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Cover image: Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Cristina B. Franco spoke at a devotional full of Mormon Helping Hands volunteers that have helped with Hurricane Harvey cleanup in Houston, Texas, Sunday, September 17, 2017. Photo via 

“As we emulate His perfect example, our hands can become His hands, our eyes, His eyes’ our heart, His heart.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf

The past few weeks have reminded us of the horror of natural disasters and wild fires. With all this sorrow around us, how can we become His hands?

This began for our family with family in Texas directly in the path of Hurricane Harvey, next came Hurricane Irma making landfall in Naples, Florida where our grandson was serving as a missionary, then came Hurricane Nate affecting our niece in Florida.

There are opportunities to serve all around us and as volunteers were called for to help those cleaning up in Houston, our son and his family answered the call. I wanted to discover what that experience meant to them and to share with you what I learned.

I wanted to know how the call came. The coordinator for Mormon Helping Hands in Houston notified our son’s stake in San Antonio asking for 400 volunteers and meals. The stake then notified each ward with assignments. Their ward was asked to provide sack lunch items, 140 water bottles, 40 granola bars, 36 fruit cups and 100 sandwiches. Another weekend they were asked to provide crock pots full of pulled pork and dinner for 300.

The church’s youth program under service states: As you devote yourself to serving others, you will draw closer to Heavenly Father. Your heart will be filled with love. You will learn that service and sacrifice are ways to overcome selfishness. You will enjoy happiness that comes only from giving service to God and others. Your capacities will increase, and you will be an instrument in God’s hands to bless the lives of His children. Had this been the case for my family?

The following is an interview with our son, his wife and our twelve-year-old granddaughter. I did speak with them separately so their answers were truly their own.

Why did you decide to help?

Granddaughter: (GD) It sounded good to help. I would want to be helped if I were in their position.

Daughter-in-law: (DIL) Mostly because we always do. Serving is part of our family, church, and southern culture.

Son: (S) It could just as easily been my family needing help. It’s the right thing to do. This is the third time I have served in this way, before in Baton Rouge and Eastern Texas.

What surprised you?

GD: It was interesting how grateful everyone was. It was really surprising how much damage there really was. Just 1 foot of water can destroy the whole house. Everyone was nice.

DIL: I went the second and third weekends and was surprised how much had already been done.

S: How many were there to help (11,000 the first weekend) People of all different backgrounds were affected, all social classes, all races, all religions. This was true not only of those affected but also of those there to help.

What did you do to help?

GD: Shoveled out rooms, took down dry wall and got to use a crow bar.

DIL: The first week I stayed home and helped prepare meals and take care of our kids. The following two weekends I went to help and most of the dry wall was down we pulled nails, pulled up flooring, worked on garages and swept out the dirt.

S: Whatever was needed. Tore down walls, took wet and rotting materials to the street, pulled up carpet, floors and subfloors, pulled out appliances and hauled furniture out.

Did you talk to homeowners?

GD: Yes. All had different backgrounds. One family was from Italy and had seven kids. Most homeowners were depressed and just wanted to be back in their homes. One family had us get everything out of the second floor even though only the first floor was damaged. They didn’t want anything in the house to remind them.

DIL: We all spent time talking to everyone. Only one owner left us alone and didn’t work with us.

S: Yes. They were grateful for all the help.

How did you feel while working?

GD: I felt good that I was helping. I know God helped me block out the awful smell and focus on helping.

DIL: It was a lot of fun, like a ward activity. Even though we were all wearing masks and sweating we chatted as we worked.

S: It was a great feeling to help especially when we saw the appreciation for and support from volunteers. I was grateful for the opportunity to serve and help those in need.

How did it change you?

GD: Now washing dishes and helping around the house isn’t as big a deal. I am more grateful for those who do things for me like cooking and laundry.

DIL: Realization that you are working together and accomplishing things as a group, like an old fashioned barn raising.

S: A greater appreciation for the role service plays in our development. It put things into perspective. When you are taken out of your day to day into an abnormal situation where you are asked to totally focus on the needs of others it helps you realize what is really important.

What do you wish you had taken with you?

GD: I wish I had taken a bigger shovel.

DIL: Because we had done this before I can’t think of anything. I would recommend everyone get good facemasks, ones with a valve. A mask with the valve allows you to breath easier and not sweat as much. Note from Carolyn: Always use an N95 mask not a typical mask for the hardware store. An N95 is good, an N95 with valve better and an N99 with valve is best.

S: After the first time I volunteered I purchased a Dremel tool to help cut dry wall. The removal goes much faster and leaves a clean line for later when putting up new dry wall.

What was the hardest part?

GD: At first keeping on task for more hours than you are used to working. By the third weekend I was used to it.

DIL: Getting up so early to make the 3-hour drive to get there.

S: It was difficult to see people and realize this was just the first step, many had no insurance, they have a long road ahead.

How did it change your relationship with your parents?

GD: I think we are closer. I think they have more trust in me. Dad even watched me use a crow bar and knows I can do it.

How did it change your relationship with your daughter?

DIL: It was great having hours alone in the car just the two of us. It was great having time to just talk and laugh together.

S: It was a great learning experience to go thru together. It gave me the opportunity to teach principles we had talked about but hadn’t done in practice. We strengthened our testimonies of the gospel together.

What would you tell others about serving?

GD: It’s a good idea. It helped strengthen my testimony. It made me grateful and I realized someone is always in a worse situation than you.

DIL: Serving should be a way of life. It is part of a healthy lifestyle and makes your approach to problems more balanced. Serving is important to a healthy lifestyle like eating vegetables is important to a healthy diet.

S: Go. When you go bring a good respirator. You don’t need any construction experience. It’s mostly manual labor so you will not be asked to do plumbing or electrical. You will be with others to help you learn.

What about sharing the gospel?

GD: We didn’t talk to homeowners about it but one of the girls had an experience with her mom. The woman whose home was being cleaned out said she felt sorry for my friend’s mom because she was going to have to buy new shoes and clothes after helping. The mom replied, “Are you kidding, look what you have lost. I am happy to help.” The homeowner replied, Latter Day Saints are so grateful, I might have to join your church.

DIL: Not really, just chatted with everyone as we worked.

S: People knew who we were and many had known Mormons. Their perception of church members was improved or reinforced without much discussion.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an emergency communications conference for church leaders. Elder Jay Pimentel spoke and pointed out that the proper way of expressing our self-reliance goals is actually Emergency Preparedness and Response. How is our response preparation? Are we prepared to spend weekends cleaning up after a disaster? Are we willing and prepared to share our home with those evacuated due to a fire? Are we willing and prepared to prepare food for those in shelters or to take give your 72 hour kits to those who need the toothbrushes, flashlights and other items you have in them? Are we prepared to respond?

Prepare now to respond. Response benefits us at least as much as those we serve, as was the experience of our son’s family.

“If we want joy in our hearts, if we want the Spirit of the Lord in our lives, let us forget ourselves and reach out.” President Gordon B Hinckley