Helping After Harvey

Giving back to the community is important to us at Y&R Austin, which is why employees get a day each year to volunteer at a charity of their choice. Stella McClellan, based in Houston to service our client, Reliant Energy, had an opportunity to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Read about her heartbreaking yet uplifting experience volunteering at a shelter.

Stella’s Story:

As my husband and I were preparing to go on vacation, my dog sitter backed out, saying she didn’t feel comfortable staying at my house because of the storm that was brewing. I thought to myself, “Ugh, here we go again, people overreacting to the weather. This storm is going to blow over like they all do.” I had no idea that Hurricane Harvey was going to tear through the city. The city that I’d been calling “home” again for a little less than a month.

My parents came to the rescue and took my dog to their house, so I was ready to set my brain to vacation mode. That mindset never really set in, though, because we were consumed by the news. Watching, waiting, praying that our house, family and friends would be okay. Miraculously, we returned to find that our house (which we did NOT have flood insurance on) was perfectly fine. Just a few scattered leaves, and that was it. Nothing compared to the immense devastation others just down the street and all over the city faced.

At this moment, I knew that being thankful that my house and my family were okay was not enough. My husband and I gathered supplies for donation and helped family and friends tear out drywall and floors on the weekends, but I still wanted to do more for those who didn’t have family and friends to help them — or, worse, had nowhere to go. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that encourages employees to give back to the community, so I could take a day off and volunteer at NRG Center, one of the shelters for flood victims. The shelter housed over 10,000 people at the peak of the storm, and there were about 2,000 people still left there when I went to volunteer two weeks after the storm.

I arrived early for my shift, which meant there were not many volunteers to go around. I walked over to the “assignments” table where I was given the task of being the “runner” for the day. This meant that I would help shuttle other volunteers to their various posts inside the center. The Head of Assignments took me for a quick tour so that I’d know my way when it came time to take volunteers around.

When I entered the shelter area for the first time, I had to fight back tears. Seeing the living quarters and the number of people inside was shocking. Each individual or family had set up camp with either cots or air mattresses and whatever they were able to carry with them to the shelter. Past the living quarters there was an activity center for the children, a computer lab, a makeshift library, mobile phone charging stations, a pet area and medical triage center where residents of the shelter could get their eyes checked, refill their medications and receive treatments. There was a commissary open twice per day where residents could pick up toiletries and clothes, and a massive cafeteria where the American Red Cross fed thousands of people. The shelter ran like a well-oiled machine, and they did their best to give these people as much comfort and normalcy as possible in this kind of situation.

Since the assignments table was at the entrance of the building, I ended up walking the entirety of the shelter multiple times, dropping off one set of volunteers and picking up the latest to check in when I returned. About 30 minutes into my shift I wished I’d been wearing a Fitbit because I didn’t stop walking for more than 10 minutes during the six hours I was there. On my walks, I heard stories from volunteers who drove in from Austin and Oklahoma, restaurant workers who became regular volunteers in the kitchen, a lawyer who came every evening to help counsel victims through filing FEMA paperwork, a doctor who was on her honeymoon when the storm hit and stayed to help — even a homeless man who said he wanted to give his time because he didn’t have anything else to give.

That afternoon of shuttling people back and forth helped remind me of how good people can be and that no matter how small the act of kindness, every little bit helps. Houston has come together in the best way after this disaster, and it makes me proud to call Houston home again.

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Stella McClellan volunteered at the NRG Center to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.