SSVdP: Extending mercy when disasters strike
By Peggy Moraczewski
Historically, the Diocese of Austin has experienced approximately one large disaster every two years. However, there have been six major disasters over the last three years. Recovery efforts from 2015 alone include the aftermath of the Memorial Day and Halloween floods, as well as the Hidden Pines fire. Recovery could not take place without the outpouring of volunteer help and the work of numerous non-profit organizations, as well as local, state and federal agencies. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul through their disaster response programs has served the victims of these major disasters .
In the initial phase of disaster response, first responders, such as the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities of Central Texas (CCCTX), focus on the basic needs of disaster victims –– food, clothing and shelter. Efforts are coordinated, so services are not duplicated. Within a few weeks, CCCTX begins long-term case management, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVdP) shifts into high gear, focused on long term solutions and helping people rebuild their lives.
Important in any disaster recovery is to “...partner with CCCTX to make sure that we have that Catholic presence, not only to support our own Catholic folks who are in the middle of the disaster, but also everyone else who needs assistance,” said Stacy Ehrlich, executive director of the SSVdP for the Diocesan Council of Austin.
Physical and spiritual recovery do not happen overnight. Past fires still scar the landscape of Bastrop, just as they left an indelible mark on the lives of people affected. As a community, Bastrop has been hit by an inordinate number of disasters, from destructive fires to floods. The 2011 fires were so large that the state set up a long-term disaster recovery team, which is still present, working on three more recent disasters.
Paul Kleypas is the storage director for the SSVdP and oversees their House-in-a-Box (HIB) program. HIB is funded through donations, and provides new home furnishings to families whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. It costs between $1,500 and $1,700 per household. He said the 2011 fires in Bastrop is where this program was fine-tuned and it has since become the national program for the SSVdP.
The Memorial Day floods of 2015 left many people without a mode of transportation. Although they served in a variety of ways during this disaster recovery, using their Vehicle Replacement Program, the SSVdP was able to help 32 families receive “new-to-them” (used) vehicles. This program was possible due to $200,000 in grant money and the generous cooperation of the Nyle Maxwell Dealerships. It allowed people to get back to work, earn money and be able to care for their families; all important steps toward normalcy. The SSVdP also served as the nonprofit fiscal agent for the McComb, Carey, Charba, Rescue and Relief Fund, created by the families of those who died in the Memorial Day floods. As home diocese for these families, the Diocese of Corpus Christi made a generous donation to the fund.
For a variety of reasons, donations were not substantial following the Halloween flood of 2013. With that realization, the SSVdP concluded they could afford to help 200 of the 2,000 south Austin families affected, and focused on families with children in school. The result was a rather unique partnership with Mendez Middle School. The AISD Family Outreach Counselor handled the case management since their school had 190 families affected by the floods. Kleypas said, “It was a smooth operation ... those families are cared for. That’s a prime example of everybody doing what they do, and doing it well.”
Every disaster is unique, “...so planning based on what we learned before only has so much transferability to the new disaster,” Ehrlich said. However, long-term recovery programs, such as the SSVdP House-in-a-Box and Vehicle Replacement Program, assist families in returning to some sense of normalcy.
She said 100 percent of donations made to disaster recovery efforts are used precisely for that purpose.
In 2013, when the small community of West experienced a devastating explosion at the local fertilizer plant, Bishop Joe Vásquez had a “huge desire to make sure that his flock was well cared for long term,” Ehrlich said. While the SSVdP typically serves in a long-term recovery role following disasters, they also participated as a first responder in this particular disaster. They made a two-year commitment to serve the devastated community. One of the fruits of the recovery was the establishment of the SSVdP Conference at St. Mary Church of the Assumption Parish in West.
“Many parishioners seek healing through the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation,” said Father Paul Hudson, pastor of St. Mary Parish. His parishioners, and people from the entire community, have also taken solace in the annual memorial service held on or near the anniversary of the disaster (April 17). The memorial service is a joint effort of the Minister Alliance in West, and people have expressed their appreciation and hopes for this memorial to continue well into the future.
People want to help in the aftermath of a disaster and the reality is, that what is really needed, is money. It allows the flexibility to put someone up in a hotel, hire someone to repair drywall, replace a lost hearing aid or eyeglasses. Ehrlich spoke of the normalcy and dignity afforded a person when you hand them a gift card and say, “Go pick what you want.”
Across the Diocese of Austin, the SSVdP has 41 conferences, representing 49 parishes. They recently opened a new facility at 901 W. Braker Ln. in Austin, which includes a thrift shop, warehouse, a food pantry, client services and administrative offices. It was blessed by Bishop Joe Vásquez and Bishop Danny Garcia on May 10.
For more information on the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, visit www.SSVdP.org or call (512) 251-6995.