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Jun 09, 2014 | Gloria Alvarez

North Dakota Youth Join Renovation on Critically Ill Child’s Home in West Houston

When Cole Red Tomahawk arrived in Houston June 4th from North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, he expected hard work.  He and three friends came to help renovate a home for the Strong family with a mission team from Emmanuel Episcopal Church in West Houston.


“Being in Texas and helping out with someone’s house is actually pretty fun,” said Austin Kelly, another of the North Dakota volunteers.  “I love meeting new people.  And Texas is amazing.”


The four young men, including Isaiah Floberg and Austin’s cousin Patrick Kelly, are members of Pathways to Ministry, a program at their Standing Rock Episcopal Community that allows young adults to experience Christian community, ministry and discernment.


The Dioceses of North Dakota and Texas signed a companion relationship at this year’s Annual Council. Floberg’s father, the Rev. John Floberg and Emmanuel’s rector, the Rev. Janie Kirt Morris, seized the renovation project as an opportunity for shared ministry.


Hot, Heavy Work

Although the young men from North Dakota had some construction experience, this home renovation was the most ambitious project they’d undertaken.  Thursday, June 5, was demolition day: pulling down the exterior siding and trim, clearing the backyard and pruning shrubs and trees.  Fifteen volunteers chucked the debris into a 30-yard Dumpster, which was filled to the top by Friday morning.


That afternoon, table saws whirred.  Sawdust coated the sidewalk. Replacement siding and trim boards were cut to measure.  Rotten two-by-fours were replaced and reinforced.  Water-damaged insulation was exchanged for fresh pink batts.


By Saturday, day three of the renovation, more than 20 workers wielded hammers, nails, caulking guns and paintbrushes.  The house had been completely resided, eliminating sightlines into the attic.  Tree stumps were ground and gone. Rain gutters were re-hung, shutters repainted, gaps sealed.


“Bob Vila couldn’t do it any better,” bragged site supervisor and Emmanuel member Mark Cambria.


Renovation 4 Life

Emmanuel’s home rehabilitation ministry, Renovation 4 Life, had its genesis in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Ike.  Members of the congregation traveled to New Orleans and to Galveston to help restore property.


Cambria, a real estate investor, owns property in Karen and George Strong’s North Glen subdivision.  At a homeowners’ association meeting, he learned about the problems that had kept the Strongs from maintaining their home: a chronically ill 11-year-old daughter, Kayla, requires regular, lengthy trips to the Cleveland Clinic; Karen’s frail 81-year-old mother, and Karen’s sister, who is undergoing treatment for a recurring stage four brain tumor.  George owns a carpet-cleaning and restoration business, working 10 to 15-hour days to support his family and his customers. 


Emmanuel’s vestry didn’t hesitate when Cambria brought the situation to them, funding materials and encouraging church members to volunteer. The Diocese of Texas funded the four youth from North Dakota through its World Mission Board and the young men stayed with parishioners.


The enchiladas at Sylvia’s were “go-oo-d,” Tomahawk said, his black eyes lighting up at the memory.  “I like Texas--the people …  If I came back, though, I would learn more Spanish,” he said.

The Strong family is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.  The rehab ends complaints from their homeowners’ association and allows them to concentrate on taking care of their loved ones.


“It means a lot to my family,” said George Strong, a catch in his voice.  “You are doing so much.”


Strong showed up with coolers of GaatorAde for the volunteers, family members stopped by every day to visit and the children wrote thank you notes to every person who worked on the house. 


“This is God’s way of saying He’s looking out for us,” Karen Strong said, adding that before Kayla became so ill, the family of four frequently engaged in community service, donating time and treasure to various causes. 


Now it’s their turn to receive.


The Future

As work on the Strong home winds down, Cambria said he expects Renovation 4 Life to become an on-going outreach ministry of Emmanuel.  The Strongs’ case was urgent, and the parish was able to quickly marshal resources and labor.  Now the Outreach Commission will be looking for other short-term projects.


The four North Dakotans returned to Standing Rock on Sunday, June 8.  They head immediately for Camp Gabriel, where they will spend the summer handling maintenance, hospitality and leadership for the camp season.  In the fall, they spread their wings: Allen will leave for university in Portland, Oregon. Floberg returns to high school and Kelly expects to work with Job Corps in Minot, ND.   As for Tomahawk, Houston’s punishing heat has given him a taste of his future.  In September he reports to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Army basic training. 


Alvarez is a member of Emmanuel, Houston