If you’ve been following the national news as of late, you might be aware of the record-breaking drought & high temperatures that have been plaguing Texas this year. As I understand it, our weather conditions are a direct result of La Niña, a weather phenomenon (and naturally occurring cycle) that produces slightly cooler ocean temperatures which translates to drier or wetter weather conditions on land. In Texas’ case, it’s contributed to the worst drought in recorded history; Texas began recording rainfall conditions in 1895. Additionally, Texas’ summer has been the hottest summer in US history. [Information gathered from US Drought Monitor, AP News & National Weather Service, & MSNBC.]
The drought has caused or contributed to some of the worst wildfires in Texas’ history. In the Bastrop fires alone, 34000 acres have burned, over 1600 homes have been destroyed, and 2 people lost their lives. Closer to where I live, we’ve lost approximately 20 houses, most within a 3 mile radius of my house.
This past weekend I had an opportunity to work alongside a team of volunteers from my church to help rebuild the neighborhoods effected by the recent fires. When I checked in at the volunteer site on Saturday morning, I met a number of folks from my church that I’ve never met before, plus a number of homeowners from the neighborhood that were working alongside the volunteers. I started working on rebuilding a fence, continuing the work that the homeowner and other volunteers had begun on Friday.
Shortly after I’d started helping with the fence, I was asked to accompany another volunteer to a street a couple blocks away to help with demolishing a house lost in the blaze. Even though the fires occurred over Labor Day weekend, it was the first time I’d seen its results first-hand; it was quite sobering. I stood in front of a house that was a total loss, and watched as a volunteer in a loaned backhoe used the bucket to knock down the remnants of walls while a volunteer in a Bobcat loaded the debris into a dumpster. Our job was to sweep, shovel, and pick up the smaller pieces that the Bobcat and backhoe couldn’t reach.
After the dumpster was filled, our next job was to clean the remaining debris and ash from the foundation of a house that had already been cleared. The fire at that house was intense, melting everything including the pipes that rose from the foundation, leaving only a sticky residue on the concrete where the carpet and padding used to be. I know it might not sound like much, but believe me, shoveling & sweeping the ash was a back-breaking job. Every now and again I came across a wire hanger, a metal spring from a wooden clothespin, or a bit of burned paper from a children’s book.
After we finished there, we walked up the street to help more volunteers and homeowners with another fence. I met a family who’d driven about an hour to help; their teenage daughters and younger nephew helped while concrete was mixed and poured for new fence posts. Their uncle drove the wheelbarrow from the mixer to the fence and back; their mom held the posts level while other volunteers worked the concrete with shovels.
Everyone was in a good mood, determined to get as much done as possible before lunch, smiling and laughing while covered in concrete dust and ash blown by the wind.
I was struck by a number of random sights and sounds left behind after the fire; a new wooden fence, barely singed, standing next to a home completely lost to the blaze; flowers blooming on the edge of a large swath of burned land; the smell of rotting food, burned homes, and fresh cut lumber; houses somehow skipped by the fire while the houses on either side of it were completely destroyed.
I was amazed by the general mood of everyone, including the homeowners. Some of these folks lost everything but were still willing to help their neighbors. Others had no connection to that specific neighborhood but were willing to help as much as possible simply because it could’ve been their neighborhood, their homes lost in a fire. It didn’t matter what any of us did for a living, or what our specific political or religious beliefs might be, all that mattered was that we were people willing to stand alongside others in their time of loss. Professor next to pastor, home builder next to virtualization nerd, grandmother next to grandchild. I think that’s what struck me the most; tragedy is an equalizer that can reduce all of us to our character and integrity. Sometimes it brings out the worst in people, but sometimes it brings out the best in folks and widens our perspective on the world beyond our day to day routines.
And now I’ve come to the point of this blog post, which is to urge you to volunteer within your community. Whether you cook breakfast for the homeless on a random Saturday morning, are a Big Brother or a Big Sister to a child in need of a responsible and caring adult in their life, or if you do something as simple as mowing the lawn for a single parent on your street — everyone needs help at some point in their life, even you. You may never need the same type of help as you’ve given (and it should be given freely, without expectation of any repayment outside of blisters and a hurting back), but you will need help at some point. Sometimes a friendly face and a helping hand will make all the difference in the world.