By Anne Durham Smith

PORT ARANSAS, TEXAS — The line of more than 1,000 people stretched far away from the tent where Cindy Gember and other volunteers cooked three meals a day for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

They set up propane tanks and generators, cooking under tents on a baseball field in Port Aransas.

She was just days removed from the moment she walked into her job as administrative assistant at St. James Lutheran Church and started making calls based on a list from the church’s denomination, the North American Lutheran Church, trying to find out where she could help with relief work right after Hurricane Harvey.

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She and St. James are one of a number of Hancock County churches reaching out after hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Among them:

Faith Lutheran Church in Greenfield has in its newsletter to members shared the website for giving to relief through the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

The congregation also is making hygiene kits to give to Orphan Grain Train to distribute to flood victims, said church secretary Mary Jo McConnell. Each kit is a zip-lock bag containing a hand towel, washcloth, comb, metal nail file or nail clippers, a bath-size bar of soap, an adult-size toothbrush, adhesive bandages and toothpaste.

Mark Havel, pastor of Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine, said the church raised nearly $5,000 for hurricane relief through special offerings during September.

“We send it to Lutheran Disaster Response knowing that 100 percent of the funds go to reliefefforts thanks to the work of the ELCA” (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), he wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter.

Charlottesville United Methodist Church donated $1,500 through UMCOR (United Methodist Committee On Relief) for Texas and Florida and more recently to Puerto Rico, according to the Rev. Marianne Nichols, pastor of the church.

The women’s group at Bradley United Methodist Church in Greenfield has been gathering paper, pencils, erasers, scissors and other items to assemble school relief kits for UMCOR, according to a list of specific supplies posted at bradleyumc.org (scroll down to “UMCOR Hurricane Relief Opportunities”).

Gember, wife of St. James pastor the Rev. Larry Gember, helped sort and deliver various personal care and flood cleanup supplies after arriving in Texas in late August.

She found housing through St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Portland, Texas. She drove to Ingleside, one of the coastal towns first hit when the hurricane reached land. Carrying a backpack, she went from house to house, offering early case management as she found out what people needed.

A local church member who owns a warehouse offered the space. Gember and others drove about three towns away to stock up on supplies, including bleach and medicine. Added to those purchases were donations that streamed in, such as food and diapers. The warehouse served more than 200 families and 1,000 individuals.

After that, she drove in her rental car to Rockport, helping out in an outdoor warehouse setting where those in need drove by with a list and volunteers brought the needed items to them. Authorities deemed that warehouse an unsafe building, so it closed, and Gember looked for the next place to help.

Whether she was giving away soap or one of the $25 Visa cards one church sent her out with, Gember knew she wanted to offer more to people who came to her without housing or necessities.

She wanted to offer hope.

“I prayed with people. That’s when I saw the most tears,” she said. “Just letting them know God did not abandon them.”

She even stopped and prayed for a pastor, thinking he might be called upon to pray for others but also needed support himself.

Gember ended up in the area of Port Aransas, an island where she says 80 percent of residents lost homes. After an 8 to 12-foot wall of water slammed through at 130 miles per hour, Gember said, some buildings may still be standing, but they’re shells swept empty inside.

There a man named Dave began grilling with coal on a community park’s baseball field, and other people came to help, she said. This outdoor feeding center ran on generators; cooks boiled water to do dishes.

On one day there, Gember helped serve 1,200 to 1,400 pulled pork sandwiches. That was just one meal of the three served there daily.

Stores and restaurants sent food to prepare. One day she chopped more than 100 pounds of potatoes.

Each day they figured out what to make with it all. Tomatoes became sauce for a huge batch of “spaghetti” using the various types of pasta on hand. Vegetables were cut into strips for a stir fry.

She was pleased by how people from various parts of the country came together to help, and she was moved by the gratitude and interest of area residents, touched that others would leave their families to come help.

“It’s a very humbling experience,” she said. “You end up getting more than you give.”

Gember has witnessed the process of hurricane recovery before. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, she left her job and went to Biloxi, Mississippi. “My heart just said, ‘I have to go,’” she recalls.

Returning to Biloxi about 18 months later with a youth group, she saw people still not back in their houses. She knows it will take a long time for many to get back on their feet after Harvey, too.

“It’s not going to go away for quite a long time,” she said. “I think (most people) don’t understand the length of time it takes to rebuild, even after it’s not in the news anymore. The needs continue, and the prayers should continue.”

Tips on helping

Reconsider send clothes. Cindy Gember saw piles and piles of clothes when she went to Texas — either unsuitable or simply too much — that were left behind on corners. She advises letting organizations such as the American Red Cross or the ministry Samaritan’s Purse coordinate that aspect of relief; perhaps get involved through one of them if that’s your passion.

Listen. “Take the time to make the calls to find out what really is needed,” Gember said.

Plan ahead. Some organizations, ministries or church denominations do work such as filling “preparedness buckets” with cleanup supplies so they’re ready when a storm hits. “Do it all year long,” Gember said. “You don’t have to wait for the disaster.”

Author photo
Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at annesmith@greenfieldreporter.com