Alternative Spring Break 2016 – San Marcos, Texas

Howdy y’all from Penn State Hillel’s 2016 Alternative Spring Break trip in Texas! Last year, the area of San Marcos, Texas was declared a zone of natural disaster after the flooding that occurred here. We teamed up with the JDRC and Nechama (and the Saint Bernard Project) to help repair homes in this area that were damaged as a result of this natural disaster.

Day before the trip/Day 1: March 7, 2016

The day before the trip, we were all welcomed to stay at Annie’s father’s house, who was such a great host for us all. We were grateful for the amazing dinner he prepared for us all day, and the time he took out of his schedule to make sure we all had a place to stay before our early morning flight. We had a great time getting to know one another and getting our last bit of rest before the hardworking-anticipated week ahead of us. Although not all of us stayed over at Annie’s, we all met bright and early at 5am in the Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC, to start our journey to Texas!

Once we touched down in Texas, we met up with Pitt Hillel’s 2016 Alternative Spring Break group. We did some icebreakers and got to know each other while we waited to be picked up from the airport to be taken to the camp where we will be staying for the week. Our leaders from Nechama picked us up from the airport and we began our way to the camp. Once we arrived at the camp, we all gathered around and were shown the grounds where we would be staying. The area around the camp is filled with hills of green trees and rocky paths; the view from our cabins is amazing. The camp is a bit different than we all expected; the group all agreed that it was better than what we had anticipated. We had about an hour to get settled and rest, and then meet up again for dinner/discussions at 6pm. I think it is safe to say that we all took that hour to rest, as we have had a tiring day of travels.

For our first night at the camp, we had more icebreakers and discussions to get ourselves thinking about what we are really doing this week. We had dinner and watched some videos that showed us the immediate aftermath of the flooding that occurred in this area of Texas. This really opened my eyes and already made me feel a connection to the place I was in/people who were affected, without even starting the work yet. It was a great segway into the week.

It is now 7:45am on Monday, and we have prepared/bagged our lunches and are off to the sites for our first day of work! Once we arrive, we meet the leaders from the Saint Bernard Project and are briefly informed about the sites/tasks that we will be working on for this week. After this, we are split up into a couple groups, some staying at the site we arrived at, and some heading off a short distance away to the town of Kyle, Texas. I stayed at the site where we first went, which was a section eight (low-income) community of small units. Our major task for the day is dry-walling the units. I have never done this before, but I definitely learned a lot from our leaders and can say that I have gained a lot of insight about the amount of work that goes into each step of building a house. The explanation of dry walling and drilling it into the wood panels seemed pretty basic to me, but I soon learned that it was definitely not as simple as it first seemed. Although our work was tiresome and frustrating at times, I think we all did a great job of communicating and figuring out any problem we had together as a group; by the end of the day we had a great system going, and I’m sure that tomorrow will be even better.

The group who went to Kyle had a great experience there too. Their primary tasks of the day were grouting the tiles on the floors, painting the walls, and moving around heavy furniture from some of the rooms. Since the family was still living in the house that they were working on, they had the opportunity to meet/interact with them. Sam said that it made their work more real and made them want to push through the hard parts, so that the little girls (2 and 6 years old) could be back in their rooms as soon as possible. The family in that house is more than appreciative for everything that we are doing for them, and they even left notes thanking us and left snacks out for us). It makes me even more motivated to do my best work here, because to think that a family who has lost everything will still provide snacks and support to us, is just inspiring; it is truly why I am here.

Annie had mentioned how tiling was a lot more tedious and painful on the knees than she expected, but with the support from one another and her positive attitude, she had a great experience today. Ilana S. had some insight on her work outside today. She said, “Because of the wind, working against the weather was even harder”. She said that it made her think about how the wind must have affected the flooding at an even greater impact than if it had just been flooding alone. The weather is a powerful thing here in Texas, and I think we all had some form of realization of that today. Hannah was in a positive mood, helping others stay positive too, and she mentioned how she enjoyed being able to learn a task and then pass it onto someone else. She said that it made her feel like she was helping out in a way where she could lead others and that was a cool experience for her. Overall, everyone was happy that we got to learn/do different things.

Our hard working day came to an end and we made our way back to camp for the night. We all agreed that our team dynamic is what will keep us going. We felt that when we formed connections with the homeowners and with each other, that it made our work a lot better.

The family owners of the camp are so sweet and are doing everything to make us truly feel the Texas “home sweet home” feel that we all hear about. We all are appreciative for their positive attitudes and support for what we are doing here. They provided a wonderful meal for us for dinner, and we ended the day with a discussion about immigration and what that means to us as Jews, as well as tying that in with our perspectives of the culture/identities of the people in Texas and of each other. We had the opportunity to get to know some of the staff’s immigration stories and then some of each other’s stories in small groups. This made us clique with each other by hearing some more personal things that we had not known about each other before. It was a discussion that we all really enjoyed.

We are now off to bed for the night, with a full day ahead of us tomorrow! I love Texas so far, and can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring for us all!

