People in La Grange get break from Harvey on Thanksgiving

Volunteers pack Thanksgiving meals into containers to serve the La Grange community on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Volunteers pack Thanksgiving meals into containers to serve the La Grange community on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

LA GRANGE, Texas (KXAN) — To feed hundreds of people hard-hit by Harvey, you need an army of volunteers, and that’s just what the city of La Grange got this Thanksgiving Day.

With 50 turkeys donated by the group Celebration of Love smoked for free by Southside Market and Barbecue, Thursday’s meal was just what the people in the small town needed nearly three months after the flooded Colorado River destroyed large swaths of neighborhoods. After all, on Thanksgiving, home is where the food is.

“We got the turkey, the dressing, the sweet potatoes, this is the green beans,” Cynthia Schwertner said, scooping piles of beans into Styrofoam trays on an assembly line that pumped hundreds of meals out in two hours.

Schwertner felt right at home at the First Methodist Church of La Grange, where the meal was being hosted, even as she’s dealt with a leaky roof of her own courtesy of Harvey. “I’m still working on trying to get that fixed,” she said.

Harvey hit a month after her mom died, she said, and she’s spent a lot of time since the storm getting her parents’ affairs in order. Despite all this year has brought, the church is right where she wanted to be Thursday. “It makes my heart feel better to do this and to see young ones like this in front of me,” she said, serving up a spoonful of green beans to a young volunteer helping to pack up meals. “That’s really great.”

An Austin Police Department corporal helped organize the home-cooked meal, getting the birds donated and cooked for free. Several former and current APD officers answered this call to serve alongside the organizer.

“I see it as a person,” retired APD Officer Dave Erskine said. “Just, mission as a person helping other people out.”

Emily Matheson is one of those people. Her La Grange home fared okay in the storm, but her employer, Second Chance Emporium, was severely flooded. “We had over nine and a half foot of water in our buildings,” she said.

“We lost both of our buildings, and,” she said, pausing to pull back her emotions, “I was very upset about it closing and losing my job.” It’s been a tough year for her as well, and a Thanksgiving meal with her friends and community was a welcome distraction.

Volunteers packed up hundreds of meals — about twice what the church has served in years past — and delivered them past the flooded-out shells of buildings left in town to people’s temporary homes, including hotels scattered around the city.

“A lot of our families need help,” said Kathey Adams, one of the volunteers taking meals to people. She and Dwayne Shehi made multiple trips between the church and the River Valley Motor Inn. “Every time we go, we get more people that are needing meals, and so we come back with more.”

“It’s sad to see people on the holiday just stuck in a hotel,” Shehi said, “having to try to cook Thanksgiving dinner on a barbecue grill.”

“It ain’t all that normal living in a hotel, I guess,” 15-year-old Jose Alvarez said.

He and his mom didn’t have a lot of time to pack up before Harvey hit. They got an evacuation order, but living so close to the river, they’d gotten them before and didn’t think too much of it. “We just got, like, some clothes and stuff, and we went to stay with my brother,” Alvarez explained. “We fell asleep, woke, and yeah, everything was underwater.”

“Heartbreaking,” he went on. “Really sad seeing my mom cry.” Alvarez’s childhood home was destroyed, and their belongings with it. “Everything was flipped and turned inside out. It was pretty bad. All those memories gone.”

Alvarez and his mom are two of the people now stuck in the hotel. “We’ve been here for, like, two months already, I think,” he said. Alvarez, his mom, and their dog, Mona, are all sharing one room with two double beds in the two-story hotel. A corner serves as their pantry; another serves as their dining room. When his mom plugs in electric appliances to try to cook, Alvarez said the power goes out.

Thursday, Adams and Shehi delivered them a Thanksgiving meal, along with dozens of others living in their temporary homes. For many of them, it was a taste of what’s been lost. A taste of home.

“Getting a break from the bad,” Schwertner said, “and making good.”

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