potential to be Houston’s longest winning streak, and we had to see it through to the end. If you’ve already read the sports section, though, you know that sadly it was not to be. Still a great evening though, and it was fun to rally with the rest of the stadium in the bottom of the ninth. As you can see in our pictures, even though we’re in Houston some of us still happily repped the Red Sox at this game.
Tomorrow we’re excited to welcome Brett Lubarsky, our Associate Director, who’ll be joining the group for the rest of the week (he’ll be the one with the group at the airport Saturday night). For now, enjoy some of the pictures of us working, the group with Ms. Cynthia, and our night at the game.
Day 3: We’ve wrapped up another great day here in Houston. We got visited by some pretty strong rain, but we managed to stay pretty dry and not let it dampen our spirits.
This morning after everyone got their “Repair the World” shirts (which may now be the softest shirt your teen owns) we headed back to our work site. We continued many of yesterday’s projects, which meant getting a room painted, putting up some trim and shelving in closets, laying tile in the bathroom, working on cabinets, and other little things that are coming together to make the house look more like a home than a construction site.
Today we also welcomed Brett Lubarsky to Houston. Brett joined the group after lunch today fresh from Boston and he’ll be with the group for the rest of the trip.
To close out the day we circled up and each person shared something positive about their work day and something they saw someone else do that impressed them. It was great hearing the group lift each other up like that, and unsurprisingly every person got called out for doing something well.
We headed back to the hotel and relaxed a little bit and before our evening activity we gathered again to talk about the work we’re doing. We continued a conversation from yesterday about the Jewish value tikun olam, repairing the world, and the quote from Rabbi Tarfon (a second-century sage) “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
We enjoyed a delicious (and bountiful) Tex Mex meal at a fun restaurant with quirky but delightful decor, then we went to Main Event, which is sort of like Dave and Busters…lots of arcade games, billiards, and more. After a game of laser tag, the group went to the Gravity Ropes Course where we all had fun and a few folks even conquered some fears of heights! After people cashed in their tickets for hacky sacks, candy, and other prizes (one person even got a lava lamp!) we came back to the hotel and now we’re calling it a night so that we can wake up early tomorrow morning and do it again!
It’s hard to believe the trip is halfway through already!
Day 4: Today was another great day at the work site…we did a lot of painting in the house today, grouted tile, installed flooring, put up mounts for cabinets, and more. We ate lunch at a local establishment called Jeff’s Kitchen (it’s important to support local businesses!) and we even ran into SBP members who were working on a house a few blocks away from ours!
After lunch we once again to to speak with Ms. Cynthia, the house owner, who once again expressed her immense gratitude to the group for our work. She spoke at being angels, and I shared that in the Torah the word for angel, malach, also means “messenger” or “emissary,” and there exists in Judaism the idea that the things that we do can have a divine purpose, sometimes even without our realizing it. We heard a little more from Ms. Cynthia about her story and we got to tell her a little bit about what inspired us to come thousands of miles from our homes to help her. It’s not the last time I’ll say it, but this is a tremendously special group.
One of the best parts of today was we said goodbye to the rain! The humidity is still here, but by mid morning the rain had stopped, and thankfully it looks like (not to jinx it) we’ll be rain-free for the rest of the trip.
Although we were scheduled to go ice skating tonight, the group decided that they wanted to see a little more of Houston. The nice thing about a group this size is we can be flexible with certain parts of the schedule, and we were able to go into downtown Houston for the night. We enjoyed walking around Discovery Green, a cool park where there was a free concert going on tonight. We enjoyed dinner on by small pond as live Americana blues played in the background. Then we headed over to the Aquarium to enjoy some of the rides that are near the aquarium, including a Ferris wheel that offered us a great view of the Houston skyline. We left the Ferris wheel just as the sun was setting and went back to the downtown for some photo shoots in front of a rainbow-lit fountain. We came back to the hotel and enjoyed an ice-cream night-cap at Sonic (which is right next to our hotel).
Let me again take a moment to say what an amazing group of teens this is. Our site-leader Theo today made the comment that he wasn’t doing this sort of thing when he was in high school, and it really is a testament to your teens that they have chosen to give up their free time to be here. Throughout the week, I have been impressed by the group’s work ethic, kindness, and openness.
Day 5: Shabbat Shalom from Houston! Here are TODAY’S TOP 5 for you all following along at home:
1. Putting the finishing touches on our work this morning, completing a few outstanding projects in Ms. Cynthia’s home, and prepped others for the next group coming in. Because of our work, they anticipate having the house ready THREE WEEKS ahead of schedule! Wow! We also had an opportunity to chat with Sasha, the local rep from Repair The World, an awesome organization that supports quite a bit of our service work through micro-grants.
2. A little rest and relaxation this afternoon back at the hotel.
3. We were invited to a “welcome home party” for another group a few blocks away from where we’ve been working. It was incredibly powerful to meet another Houstonian impacted by Hurricane Harvey, and to hear his story. He was so immensely moved by everyone’s efforts…that he hosted an open-house complete with more BBQ than we’ve ever seen!
4. Our group travelled to the other side of Houston to celebrate Shabbat at Congregation Beth Israel. We spent some time with Rabbi Chase Foster (an old friend and colleague of mine), who showed us around their beautiful synagogue and explained about the damage and repair work they are still doing at the congregation, as well as throughout their community. We got a shout out at services, their hospitality was amazing and dinner was DELICIOUS!
5. Car sing-alongs and dance parties happened at random times throughout the day, and our group wrapped-up the evening by enjoying a little hangout time at the hotel.
While we are sad to be wrapping-up an action-packed week, we are heading home with full hearts and the charge to continue to be the change we wish to see in the world. Tomorrow we’ll reflect on our time in Houston, pack everything up, and head back to the airport.
Day 6: …and that’s a wrap! We’re headed to the airport for lunch and hanging out before our flight. It’s been a wonderful relaxing morning, doing a little reflecting and debriefing, and we enjoyed a nice breakfast at Waffle House! We look forward to arriving tonight at Logan. It has been an absolute pleasure to travel with this group, and we are grateful for your support!
Brett and the JTI Team