– Amanda Gluzberg

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Day 2: March 8, 2016

You Don’t Leave Texas

Our Hillel alternative spring break group started the day by eating breakfast and packing our lunches. It brought me back to a day, when I was 10 years old. Then at 8 O’clock sharp we left for our different work sites. Some of us went to section 8 housing in C. M. Allen Low Income Housing Units, to do more installation and dry wall for houses that people will eventually move into. The rest of our group went to Kyle, TX to do repair work on two of the houses that received damages from the Memorial Day flood. In those houses we did more work on the grouted floors, we trimmed doorways and parts of the house, and we moved furniture from room to room to allow carpet to be put down in the bedrooms. While this may not seem like a full day’s work, we are putting finishing touches on these houses that the families do not have the time or money to complete.
 At lunch, we reflected on what we were doing, and what we discovered is that we are not building houses; we are making homes. A family will be able to fully function in that house when we are done. They will be able to hang their pictures, stand in their living room without feeling sludge or saw dust, and they can begin to build memories. For those who worked on the houses in Kyle, we get to see the homeowners and their things, so we can connect with them to the future we are helping build. Those of us who worked in C. M. Allen imagined who would be living in those homes, what it would look like, and what food they would be making in the kitchen. We imagined smiling faces, babies laughing and the aroma of fresh baked pies!
 While some of us have found it harder to connect to the cause on a personal level the past two work days, today we were able to talk to some of the survivors. The community members affected by the flood told their stories about the flooding that occurred in May and October 2015. This was emotional and inspiring to everyone in the room.
 They told us how they walked through rising floodwater in their streets, which first was up to their knees, then rose quickly to their waist, then up to their shoulders. One of the survivors, Renee, told us how she walked through the water to higher ground and watched the water rise at 3am. One couple that spoke, Mike and Gayla, told us that they had 10 and ½ foot high flood damage to their home. Renee told us that there was a 42-foot wall of water that headed toward Wimberley, TX. One of the volunteers from the area, Stacey said that even with the warnings, they could have never guessed the magnitude of the flooding! There had never been a flood of that magnitude. All of the survivors mentioned how the community just came together and asked what can we do?! The community members walked around the day after and were overwhelmed and devastated. Renee was hit by the flood in May and was just about done with fixing the damages in her house, but then the October flood hit and she was back to square one.
 We wondered why, after all this damage and struggles, that these survivors and community members would stay in Wimberley, or even still live in Texas? And their response was simple, “you don’t leave Texas.”

- Annie Cave

Day 3: March 9, 2016

BOOM. The bunk bed shook as I woke in the middle of the night from a powerful thunderstorm. Even the heaviest of sleepers couldn’t make it through this storm. We heard the rain, wind, and loud thunder as a result of the nearby lightning. While it wasn’t an ideal start to our day, we were finally able to understand a bit of the anxiety that the locals feel when it rains. We couldn’t help but picture the Blanco and San Marcos Rivers slowly rising and fearing the potential results of another flood.
Unfortunately the rain continued for the rest of the day. The gloomy weather put a bit of a damper on our mood, but we were determined to continue making progress. At my site in Kyle, Rebecca Balchunas and I finished sanding down the mud on the walls of the garage from Monday. After that, we started and nearly completed our second round of mudding. It’s so rewarding to have volunteers from other sites come to visit and ask, “What have you been doing?” and I can show them everything we have accomplished. This long process of tedious repair work has given me a much greater appreciation for those who do this work on a regular basis- either as a paid job or as volunteer work.
Our work has also taught me that even though it is difficult at times to see the progress we have made, we have actually accomplished so much more than we can imagine. Everyone that we have conversations with sincerely thank us for our work, even if we are not repairing their homes. It makes me realize that we are not only making a difference in the lives of the current owners of these homes, but we are also helping the future residents and the entire community.
After we finished our work for the day, we had a lovely dinner made by Tania and the rest of the Freedom 14 family. Soon after we went to downtown San Marcos, the home of Texas State University. We explored some of the local stores, coffee shops, and taco restaurants before we met up to go to the Cheatham Street Warehouse. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a local music bar that showcases some of the best songwriters San Marcos has to offer. We had a great time but had to leave at 11 so we could get a good night’s sleep for our last day of work. All around it was a very fun and rewarding day, and we are excited to see the final products of our work tomorrow afternoon!
With love from Texas,
Hannah Geller
Day 4: March 10, 2016

Four days in and all the emotions are out. Waking up in the morning felt very bittersweet as this was the last day of volunteering and while so much was accomplished, there is still so much work still left to be done. We started our day with the same routine as always. Lunches packed and breakfast eaten, we all head out in our Nechama shirts to the various work sites and begin working on our houses, hurrying to get everything in the houses done. My work site consisted mostly of dry wall installation. Working on the walls really brought a sense of teamwork as we all worked together to get every assignment accomplished. We were partnered with Grand Valley State University, specifically a Christian group. It was interesting to see two groups, coming from different backgrounds and faiths all coming together to accomplish one goal, to give a family a better life than what they currently have. Everyone was motivated throughout the day and continued to give their best effort with every task. We were able to cut doorways, add trim to windows, and make final preparations for inspections all in one day. We ended the day on our site with slurpees and discussions on our progress. While we weren’t quite happy with leaving the project without being able to finish it, we all were proud of the work we put in to make this house closer to being a home. On the other sites, the students managed to install and finish an entire bathroom as well as work with the property owners in helping them get things exactly there way they want them.

After some small delays, we all made it back to the camp site to decompress and think about the experiences we`ve had. For me, two things kept coming to me. 1, I have felt one of the strongest connections to my Judaism by volunteering with Nechama and working to build these homes. Every Jew has certain principles that they live early by, and one of the main principles I try to live by is community and having the ability to help a community impacted by so much devastation has helped me connect to who I am as a Jew in ways that I haven’t been able to before, and 2, the feeling of tikkun olam never felt truer. One of the first things are trip leader Leah Chakoff explained to us is that we are not going in to this project to finish it. We are picking up the pieces other groups left and working on them to the best of our ability until we ultimately leave Texas and another group of Jews come in take our place. This is the eternal cycle of the Jewish people. These times we`ve spent in Texas has been truly eye opening. I’ve learned more in these 4 days than I have in whole years, whether it is new skills or new thoughts about me. It only makes me more excited for Shabbat tomorrow with my fellow student leaders and for the rest of this trip and learning experience.

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