By Sarah Ruppenthal

It’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, but the gut-wrenching images have not faded from our collective memory: Children carried to safety in the arms of police officers. Nursing home residents sitting in waist-deep flood waters. Evacuees arriving at shelters in the pouring rain—some with only the clothes on their backs.

Hurricane Harvey racked up billions in damage, stole more than 80 lives and displaced thousands of residents. But in the wake of unimaginable loss, there was an outpouring of solidarity and support. In the days and weeks following the storm, volunteers from across the country descended on the Houston area. Among them were eight KW Island Living (a Keller Williams Realty Franchise)

Realtors® and associates: Lisa Teichner, Marion Haller, Trina Bayong, Randy Antonio, Francisco Prado, Dean Otto, and Lee and Barbara Potts.

In mid-August, the group of eight was preparing to attend Mega Camp, Keller Williams’ annual four-day training and networking event, which was scheduled to take place Sept. 11 through 15 at the Austin Convention Center (Keller Williams Realty is headquartered in Austin, Texas). But as Hurricane Harvey rapidly gained intensity, Keller Williams canceled Mega Camp and quickly pivoted to coordinate Mega Relief, a weeklong, on-the-ground relief effort. All registered Mega Camp attendees were invited to take part in Mega Relief—and the KW Island Living team didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation.

Over the course of several days, the eight volunteers were dispatched to flood-ravaged areas to assist the Austin Disaster Relief Network, Central Texas Food Bank, American Red Cross, Austin Pets Alive! and other organizations. “It was encouraging and heartwarming to see so many people come together to help those who had lost their homes and possessions,” said Potts, who volunteered at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, where she assembled clean-up kits and prepared bags of dog food. “I was impressed and touched by the scope and organization of the relief effort with so many areas of need being addressed at the same time.”

By the end of the week, nearly 4,000 Keller Williams associates logged more than 60,000 volunteer hours and helped clean up 150 homes in Houston and surrounding areas. “Everyone gave 110 percent,” said Teichner, who processed intake forms for the Austin Disaster Relief Network and helped load and pallet thousands of pounds of food at the Central Texas Food Bank. “It was incredible. The feeling of being there, helping—there’s nothing like it in the world. It’s something you cannot explain.” 

And to say it was a life-changing experience would be an understatement.

“I will never forget the flood of emotions that came over me,” said Bayong, who, along with Prado, Antonio and Haller, de-mucked houses in Katy, Texas. “Can you imagine your personal belongings, pieces of your flooring and walls and furniture piled in your front yard? That was what I witnessed street after street. It was absolutely heartbreaking to hear what these families went through, but it drove all of the volunteers to do whatever we could to get their houses cleaned up. I have never been a part of something so monumental.”

Antonio agrees wholeheartedly. “This was a very moving experience to actually be on the ground and see the major devastation that took place,” he said. “To meet the homeowners of the homes we helped de-muck made it even more surreal. They shared with us their stories of trying to escape when waters were rising so quickly and then return to their homes weeks later and find their whole world turned upside down. I won’t ever forget their courage, sheer determination and positive outlook during this crisis.”

All eight volunteers say they left Texas with the same thing: perspective. “After four days of sorting shoes and tearing out people’s kitchens, I was left just filled with gratitude for people who really care and give what they can…and for the many positive things that happen in our world that get so little attention,” Haller said. “I felt overwhelming gratitude for my life and family and all that I have that is precious to me. It is all so fragile.”

The KW Island Living team encourages others to support hurricane relief efforts—in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico—in any way they can. “There is still a lot to do,” Teichner said. “There are people out there who really need our help.”

To learn more about Keller Williams Realty’s ongoing hurricane relief efforts or to make a donation, visit www.kwrelief.org.

Originally published in The Maui News – October 21, 2017

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