On Saturday, Sept. 9, we completed our two-day distribution. At 6 a.m., two hours before the event was scheduled to begin, we already had a number of cars lined up in anticipation of the bottled water, food and other items that we had to offer, and by the time we started handing out supplies – armed with a new system for determining the number of families per car, as well as any pet food and baby needs – the line stretched beyond the freeway. Four tractor trailers remained for the day, and in the first two hours, we had already emptied one and a half.
The feverish pace of the previous day continued, as volunteers loaded supplies into the backs of innumerable vehicles, and by 1 p.m., only one trailer remained. As our stockpile of supplies quickly dwindled, we realized that we would soon only have water to give. Returning from picking up lunch for the volunteers, I – along with two other members of the Corporate Communication team – finally witnessed the full extent of the recipient line. Using our vehicle’s odometer, we measured a half-mile of cars along the boulevard, and the line continued to stretch out onto the interstate in both directions. People literally exited I-610 and entered our line. Gridlock traffic plagued the intersection near the church, and local police officers worked to keep the line moving. Another volunteer focused on keeping the long line of vehicles organized and directed traffic around it.
When 3 p.m. rolled around, the last trailer had been emptied, and only bottled water remained on pallets. Within the next hour, we were completely out of supplies, and the clean-up process began. Another team of volunteers that had traveled to Beaumont earlier in the day to help with a distribution drive returned in the afternoon and shared their stories. While in the area, they went around and saw the devastation of Hurricane Harvey firsthand, and those volunteers spoke of the same piles of debris – some piled as tall as the houses they sat in front of – that I’d seen near Sumner.
As I stood at the entrance to the church parking lot, explaining to people that we were completely out of supplies and apologizing profusely to those we had to turn away, the full realization of what we’d accomplished began to settle on me. We emptied 13 trailers full of supplies in Bellaire alone, one in Sumner and two more in Beaumont. Another trailer and a half will be sent to Kountze, Texas, next week. I can’t even begin to imagine the number of vehicles that came to each of our sites and the number of families represented by those cars, trucks, vans and SUVs; the supplies donated at all of our community and employee drives definitely went into the hands of those who needed them most.
It was an incredible level of need met with an incredible response from our volunteers. I can say without reservation that these are some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. These generous men and women worked long hours in the blistering sun, stopping only for occasional water and food breaks, and they did it all with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. And when you realize that a number of those gathered were victims themselves, dealing with the first steps in their own recovery process, it becomes truly inspiring that they were still there to give.
Throughout the day, we captured a number of eye-opening interviews and heard some of these incredible stories. We talked to Greg Baker, president of J.D. Martin Co. Inc., and he explained the partnership with Southwire and how quickly the event came together. We talked to a young girl, Remington, who came with her parents and helped out at the drive. She worked at the pet supplies station and said that she hopes other young people will get involved. Another volunteer told us about a woman who hugged her neck for several minutes, thanking her for everything we were doing to help the community.
We heard from one employee at our Sumner location, Timothy Brown, who lost everything in the flood. To make matters worse, in the early hours of the storm, he awoke to find his car missing. He reported it stolen and learned later that it had been crashed into a guns and ammo store. Still, he remained positive and optimistic. He served faithfully for hours at our distribution event and even took a moment near the end of our time with him to brag on his sons and their accomplishments.
Others had come within mere inches of their homes being flooded and immediately responded by helping friends and family members who had been affected.
Sal, the Sumner employee who gave the paper towels to the young boy mentioned in my previous blog entry, shared more of his story with us. When Hurricane Harvey passed through, he helped his local family members and ended up using his truck to rescue people who had been trapped. Throughout the weekend, he helped with the Sumner drive, serving on the crew that went into the neighborhoods and delivered supplies door-to-door, and he worked for a number of hours at the church event – even bringing his wife and teenage children. He even had plans to go help more people after the drive. Throughout the entire interview, he remained upbeat and energetic, and his passion seemed to represent the feelings of our other volunteers.
The consensus among the group is that this experience was one to last a lifetime. Everyone with whom we spoke talked about how much the event meant to them, how inspiring it was to offer comfort and help to those in need. For many, this was the first Project GIFT distribution event in which they had participated. As a first-time participant myself, I had no idea what to expect this weekend, but by seeing the devastation firsthand and witnessing the overwhelming response to our distribution event, my eyes have been opened to the impact of one storm – and the influence that one organization, one group of people, can have on a hurting community.
My hope, as we prepare to return to our families and jobs, is that we can all take home all of the lessons we have learned and remember the lives we’ve touched. At the end of the day, we should all recognize the importance of helping others and using our experiences to benefit those around us. For a long time, I’ve tried to live by the following motto, and it’s one that has never seemed more applicable: never pass up an opportunity to help someone in need.
To learn more about Project GIFT, check out southwireblog.com.