TYLER – Carmen and Maria Landaverde lost everything except their lives and their two children in the May 10 tornado that ripped through Van and left a third of the town in rubble.
The couple and their two children – Jennifer, 17, and Manolo, 13 – took cover from the storm in the bathroom of their house. When they emerged after the storm, their home of 29 years and just about everything else they owned was gone.
Theirs was among the more than 120 homes damaged or destroyed by the EF-3 tornado that struck on Mother’s Day, killing two and injuring more than 40 more.
Now, four months later, the town of Van is still rebuilding. The Landaverdes, like so many others, have found another place to live.
And thanks to the generosity of the faithful of the Diocese of Tyler, the expertise of such agencies as Catholic Charities of East Texas and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the physical labor of the Knights of Columbus, the Landaverdes are the first of at least 50 families who will be getting a “House in a Box,” or a collection of new household items, from mattresses and linens to kitchen and bathroom supplies, to furnish their home and start rebuilding their lives.
Each House in a Box is calculated for a family of four, though it can be adjusted to accommodate larger families. Each unit typically contains new beds with box springs and frames; a couch; a dining room table and four chairs; three dressers; kitchen items such as dishes, utensils, silverware, pots, pans and glasses; bed linens; and bathroom supplies such as a shower curtain and rings, mat, towels and washcloths.
Mercy Ships, headquartered in Lindale, offered the use of its warehouse as a storage and distribution center. As items come in, members of Knights of Columbus Council 11978 of Canton are there to receive and open boxes and assist those receiving the items in loading them onto vehicles.
“We all watched the news reports about what happened here,” said Ken Mings, who was the council’s grand knight when the storm hit. “These people are our neighbors. Some of them go to our church. So our first question was, ‘What can we do to help?’
“There was a real sense of urgency about this,” Mings said. “You know, you see disasters in other parts of the country or the world, and you think, ‘Man, that’s awful. Those poor people. Thank goodness there are people there to help them.’ In this case, though, those ‘poor people’ are our neighbors, and we decided we had to be the ones to help. It’s what we do as Knights. It’s what we do as Catholics.”
And because a number of Knights also are active in St. Vincent de Paul, he said, the connections were there, and another piece of the East Texas network of help fell easily into place.
As he helped the Landaverdes load their new belongings onto a trailer, Mings said he was impressed by the House in a Box program.
“Look at all this,” he said, gesturing to the mattresses, furnishings and household items. “This is the kind of stuff you don’t think about people needing when you see disasters on TV. Who thinks of shower curtains? But people need these things. And getting them from St. Vincent de Paul means it’s one less thing they have to worry about.”
The House in a Box is the brainchild of the St. Vincent de Paul Disaster Services Division, which focuses on helping victims of natural disasters, such as fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, get their lives back in order. The program is intended to help keep families from falling into situational poverty because of their losses.
“The problem with disasters is that their effects are felt by the victims long after the first responders have left and the media spotlight has shifted to the next disaster,” said Elizabeth Disco-Shearer, chief operating officer of the SVDP Disaster Services Division. “Losing a home in a fire or storm is hard enough. But when you start to realize that it wasn’t just the house that is gone, but everything inside it, then the magnitude of the problem starts to grow.
“Think of everything you use in your home on a daily basis, from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed. Think of everything you see and everything you touch, from the household cleaning supplies to the family photos on the wall. And now imagine that all of that is gone.”
The Landaverdes didn’t have to imagine it.
At Mercy Ships headquarters in Lindale, where they had come to receive their new belongings, Carmen tried to describe the experience while Maria wept quietly at his side.
“It’s gone,” he said simply, softly. “We’re lucky because we survived, but we lost everything.”
The Landaverdes are parishioners of St. Therese Church in Canton. Carmen works in the Wal-Mart Distribution Center. A neighbor gave them a place to live rent-free after the storm, and they have since purchased another home near Van.
For them and other victims, though, the prospect of having to start over from scratch was daunting.
That’s where Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, the Knights of Columbus, organizations like Van Community Ministries and the generosity of people in the pews comes in.
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland immediately authorized a second collection to be taken up in parishes throughout the diocese for tornado relief.
“The week before the tornado, we’d had a second collection for (victims of an earthquake that rocked) Nepal,” the bishop said. “The people of East Texas have always responded generously to disasters. But the tornado in Van was different. This was a disaster in our own backyard, affecting our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. And, again, the people of East Texas responded in faith and with generosity.”
Parishioners in the diocese gave more than $54,000, while groups from throughout the diocese pitched in with manual labor to help clear away the rubble. Bishop Strickland gave Catholic Charities East Texas the lead in coordinating the response, and Catholic Charities partnered with St. Vincent de Paul and its House in a Box program.
