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Three GSBS Alums Volunteer To Help Those Affected By Hurricane Harvey

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Author: Alison Clark/Neelam Mukherjee | Category: Community Outreach | Cancer Biology | Cancer Biology | September 18, 2017

Alison Clark, Tiffani Houston, and Neelam Mukherjee---three GSBS alumnae volunteered the weekend after Hurricane Harvey to bring kits and donate their time. Below are their reflections.

Alison Clark

It was almost 7 am when we arrived Rockport, Texas. The sun had barely risen, but devastation Harvey left was already visible. The streets were desolate and quiet; surrounding us were uprooted trees and fallen rubble from houses and buildings. Looking around, I just couldn’t believe how this bustling little town had been reduced to ruins within hours as Harvey ripped through it.

The Texas coast has always been a special place to me. My parents reside in Corpus Christi, and I was a frequent visitor tasked with collecting water samples from beaches in Rockport and Port Aransas areas as an undergraduate researcher at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. I was distraught upon learning how bad the devastation was in Rockport and Port Aransas. While I was extremely thankful that Harvey spared Corpus Christi and I wasn’t helping my parents clean up the mess Harvey could have left, I couldn’t just sit and do nothing while other folks suffer from Harvey’s wrath. After all, I believe that we are all called to help our neighbors in need. So my husband, Nathan, and I decided to take it up to ourselves and do something to help out.

A few text messages and emails later, a donation drive was organized to collect food, hygienic supplies, water, and other items to benefit hurricane victims in Rockport and surrounding areas. Nathan and I planned on taking the goods ourselves to affected areas in behalf of those who contributed. We also set up a campaign to raise funds for purchasing similar items. With the help of UT Health San Antonio Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, we collected over 100 ready-to-eat food items, numerous hygienic products, dozens of 24/35-packs of bottled water in three days! Along with the items we purchased from the money raised from our campaign, we made food and hygienic items kit to be given to anyone who needs them. Two-thirds of the kits were placed in the area where all other supplies were located in Rockport. While we wanted to distribute the goods ourselves, we found that people were more comfortable grabbing what they needed from supplies stations. We saw that Rockport had plenty of help, so we took the other third of our kits to Refugio, another town nearby also in need of help.

We also volunteered for Mercy Chefs, a faith based, non-profit relief organization whose mission is to prepare and serve meals during natural disasters and emergencies. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Mercy Chefs from Nathan’s colleagues in the food industry. In fact, when Harvey made landfall in the coast, a team was already up set up to go. One of Nathan’s bosses was a part of that team and he encouraged us to join them since they needed as many hands they can get. As we served individuals the two days we were there, I can’t help but admire the resilience many put out despite the devastation. Some of these folks just lost everything yet they had smiles all around. I can only imagine how difficult it is to have your sense of normalcy taken away. It was inspiring to witness the hopefulness of the whole town as they pick themselves up and re-establish their lives. Not only that, but it was nice to see fellow volunteers who paused their lives to help out those in need. It was nice that for once, everyone’s lives mattered.

If there’s anything that I learned from this experience, it’s that things work themselves out if it’s meant to happen. And it requires putting everything in God’s hands and trusting Him to perfectly execute His plans through us. Honestly, I didn’t quite know how the end result would look like, but I was confident that we’d accomplish our goal because doors kept opening for us. When the word of the donation drive came out, people gave so much despite the short notice and the bureaucratic hurdles that were present. Our initial goal of raising $500 was achieved within a day, which was MORE than what we could ask for. Friends, some of which are current and past GSBS students, gave their time and joined Nathan and I to help. The opportunity to volunteer with Mercy Chefs arose when we weren’t sure we were even welcome.

This experience also taught me the true definition of service. It’s more than just putting your needs aside to benefit others. It means letting go of your fears of being judged, putting yourself out there, and asking for help in behalf of those folks out there in despair. It means trusting that your efforts are not in vain because there are others who share similar sentiments. It means being okay with anonymity, despite how much time and effort you’ve put forth. Because it’s not about getting rewarded, or recognized – it’s about doing the right thing. I am grateful just to be there to witness the kindness and compassion humanity can be capable of.

