Wharton Youth Group Leads Flood Recovery Effort
From evacuation assistance to fundraising and ongoing workdays, the “Rise Youth” of FUMC Wharton have been indispensible to their community during the flooding aftermath that began a year ago.
Youth from FUMC Wharton have been on the news and in the news over the last year for their stellar flood relief work in a community that is no way near normal – even a year later.
According to youth leader Stephanie Konvicka, last April, the Colorado River flooded, affecting a square mile in West Wharton and damaging 350 homes. Barely a month later, the river flooded again, affecting 26 homes. “As if that were not enough,” Stephanie shares, “in June a fire at a nearby apartment complex destroyed 60 units and displaced 81 residents (some for the second or third time in as many months). The affected homes represent a significant amount of the affordable housing in Wharton, our small community of approximately 9,000.”
The flood affected houses that are in a predominantly low-income and African-American neighborhood. Most residents are unable to afford flood insurance, which also renders them ineligible to receive recovery assistance from FEMA.
Adds Stephanie, “Because our youth group (Rise Youth) has a long-standing relationship with this neighborhood, including having family and friends who live there, my youth wanted to help -- from the very beginning. Before the flood hit, they were the first to initiate helping with evacuations. They were the last ones out of the neighborhood the night before the water came. They were also some of the first ones who went back into homes with residents to assess damage and begin muck-outs.”
With the ongoing efforts of about two dozen teens, the Rise Youth group knows the community and community leaders such as the police and emergency personnel know them. Notes Stephanie, “Initially, we easily managed to raise over $21,000 for materials to use during our regular recovery work days. I am proud to say FUMC Wharton has students who have not missed a workday since last April.” The youth are so skilled at this process they are teaching other volunteers how to hang sheetrock and handle other steps.” Student Nick Stransky has learned the value of teamwork in this process. “Going to church everyday wouldn't mean anything if we did not practice what we preached.,” he shares. “Flood recovery is important to me because these people are our neighbors and our duty as Christians is to love our neighbors as ourselves, by doing this flood recovery work we are proving that. Through this experience, I've learned how to work with others, how to use tools, and how to communicate.”
The Rise Youth eagerly helped a church family with a teen in the youth group, and are currently working on their fourth house. With an April flood, May flood and area fires in the community, there is considerably more to do. Young adults from Ashford UMC and Wharton UMC were on hand recently to clean out a building in the West End community center, Just Do It Now, that had been untouched since the flood. Most recently, the Moody Foundation provided Wharton with a grant to hire a project manager this spring to sustain long-term recovery needs beyond what volunteers can handle.
One of the biggest rewards for their service is being invited to family celebrations and treated as “extended family” by people they have helped. When a resident’s son left for the Navy this year, Rise Youth were a part of the celebration. And youth are destined to have fun even while they are working. Shares Nick, “My favorite workday memory was when we pushed a shed over to clean up the area, and found some tractor tires. After I mentioned flipping tractor tires during athletics, we each tried it. Even after a long day there is enough energy to have some fun.”
The past year has been messy, tiring and frustrating at times,” Stephanie says, “but very much of a grassroots response with beautiful things and new relationships resulting. We seem to be the only church in town doing significant flood work,” shares Stephanie, “and it is sometimes challenging to be the church everyone calls on, but we plan to continue our work as long as there are houses to work on and we have resources to do the work. We say ‘love thy neighbor’, but this work gives us a chance to live that love.”
Student Amos Kemper says, “Working flood recovery is important to me because I believe that as a member of my community I need to give back as much or more than I take from it. I’ve learned many things while working flood recovery, such as how to use certain tools and how to be a team participant. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to be okay and patient with the slow progress of such a big project like flood relief.”
The Next Big Thing
On May 7th, Rise Youth will host “Down to the River” to benefit their flood recovery efforts. Southwest District youth are invited for an evening of dinner, games, and a concert with The Homestead and their special guests, Anthony Rogers and The Source Band. Stephanie hopes it will be an evening of celebration of the work that has already been done and an opportunity to raise awareness about the continued need. She says, “It is so encouraging for The Homestead and The Source Band to offer their time and talent to support us. It feels like they are saying, ‘We see you and you aren’t in this alone.’ I can’t tell you how much this event means to us after a year of hard work.”