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People Helping People

By Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

When Laura Broyles heard about the plight of Hurricane Harvey victims she knew she wanted to help. She didn’t know exactly what to do or who to approach, but her heart told her to do something.

Her position with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as an Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations based in Weatherford, Texas, keeps her busy looking after the 52 counties with 49 field offices under her supervision.

“I had two staff members deployed to the Houston area with the National Guard and I was hearing firsthand how they were helping and just felt like there was something I could or should do as well,” she said. “I just wanted to dive in and help however I could.

Her agency’s motto is “Helping People Help the Land” and she wanted to take that a step further to offer personal help to people in need. She spent nights and weekends immediately after Harvey hit making plans to do something that would help people directly impacted by Harvey.

She sent out invitations to NRCS field offices in her zone to donate supplies and she would take them down to an affected community. She called friends, she gathered supplies and rallied support for her mission. Her staff responded in amazing ways, purchasing and donating thousands of dollars in cash and supplies from a list of needed items.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I was blown away by our employee’s support for this mission,” Broyles said. “Their hearts for this cause were as big as mine. It was awesome.”

She hooked up the gooseneck trailer she uses for her daughter’s show lambs to haul the donated supplies. It was the perfect transportation vehicle as it is completely climate controlled. She made the rounds to the many USDA Service Centers to gather the donated supplies, packing it full. Then on Friday, September 15 she and four friends with their trailer load of supplies set out at 4 a.m. for a six hour trip to Wharton, with plans to be set up and have a hot lunch ready at noon.

Located 60 miles southwest of Houston, Wharton’s population is around 9,000 with a median household income of $26,700, and 22.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

“We didn’t know what we were in store for when we got there, but were ready for whatever challenges we faced and wanted to help in any way we could,” she says.  “The closer we got to the town we began to see where water lines had receded and evidence of the flooding.”

One of her friends had friends and family in the Wharton and knew the area was in great need of help. They had developed a game plan for their visit based on local contacts.

Broyles describes seeing corn stubble deposited along the sides of the highway, 1,500 pound round bales of hay that had been washed out of the fields, and lots of debris in the fence lines. 

“We saw a staging area in a pasture full of vehicles that had been flooded,” she said. “We saw a dumpsite higher than the power lines of people’s belongings that were ruined and covered in mold. I can’t even begin to describe the smell.”

The group unloaded the donated supplies at the Holy Family Catholic Church, which was extremely grateful and appreciative. They then proceeded to set up camp in the East Gate Shopping plaza where a staging area had been set up. True to their plan, Broyles’ group was serving up street tacos with all the fixings for lunch.

“I have to say, it is one thing to drop donations off at the Church for them to distribute, but to serve a meal and look in the eyes of someone who hasn’t had a hot meal in days is life changing,” said Broyles.

Broyles’ group camped out in the parking lot for three days, staying in their livestock trailer. They began each day around 5:30 a.m. serving breakfast tacos, then beef tacos for lunch and chili beans, meat and rice for supper until 10:00 p.m. or when they ran out of food. Over the course of three days they fed close to 1,500 meals with 350 lbs. of meat, 40 lbs. of rice, 20 gallons of beans, 1,200 tortillas and 20 dozen eggs. 

Their setup was one of the few locations in the area offering hot, fresh food and as such it became a popular stop. The Mayor of Wharton even came by asking if he could take some meals to some of his workers that were helping evacuees. Some people came on their bicycles filling their basket with food and water to take to stranded victims.

“We began to recognize faces and make friends, listen to their stories and how they had been impacted,” Broyles said. “I am not sure I can put words to the feeling of having someone tell you that they lost everything.”
One particular story that really tugged at Broyles’ heart strings was when she visited with a man and wife that were trapped in their attic with the flood waters already reaching their ceiling. They couldn’t reach local emergency responders and were forced to break out of their roof to avoid drowning in their home. As they did so the man’s wife was swept away by rushing waters. Miraculously she reached out and grabbed the edge of the bricks on their house and was able to hold on until her husband could make his way down the roofline to reach her and pull her to safety.

“This trip was a huge reality check for me,” she added. “We do great work as conservationist, but sometimes it does good to step back and look at the big picture of everything else going on in the world.  We are all a part of that big puzzle.”

Broyles said everyone’s first question to the group was asking who they were we affiliated with. “No one!” they would answer, “We are just people helping people”! 

People Helping People, Dee Ann Littlefield, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2017, October)