There is nothing like seeing the devastation first hand, and it definitely made coming back to “normal” life a bit difficult. But I returned with a newfound appreciation of things I once took for granted, and a better understanding of a greater purpose in life: to be of service to others.

To the GSBS community and to all the kind donors, no amount of words can express our gratitude for your support and for entrusting us with your gifts to the hurricane victims. From the bottom of hearts, thank you for your generosity. It was a privilege to be a part of something greater than ourselves, and we couldn’t have done it without y’all!  

Neelam Mukherjee

The coast always has been my favorite getaway with friends to unwind from long, tiring weekends in graduate school. It just was my “happy place” with its cute shops, beautiful beaches and welcoming people. So the sudden devastation which met my eyes when I first reached Rockport really shook me to the core. The previously charming city was really turned into a heartbreaking collection of desolate streets, broken houses, and a few residents here and there trying to salvage the remnants. But I knew at that moment that coming here was absolutely the right thing to do. We knew probably we won’t be able to move mountains but we wanted to try our best and prayed that may be in some little way it will make a difference. Fortunately, I was blessed enough to be there with such a compassionate and hardworking group including my friends from school and the people I got to know working at the different shelters and churches. It was in a way so beautiful to see so many people come together irrespective of their race or nationality and work with such camaraderie to build a broken city up. What was more amazing was that the mood was upbeat; people were sad but hopeful and everyone treated one another with a smile and a whole lot of kindness. It was such a great example of the Texas spirit, which I have grown to love over the years.

We worked mostly with Mercy Chefs and that was where the actual fun began for me. To put it in mild terms, I am not a cook from any standard. So imagine putting a “microwave” kind of person in a professional kitchen with chefs ready to go. It’s been a while I felt that useless; all my fancy lab experience totally failed me when the head chef asked me to set up a three part wash basin. Seeing my deer in headlights look Nathan came to my rescue and helped setting that up. My face may have showed embarrassment because one of the chefs patted me on my back and said, “You will be fine, the Lord has put you here and you are willing; that’s all that matters”. And there started the next two days when I chopped, washed, mopped, and cleaned more than I have done in the last 2 years combined. And to top it all I still have all of my fingers intact and not hanging from the knife. However, the feeling when our work transformed into warm dishes and the grateful looks on the people’s faces while handing them out was the greatest gift I received for any work I ever did in my life.

One of the memorable incidents however happened when Alison and I decided to drive through the neighborhoods to manually distribute kits from house to house and help those in need. We were driving by when we stopped at this partially broken house where an old Indian couple was sitting in the porch. They had no power and water over a week and looked exhausted. Alison was walking in front of me and when she tried talking to them they shook their head and said “limited English”. Alison immediately turned towards me and asked if I can try talking to them. I have never been more grateful for my ability to speak Hindi. I spoke to them for quite a long time and came to know how they just moved from Gujrat, India to the States and when the hurricane happened they were with their grandkids alone since their daughter was out of station due to work commitments. They were so happy to see a familiar face and the whole incident just was a proof how God orchestrates certain situations. I don’t know how those two kits helped them but I know for few moments they were excited to talk about their home and it comforted them knowing that they were not alone and people were there trying to help them. While we were leaving they hugged both Alison and me and even tried to communicate their gratitude to Alison which I translated very happily. It was such a cute little moment that it will forever bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it.

It was a hard adjustment coming back to our normal lives in San Antonio. We can’t tell how big an impact we made. All I can tell is that that they have made an impact on us. The sheer determination of the people out there is nothing short of extraordinary. I am certain that though it may take time but they definitely will get back on their feet. We complain so much about little things and end up in fights over small stuff. Its times like these which gives us a different perspective so that we just stop for a moment and look at the bigger picture. The respect and kindness they bestowed upon one another even when they have just lost everything is incredible and it’s something we all can learn from. I feel privileged to have gotten the chance to be a part of this attempt and we can’t express our gratitude to GSBS and all the friends and family who trusted and encouraged us to go out there and do our bit. 

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