It seems oddly fitting that both Catholic Charities East Texas and House in a Box were born out of the same monster storm 10 years ago – Hurricane Katrina.
“After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people streamed into East Texas as evacuees,” said Nell Lawrence, director of Catholic Charities East Texas. Bishop Álvaro Corrada, SJ, then bishop of Tyler, “decided we needed an organized, coordinated response. So he founded Catholic Charities in this diocese. We provided two years of support and relief for victims of Katrina, and we spent about $2.5 million. We learned as we went, and we gained our experience the hard way.
“So when the Van tornado happened, we knew we could do this,” Lawrence said. “And we knew how to do it. We’ve learned the value of networking and collaborating so that one agency isn’t tasked with everything, or so that multiple agencies aren’t operating separately, duplicating services.
“And we decided the St. Vincent de Paul House in a Box program was the best way to serve the needs of the people of Van.”
House in a Box got its start, too, in Katrina.
Disco-Shearer was working the disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after that storm and saw what people who had lost everything were facing.
“People were donating,” she said, “but a lot of people saw this as a way to get rid of their old junk. And victims don’t want other people’s castoffs. We all want our own things in our own homes. And if we have to start over, we want something new, something that is uniquely ours.”
Also, she said, while people immediately think of donating furniture and clothing, such items as household cleaning supplies, toilet paper, towels, cups and pots and pans often don’t get much thought.
“Think about what it takes to furnish a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen,” she said. “Now imagine having to buy all of that all over again, at once, while you’re also trying to recover from having lost everything. It can quickly get overwhelming.”
Thus was House in a Box born. Since Katrina, the program has helped victims of the West explosion, the Bastrop fires, the Houston floods and Moore, Okla., tornadoes. The Southern-born program even traveled to the Northeast to help victims of Hurricane Sandy and west to help victims of mudslides in Washington.
“That’s the great beauty of organizations like Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul,” said Lawrence. “Because we exist in dioceses and parishes across the country, we can have immediate local responses wherever disasters happen, and can pull together national resources and responses when those are needed. And we can remain in place long after the first-responders have pulled out and gone somewhere else.”
Also, because Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul are imbedded in local communities, “we are familiar with other local agencies, and in many cases already have a collaborative relationship with them, so we already know who is available to provide what services,” Lawrence said. “This way, we can make sure we’re not duplicating services while filling as many gaps as possible.”
One of those local agencies is Van Community Ministries, a multi-agency resource center supported by local churches. Founded primarily to provide assistance to low-income families in the area, the organization has become a key player in Van’s recovery effort, accepting and distributing donations, while also serving as the first point of contact between victims and Catholic Charities.
“People come to us, we start the paperwork, and then we refer them to the appropriate agencies,” said Linda Rock, case manager. “We also let groups like Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul know what the local needs are.”
Van is now in the rebuilding stage of recovery, said Hank Neill, VCM chairman.
“We’ve got the debris cleared away,” he said. “Now we’re rebuilding. We’re about 75 percent of the way toward where we were, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re going to be at this a while yet.”
But for all the work that remains to be done, and the families who still need help, the Landaverdes represent a major success. The family’s life, ripped apart by nature, has been put back together by the generosity and caring of people, most of whom they will never meet.
“I was never expecting anything like this,” Carmen said as he and Maria looked over their House in a Box. “I never expected that other people would do something like this for me. We’re so thankful. I don’t know how to say what I’m feeling.”
“The tremendous response from people in all 33 counties of the diocese is an important reminder of our faith,” said Bishop Strickland. “This is living the Gospel. Whenever any of our brothers and sisters are hurting, we are there to offer compassion and mercy. We are the Body of Christ. We are called to assist in whatever ways we can.
“And specifically House in a Box was appealing to me because it’s a concrete way to just provide some real practical help,” Bishop Strickland said. “Sometimes help can be less than helpful if it’s not focused on what people are really needing. I think this is a great approach to meeting real needs, not meeting all the needs, but some real, basic needs that enable people to then seek ways of getting help with their other needs.”
Bishop Strickland said the fact that Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul are focused on long-term aid, on standing with those in need for the duration of that need, is very important.
“What first-responders do is so critical,” he said. “They’re the first ones in, the first to help. But they’re also the first ones out, when the immediate emergency is under control. And that’s fine, that’s what they do. But the needs remain long after they’re gone.
“This, to me, is the model of family,” he said. “The family is still in need, still hurting. They may not still be in the news, but they’re still in need. So, like a family, we’re still here with them. We’re walking with them and giving whatever help we can.
“This is the lesson of Christ,” he said. “This is people taking the message of Christ to heart and putting it to work. This is our Catholic faith in action.”