Today is Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Dallas Catholics open arms, hearts to evacuees

Bishop Lynch High School students drop off care packages to be transported to Hurricane Harvey evacuees being temporarily housed at Dallas area shelters on Sept. 5. (JENNA TETER/The Texas Catholic)

By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic

When Hurricane Harvey began its slam of Texas on Aug. 25, the Diocese of Dallas’ constituents—the clergy, service groups, parishes, schools, lay ministries, affiliates, and individuals—reacted with stunning speed, the expertise of practiced, long-term vision and prayerful hearts.

Some groups, including the St. Monica Catholic Community, swiftly mobilized ministries to feed and comfort the earliest arrivals at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center—one of four Dallas shelters for those fleeing peril in South Texas.

Some, including Catholic Charities Dallas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Diocesan Council of Dallas, started planning for the future needs of those who would have lives to reconstruct, even as the charities hit the ground racing to coordinate donation streams and aid first-responders.

Still others, including Maritza Fierro, associate director of admissions at Bishop Lynch High School and an American Red Cross volunteer, welcomed what she called the “guests in our city” to the shelters that served as way stations to the rest of their lives.

Within 24 hours of the hurricane’s arrival in Texas, and on the weekend of his installation as the pastor of St. Monica Catholic Church by Bishop Edward J. Burns, Father Michael Guadagnoli visited the Walnut Hill shelter.

“It was our ministry of presence,” Father Guadagnoli said. “We just wanted to be present to let them know we cared. We invited them to Mass. We wanted also to be helpful to the staff with our prayers and presence.

“One of the things is that the Lord provides, and he provided us with the opportunity to reach out to our brothers and sisters in need.”

A wide range of St. Monica ministries and school groups sponsored activities, donated funds and secured meals from restaurants and caterers for the guests at the Walnut Hill shelter.

Welcoming those in need
The Dallas shelters’ populations rose and fell as some who had evacuated from Houston and other stricken areas found places to stay with relatives and friends. But even as South Texas rescues continued, some waters kept rising and the menaces of contaminated water supplies absorbed government officials and first-responders, Dallas charity executives planned for the time of picking up the pieces.

More than 50 inches of rain reportedly fell in some areas, and at least 60 deaths were attributed to the storm.

“This is going to be with us for a very long time,” said Michael Pazzaglini, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Diocesan Council of Dallas. “We don’t know the complete impact. The blessing is that past storms have made us prepared. We’re all working together. We’re teaming with Catholic Charities to supplement the case-management work that they are doing.”

St. Vincent de Paul’s “House in a Box” program will rev up to help furnish apartments for those who have lost their dwellings and belongings, Pazzaglini said.

“If it’s 10,000 people, that’s a lot of furniture and silverware,” he said. “Our biggest impact will be ‘House in a Box.’ We’re set up to provide vouchers for people to use for clothing at our thrift store on Northwest Highway.”

Dave Woodyard, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities Dallas, said that his organization will assist with many long-term needs.
Catholic Charities Dallas helped more than 38,000 clients last year alone.

“When the immediate crisis is over, it’s time to help the displaced and put families back together,” he said. “We will do case management, counseling and ultimately even help people defray some costs around insurance deductibles.”

This role—that of the “third-responder”—includes incorporating service missions of Catholic Charities Dallas such as the Financial Stability & Career Services program, Woodyard said.

“We can help people with their resumes and with job placement,” he said. “We’re there for the long haul.”

Matthew Vereecke, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Dallas, said that his office wanted to help displaced Catholic school children from South Texas to find placement in a Dallas-area Catholic school.

“In this time of great uncertainty, we hope that Catholic schools can be a stabilizing element for parents and students alike,” Vereecke said. “We have already secured scholarships for incoming families, and will also be able to provide support for uniforms, books and other supplies. We are also waiving many of our paperwork requirements for students that may not have ready access to their academic records.

“Overall, we stand with all Catholics—and all those affected—in overcoming this tremendously difficult situation.”

Love, service lead to hope
Chalk-drawn words and images of welcome covered the sidewalk outside the Samuell Grand Recreation Center as it transformed itself into a place of refuge for Hurricane Harvey evacuees, or guests.

In the lobby, Winston—a sweet-natured, large white therapy dog—offered a paw when a little boy knelt beside the Great Pyrenees and told the pup, “My name is Alvin.”

The outpouring of aid and comfort in the Dallas shelters heartened many as the displaced arrived, flummoxed by loss and shattered by their travels.

“It’s a mix of emotions because all of the people’s belongings might be just what they have with them,” said Bishop Lynch’s Fierro, who served as an American Red Cross volunteer at the Samuell Grand shelter. “The community rallied around them, whether it was schools or churches or people volunteering to do their laundry.”

At the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, Rowlett Police officer Vedran Nosic was among the first area law enforcement officers to man the mega-shelter.

He said that he felt that helping displaced people was the natural thing to do.

“I am a refugee who came here from Bosnia in 1994,” Officer Nosic said. “I am the son of a Catholic father and a Muslim mother. We had a lot of help from the Red Cross and UNICEF. And our police department had a lot of help from other police departments when a tornado hit Rowlett in December 2015.

“We looked around, and everybody showed up to come forward as a community.”

Outside the mega-shelter, Angel Morales, 13, cuddled his fluffy dog, Ares, as he spoke calming words to his grandmother, Juana Reynoso.

As he waited for Dallas Animal Services officials to register Ares for the mega-shelter’s pet area, Morales spoke about their trip from Port Arthur, Texas, to Dallas.

They got on the road early, he said.

“We were lucky,” he said. “The important stuff is the people.”

Children tossed footballs and played with hula-hoops outside the Samuell Grand shelter on Sept. 4, the day that Dallas officials began consolidating the four shelters into just the Convention Center mega-shelter.

“The people who were our guests are resilient,” said Fierro, who also serves as Bishop Lynch’s co-coordinator of mission trips. “I think that our community’s generosity had a lot to do with that.

“It made my heart happy to see that there’s so much good in the world.”


Share This Story

Return Home


Subscribe to The Texas Catholic

Get the award-winning Texas Catholic delivered to your door. Use the menu below to subscribe now.

Subscription length


Kindred Spirits

Click here to find your favorite Texas Catholic photographs.