Students on hurricane relief trip find leveled towns and a community deep in faith

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PROVIDENCE — As natural disasters strike one area of the world after another over the past several weeks, many people have been glued to the images on their television sets, wondering what they can do to help. For most Rhode Islanders, seeing photos on the news and perhaps dropping a few dollars toward relief efforts in the collection basket is the closest they will come to the violent aftermath of these disasters that have left thousands of people without homes, running water or knowledge of family and friends.

However, for eight students and two faculty members at St. Patrick Academy, Providence, the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey — and the overwhelming sense of hope as the community came together to rebuild — became very real during a recent service trip to assist with relief efforts.

The students, all seniors, accompanied by Pastor Father James Ruggieri and Director of Campus Ministry Mary Cipriano, left Logan Airport for Texas at 6:30 a.m. on Friday, September 22, on a trip sponsored by the North American Catholic Educational Programming Foundation. The students flew into Corpus Christi before traveling north to the coastal towns of Bayside and Rockport to join volunteers coordinated by Deacon Richard Longoria of the Diocese of Corpus Christi. Though it had been almost a month since the storm made its initial landfall on August 26, the rebuilding process, according to the students, looked like it had only just begun.

“When we got to Rockport, I actually got to see what had happened,” said Tania Ortiz. “It was really bad, there were houses that were just piles of wood. I couldn’t imagine.”

“It was like you’re going into a combat zone,” added Cipriano. “It was incredible. Just piles, no houses. It was very surreal.”

The ocean-side city of Rockport and nearby small town of Bayside bore the worst of Harvey’s initial hit as the eye of the storm made landfall and passed directly overhead. The 130 mph winds destroyed infrastructure and most buildings, and relief agencies like Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi are still struggling to provide basic services as residents return to the sites of their homes several weeks later. Volunteers from around the country work 10-hour days, six days per week, distributing goods and clearing debris.

The students spent two days in the towns assisting with cleanup and another day repacking donations at a warehouse in Corpus Christi. One of the things that surprised them the most, they said, was how physically demanding the post-hurricane cleanup is.

“Each day was like a battle to clean up the people’s houses,” said David Bardales, recalling how the students dragged two large trees from the yard of an elderly resident.

Despite limited resources and the physical nature of the relief work, the students said volunteers and residents alike maintained a positive attitude as they worked together to rebuild the coastal towns. While some volunteers came from out-of-state, others were locals who worked with small community organizations to distribute supplies. Several of the volunteers, they said, were well into their 70s or 80s, including Bayside Mayor Sharon Scott, whom the students met during the course of the relief work.

“She’s just a really hardworking woman who, even though she was facing her own personal loss, she just put her community in front of her own personal loss,” recalled Yugerny Toribio.

Students also noted the strong religious faith of the coastal Texas communities, where many area churches are reaching out to their neighbors in their time of need. Some churches, like St. Peter Church in Rockport, home to the area’s Vietnamese Catholic community, have been forced to close their doors after sustaining heavy damages during the storm. Sacred Heart School in Rockport was also forced to close, though Pastor Father Ray Yrlas said the school will reopen after repairs have been completed, with students joining their peers at Catholic schools in Corpus Christi for the time being. Prior to leaving for the trip, St. Patrick’s students collected $650 in donations from their classmates to contribute to rebuilding the school.

“I learned that, as teenagers, we can impact a lot of people,” said Leonel Caro.

During their four days in Texas, the group, which also included seniors Jonathan Leon, Camila Uriona, Nyree Sylvia and Max-Veda Golafale, stayed at St. John Nepomucene Parish in nearby Robstown. They celebrated daily Mass in a chapel there, striving to remember their trip as a “mission of faith” and live out their faith as disciples of Christ, according to Father Ruggieri. The view was shared by residents, who welcomed the volunteers with their own deep spirituality.

“The faith came in for me when we met back with the people after the day of work and they were so thankful we were there,” said Ortiz. “They were so happy we were there to help them and they felt God led us to them.”

According to Cipriano, the encounters with Christ between the residents of a battered Texas town and the Rhode Island teenagers who traveled across the country to serve them went both ways.

“We met Christ. We certainly did, there’s no question,” she said.