LAS VEGAS, NM – There were rats. Insects. Mounds of wet, warped drywall and drenched furniture and family heirlooms. But the one thing each of the 35 Highlands students will remember most about their time in Rockport, Texas is the people – the strangers – they helped in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“The families were very grateful for what we were able to do,” said Ashlee Bradley, a junior at Highlands majoring in biochemistry and a team leader for the Highlands volunteers who went to Texas Sept. 27 to Oct. 1. “The families were going through such a hardship. Their whole lives were washed away.”
Hurricane Harvey made landfall in south-central Texas late Aug. 25 as a category-four hurricane, the highest ranking, with winds topping 130 miles per hour. The hurricane brought heavy rains of up to 50 inches in some areas. A massive storm surge swamped Rockport and coastal areas with historic flooding.
The team of Highlands volunteers from the main campus and centers spent three days in Rockport helping clean houses and working at a donation center.
“We would wake up from our tents, get breakfast ready, and go to the work site,” Bradley said. “Once we finished our work, we’d return to camp and wash up. At camp, it was a community where we discussed how it affected us seeing the disaster and how we could emotionally connect with these families.
“Seeing these houses destroyed, seeing everything on the side of the road was difficult,” Bradley said. “Their whole lives washed away. It reminded us that we’re fortunate to have what we have.”
Lou Ann Romero, coordinator for continuing education with Highlands’ Facundo Valdez School of Social Work, said it was inspiring to see how the trip changed the student volunteers.
“Several students told me they had no idea how bad the destruction was and how good they felt helping,” Romero said. “When the families saw us coming, it gave them hope. They saw progress happening, and you could see there was a light that said things will get better.”
Romero said one experience she will long remember is helping an elderly couple recover from the extensive damage to their house.
“The woman said, ‘if you run into any of my pictures or my santos, please don’t throw them away,’” Romero said. “That’s what she was left with. They were in their late 60s and had lived in that house for most of their lives. They didn’t have insurance.
“It’s emotional,” Romero said. “There was crying, there was hugging, and there was a lot of compassion.
“I’ve been in service learning my whole life – the Red Cross, my church – and helping community is who I am,” Romero said. “I’ve been someone who needed help, and I know what the impact is.”