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Aug 17, 2018 | Carol E. Barnwell

Thrift Store Rises with the Flood Waters To Assist Neighbors

What started in 1983 in an empty building on the west side of Wharton took on great significance immediately following Harvey’s devastating floods of August 2017. The town of 10,000 west of Houston was spared flooding during the actual storm, but two days later, lying along the Colorado River, Wharton was mostly underwater from the 55” of rain that had fallen further north. With little effort, St. Thomas’ and its thrift store stepped into a gap to assist all of Harvey’s survivors. 

Usually, it was the west of town that flooded—the poorer areas—but following Harvey, the levee broke and the east side of town behind the high school also flooded. Wharton is a fairly segregated community according to Jeffrey Blair, St. Thomas’ treasurer.  “Emergencies like Harvey put people together who would not normally work together. It causes people to look differently at their fellow human beings,” Blair said.  

According to Blair, neither the church nor the thrift shop flooded. “It was a miracle. The church became a supply hub for the city, taking in and storing donations. Different groups could come to us and get what they needed,” Blair explained. They helped feed volunteers and flood survivors even before the highway to Houston reopened.

Ora de Leon has been director of the thrift shop for more than two years. She describes the immediate aftermath of Harvey’s rains and flooding as “horrific.” She got five feet of water in her house on a day that was 100 degrees and clear skies. “Everything in the back of the house ended up in the front of the house,” she said. But that didn’t stop her from pitching in to help. 

She moved into a motel in nearby Bay City and continued to run the thrift shop while dealing with the Red Cross and FEMA for her own personal needs.

When the west side of town was evacuated to the Roman Catholic Church, de Leon knew the Red Cross could not get there from Houston. She loaded up shoes, clothes and diapers from the thrift store and took them to the shelter. “All those people had was on their backs,” she said. “I took linens, coffee cups, thermal mugs … they used all of it!” She even took a dry erase board knowing phones were out and people needed a place to leave messages. 

De Leon printed Harvey Bucks, $50 vouchers, and distributed them to various locations in town that were providing emergency aid. People were then able to redeem the vouchers for what they needed, whether that was clothing or kitchen items. The thrift store eventually redeemed $6000 worth of vouchers.

De Leon, a part-time employee, first volunteered for two years after moving to Wharton so that she could meet people. She knows well the needs of the town and has spent time to build relationships with community groups. She works many additional hours, sorting, organizing and chatting with customers, some of whom are older people who are lonely and come to chat or perhaps to escape the heat. 

St. Thomas’ Sr. Warden Allen Grosser said that need has led the board to consider adding a coffee shop in the thrift store.

“Harvey helped raise awareness of the thrift store,” de Leon said. “Now we get more donations and because it’s more organized, more locals and collectors are shopping here, too,” she added. 

In 2017, the thrift store proceeds provided $21,000 for direct outreach grants, through St. Thomas’ Outreach and Emergency Funds program. It also provided goods to clients of the outreach program. They have partnered with the Department of Labor for a program called Experience Works, designed to assist elderly, low-income people to reenter the workforce. De Leon also works with local courts to provide a place for individuals assigned to community service.

The church’s Harvey assistance to community members continues beyond the thrift store as well. In July they provided funds to install a shower for an 80-year-old woman who suffers from lupus. The woman, still struggling to return to her flooded home, could not afford to reconnect the utilities and didn’t have a shower or a washing machine because FEMA only gave her enough money to renovate two rooms of the five in her home because only one person lived there. 

Myra Wynn, a member of St. Thomas since 1994, said the woman wept when she received the check. “As Christians, our mission is to help people become independent,” Wynn said. “We helped another family with one month’s bills. They had just had twins and the husband had been laid off after Harvey. They just didn’t have enough because he used to have a higher paying job.” 

Harvey’s rains did not discriminate and perhaps Blair’s comment summed up the church’s vision for outreach most succinctly: “They are us.”  Neighbors helping neighbors.