Sunday, August 13th, 2017: A tropical wave surfacing off the coast of Africa meets low pressure winds near Cabo Verde, forming what would soon be known as one of the most devastating storms in our nation’s history, Hurricane Harvey.
Fast forward 10 days, and Harvey officially hit the coast of Texas. In the short 17 days that Harvey lasted, the damage done to Texas communities was monstrous. With more than 88 lives lost, 13 million people displaced, 203,000 homes destroyed, and over $125 billion in damages, it looked as though the people of Texas needed a miracle.
Hoping to be part of that miracle was UW-Eau Claire freshman, Colleen Olson. Looking for things to do over spring break, Colleen heard about the mission trip at a meeting for the student-run organization, Cru. Along with fellow members of the organization, Colleen forewent a traditional spring break and spent a week in Texas performing hurricane relief.
While there, Colleen’s main focus was to repair and rebuild homes destroyed in the storm. “It [was] our goal to get people out of their temporary housing and back into their own homes,” Colleen stated.
After arriving in the small community of Little Cambodia, located just 30 miles south of Houston, Colleen wasn’t sure what to expect. Her first assignment was drywall and insulation, where she helped repair the infrastructure of damaged homes. Colleen then had the opportunity to repaint a Buddhist monastery, an important cultural symbol in the primarily Buddhist community of Little Cambodia.
Colleen noted, “The people of Little Cambodia have been living in shacks made of tarps and plywood scrap since September. The community is extremely impoverished, making it impossible to fix this themselves. Before the trip, I never realized it was so bad.”
For Colleen, one of the most important aspects of her project was coming to the realization that it can be all too easy to forget about the victims and devastation of Harvey, especially when we live in a state that rarely deals with such disasters.
“In Wisconsin, we don’t have a lot of natural disasters, yet we always hear about them on TV, never realizing how bad they actually are. We see these disasters on the news, think about it for a bit, and then it leaves our minds. The problem is we don’t realize these people, 7 months later, are still living in this,” Colleen reflected.
Although there were many new faces and stories in Little Cambodia, Colleen remembers one woman in particular. Lilly, an elderly woman collecting food donations, encountered Colleen and her fellow relief staff on the second day of their trip.
“She wanted to show us around,” Colleen noted. “She showed us the destroyed greenhouses of Little Cambodia, and described to us what they looked like before the storm. She told us how different the town was prior to Harvey, and how they can’t grow certain trees anymore because they’ve all been destroyed.”
Overall, Colleen’s service experience in Little Cambodia was a far cry from the traditional college spring break. By foregoing a fun in the sun vacation to help those still devastated by the terror of Hurricane Harvey, Colleen’s service project is the perfect example of an age old Blugold tradition; putting others before ourselves and never turning a blind eye to those in need.