Brownsville church’s mass feeding unit made 70,000-plus meals after Harvey

SBTC Feeding Unit in Louisiana

CORPUS CHRISTI—Chad Bender, a third-grade teacher at Harlingen’s Treasure Hills Elementary, didn’t miss a day of school last year, qualifying him for a year-end bonus.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, Bender, also a disaster relief volunteer with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, decided not to go for perfect attendance this year. Instead, he deployed to Corpus Christi with First Baptist Brownsville’s mass feeding unit.

Bender, who served locally with his church’s unit when a 2014 influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the Texas-Mexico border caused a humanitarian crisis, saw the need for experienced volunteers in Harvey’s immediate aftermath.

“I knew how much work it took to set up … I prayed about it. My wife said, ‘If you think you should go, take the whole week,’” Bender said.

He emailed his school administrator who responded quickly that the superintendent would have to approve a weeklong absence.

Less than 24 hours later, on a Sunday, Bender received permission to go from Dr. Arturo Cavazos, Harlingen ISD’s superintendent.

“I work for an amazing district,” Bender said.

Bender also praised his team of six other third-grade teachers who encouraged him to deploy, even though it was only the second week of school.

Terry Roberts, First Baptist Brownsville associate minister, said about 30 church members participated in the three-week deployment. The church’s water purification trailer and two mass feeding units were set up at Annaville Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, where volunteers prepared more than 70,000 meals distributed by the Red Cross to Rockport, Port Aransas and other Gulf communities.

“This is the first major deployment we have had with these units,” Roberts said, explaining that the Brownsville equipment, onsite since 2008’s Hurricane Dolly, was purchased with funds the SBTC provided.

Brownsville is “one of the poorest cities in the poorest county in the U.S.,” Roberts said, adding that the church possesses “more manpower than resources.” Volunteers who came from other states and across Texas were crucial.

Roberts lauded all volunteers they worked alongside, including 22 from the Mississippi Baptist Convention who “gave us a shot in the arm when we needed it” in mid-deployment.

Roberts, Bender and associate minister Armando Hernandez likewise praised Annaville Baptist Church members, who not only prepared meals for DR volunteers but also provided sleeping quarters at the church.

Texas volunteers who joined the effort also included Jim and Jane Barton of First Baptist Church in The Colony, who marked their 10th and ninth DR deployments, respectively.

Jane was sidelined by a life-threatening ruptured aorta in 2009 but has recovered, Jim said.

Accompanying the Bartons from The Colony were two first-time DR volunteers—retiree Jenny Seay and Brian Jones, a Kroger employee who used vacation and personal days to deploy.

Jones praised his boss who granted him time off before he could even finish asking.

“It means the world to me,” said Jones of the opportunity to serve with the feeding team, adding that his DR experience will hopefully help him influence students at his church.

“I get to teach them what I do on the mission field and show them what they can do to help people in need,” Jones said, noting that his grocery store work helped him as a mass feeding volunteer.

Jeremy Knight, First Baptist Brownsville associate pastor who is transitioning to oversee the church’s DR program, called Jones “an artist with the pallet jack” as he and others tackled the complicated unloading of refrigerated trailers.

Knight said First Baptist Brownsville aims to get more members involved so that when disaster strikes, the trailers can rapidly deploy until reinforcements arrive.

Hernandez, 27, a veteran of a mud-out deployment to Nepal two years ago and on his first feeding deployment at Corpus, called it “humbling” to see “older men, most over the age of 70, working not just for free but with intensity, and for no other reason than they feel they have a calling from God to serve.”

Bender returned to Corpus to prepare the final meals and pack up the trailers at the close of the deployment Sept. 17. As rain fell, he chatted with some college-age Red Cross volunteers.

Bender asked the students why they had come, and then he asked them what they believed motivated the yellow-hatted workers who were there.

“Why do you think people leave a comfortable home to do this?” Bender asked. “The average age is over 70. They are sleeping on air mattresses in the gym.”

Most responded that the DR volunteers wanted to help people.

“What motivates you? Why are you here?” Bender asked a Baptist volunteer walking by.

“The love of Christ. I want to share it,” the man replied.

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