Humanists in Houston: Joining Foundation Beyond Belief’s Disaster Response Program

Flooding in Port Arthur, TX on August 31, 2017. (via)

Last August Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category four hurricane, wreaking havoc on the Texas coast with a deluge of more than fifty inches of rain in parts of the Houston area that flooded thousands of homes and killed more than eighty people.

Eight months later, recovery is far from over. This is why Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB) has committed to sending trained humanist volunteers to recovering communities to assist in the rebuilding process. The American Humanist Association (AHA) partners with FBB on the Humanist Disaster Response program and as my employer, they arranged for me to participate in the first deployment to the Houston area disaster recovery efforts.

Arriving last Monday, I first took part in an orientation led by All Hands and Hearts (FBB’s partner organization leading the recovery initiative), FBB Executive Director Noelle George, and several other humanist volunteers.

The week’s site for repair work was Rhodes School for the Performing Arts, a fine arts magnet school that offers tuition-free education to low-income minority communities. Some 550 students, pre-K through eighth grade, attended the Rhodes school until it became flooded during Hurricane Harvey.

Preparing and installing flooring in the Rhodes School for the Performing Arts

We focused on rebuilding the main building on the campus, as well as gutting, sanitizing, and rebuilding the five remaining mobile units (trailers) and demolishing and rebuilding two handicap ramps leading up to the units.

I have some limited experience with carpeting, so I wasn’t completely clueless when it came to the rigors of flooring, which is what I spent most of my time doing. In fact, by the end of the first day, one of the supervisors split me off from my humanist team to work in a separate room with someone assisting me!

Installing insulation underneath the Rhodes School for the Performing Arts mobile units

My last day of work involved installing insulation underneath the school trailers. For much of the day, I was paired with Phil Session, vice president of the Atheist Community of Austin, The Atheist Experience co-host, and volunteer coordinator for Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless as well as the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas. I reached out to Phil to get his thoughts on that last day of volunteering.

Phil Session (right) and Sincere Kirabo (left) on Kirabo’s last day of volunteer work.

I was honored to be a part of the hurricane recovery effort in some small way. Being there, working on buildings for this K-8 school was a brand new experience for me, but it’s one I’ll repeat in the future. It was humbling walking through the entire worksite, seeing all of the work that had been completed so far and so much more that was needed.  I’m proud to have contributed to this project with volunteers from Foundation Beyond Belief and the American Humanist Association. We crawled under buildings, avoided pitfalls and rusted screws, and sloshed through muddy terrain together to get insulation secured and taped on the underside of several of the school buildings. We were graciously provided body suits to cover up and face masks to stop the inhalation of fiberglass. As a non-small individual, squeezing under the small opening to get underneath the first building seemed a tall order, but once in, it was game on.

For me, my humanism manifests primarily as putting in the time and effort volunteering for others. As I’ve mentioned on countless podcasts before, my point-of-view is this: we may have only sixty to eighty years on this planet, if we’re fortunate. That short amount of time is all we have to love and laugh, to feel and yearn, to interact and have an impact on others on this earth. As I have no evidence of any afterlife at this time, my focus is on making the most of this life, the only one I know I will have. That is why, in part, I wanted to join this effort (and the reason I volunteer so often in general, despite working full-time). That’s the purpose I choose for myself. Though I may never see the hundreds of students’ faces walking into those buildings, I know that my efforts will have an impact, however small, on their lives for years to come. That, for me, is more than enough.

I echo Phil’s sentiment. If you’re interested in helping with ongoing recovery efforts in Houston (another deployment may be planned for the fall or spring in Houston), or after future disasters, please sign up for Foundation Beyond Belief’s volunteer database, or donate to their Humanist Disaster Recovery program. Volunteers in the database will be contacted if a response is being planned in areas they are willing to volunteer. Links to both can be found here.

If you want to donate directly to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, you can do that through All Hands and Hearts.  A full 100 percent of Harvey donations sent to All Hands and Hearts will be used to help the people of Texas recover over the long-term. The organization is also providing complimentary round-trip flight vouchers to those who sign up for two or more weeks of volunteering.