Houston team helps family with special needs

By Laura Halleman

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When the flooding came following Hurricane Harvey, Miss Olivia knew she had to get all her children, including her disabled daughter, Diana, to safety. They were evacuated by boat from their community in Houston and taken to safety in a shelter.

What waited for them upon their return was a home filled with black mold and personal items, such as photo albums, strewn about in the flood water, only to have to be tossed to the curbside for debris pickup.

All Hands volunteers knew the urgency of gutting and mucking Miss Olivia’s home prior to going in. Her daughter, Diana, has Rett Syndrome, a rare neurological and movement disorder that primarily affects females. Diana is wheelchair bound and has gone through over 10 spinal surgeries. She also eats from a feeding tube and requires breathing treatments several times a day. Their home was a priority for All Hands.

Led by team leader, Colette, volunteers went into the home, where black mold was already growing up the walls and behind the bathroom and kitchen cabinets. They started with Diana’s room and bathroom first, where they knocked out drywall, bundled up wet insulation and took apart her bathroom, piece by piece, taking it to the mounting pile of debris outside.

The sooner they finished, the sooner Miss Olivia and her children could begin the rebuilding process. They were staying at a hotel an hour away in Galveston. This made it difficult on the entire family, but to keep some sense of normalcy Miss Olivia would drive back to their home each morning to ensure Diana was picked up by her school bus to go to school. It was a hardship Diana never complained about, but Miss Olivia felt it was taking its toll.

After three days, the mucking and gutting of their home was completed by All Hands volunteers. Mold sanitation was a priority and more volunteers came in to complete that process so the rebuilding process could begin.

On the last day of gutting Miss Olivia’s home, the volunteers watched as Diana was dropped off at the bus stop and they were eager to finally meet her. Smiles and tears were not in short supply. Soon, Diana and her family could move back home again.

Hurricane Harvey Story: Maria Ojeda & her Family

By Laura Halleman

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When Maria Ojeda brought out fresh, homemade tortillas to the group ofWhen Maria Ojeda brought out fresh, homemade tortillas to the group of volunteers from All Hands, they didn’t know how generous a gesture it was.You see, Maria and her husband, Carlos’, home had been flooded after Hurricane Harvey and they were waiting for the volunteers to finish gutting her daughters home next door, before they began hers. Every time she cooked on the stove, she would receive mild shocks from the water in her home. But, despite that, she still graciously made tortillas for the volunteers.

Maria and her family live in a small town about an hour west of Houston named Sweeney. She lives there with her husband, daughter Michelle, son Eric and grandchildren; Jefferson, 5, Zaydon, 18 months and little Rose with her swatch of baby fine, dark hair, 2 months.

During Hurricane Harvey the entire family left after a mandatory evacuation. The heavy rains had forced the nearby San Bernard River over its banks and the water poured into theirs, and their neighbors’ homes.

When they returned, they drove through water to see the damage for themselves. Both Maria’s and her daughter’s homes had been completely flooded and would need fully mucked and gutted. That’s where All Hands volunteers came in. Crews of residential and day volunteers came out in force to gut and muck first Michelle’s home and then Maria’s. They did so never complaining that it was near 98 degrees inside the homes with no breeze or relief, except for frequent water breaks to ensure all volunteers were staying hydrated.

They tore out drywall and insulation, removed cabinets and bathtubs and pried up flooring. The piles of debris grew larger outside as each day went on, until the volunteers were finished and the homes were ready for the mold sanitation process. Maria left me a voicemail message after we were finished with her, and her daughter’s, home. She wanted to tell all the volunteers that she loved them all. She expressed such gratitude for all the work they did to help expedite the rebuilding process. And she called them her angels, never to be forgotten by her or her family.

Built to Last

Strength is not a characteristic unfamiliar to the Avila family. Having survived yet another hurricane, Isaac Avila warmly welcomed the All Hands Volunteers crew that was onsite removing tree debris from his family’s home post Hurricane Harvey.


Isaac offered water, and coffee, and introduced the volunteers to his dancing, music-loving bird, who also survived the hurricane.


This day, however, was different. This was Isaac’s birthday, and his uplifting spirit – despite the storm, infused the volunteer crew with positivity.


Isaac, who lives together with his sister, Norma Castillo, and their 93-year-old mother, Cecilia Avila, came from a strong foundation. Having welcomed volunteers from other organizations in the past due to prior hurricanes, Isaac was protective of his home and of his family. His family’s home, a symbol of their resilience, strength and love, was built by Isaac’s grandfather years ago. Isaac believes their home, much like their family, is still standing after numerous hurricanes because his grandfather built it with bolts, instead of nails.


The All Hands Volunteers crew spent the day with the Avila family, entertained by Isaac’s dancing bird, but more moved by the strength and resilience of his family, and the story behind the nuts and bolts that housed and protected them. After a job well done, and approved by Isaac himself, the crew headed off to the next home. But as they loaded their gear into the truck, they walked a little taller and smiled a little wider – thanks to one kind family that is clearly built to last.


Please help us stay for as long as we are needed and donate today. 100% of your donation will go to those impacted by Harvey. We are currently in Houston and the Gulf Coast.


Make a Difference in Louisiana

2016 proved to be a difficult year for me.  Following my parents’ passing, I took a leave of absence from the company where I’d been working for the past 17 years.  My journey of grieving eventually took me to Louisiana. It’s in a New Orleans hostel that I first came across the All Hands Volunteers organization, spotting a flyer that had been placed there at the end of my stay.

I talked to my manager about getting extra time off – an additional five months – so I could join the Louisiana Rebuild project.  I had never heard of All Hands Volunteers but I committed to joining them without even having set foot on the project.  Something about it felt right.  On April 10, 2017, two days after I was originally scheduled to be back at work in Florida, I arrived at the All Hands base in Denham Springs.

This experience has humbled me. Like many others, I had heard about last August’s floods but I was not aware of the extent of the devastation.   still struggle with witnessing the homeowners’ emotions, watching them part with their belongings as though one would throw away a piece of their lives. It’s really dramatic and sad. Most of us don’t think that water, something that helps you live, can also kill you.

As a new volunteer, I did not know what to expect when I came to Denham Springs. The mucking and gutting activities were mostly completed, and so much work had already been accomplished. Yet there is still lots to do. I really enjoy being a part of this project, which tackles the finishing stages of rebuilding so people can move back into their homes.

All Hands has been a great platform for me. Within weeks of my arrival, I was able to start leading teams of volunteers on job sites. The skills and construction knowledge I’ve picked up during my time with All Hands Volunteers so far are invaluable. In the wake of a difficult time in my personal life, the work is soothing in many ways, and I feel fulfilled walking away from local homes day after day, knowing my team and I have made a difference. Everywhere we go as a group, someone recognizes us and thanks us. I’m happy and proud to be a part of this.

Working Side by Side with Resilience | Louisiana

Brent was on his way back home to secure his personal items as the water was rising. When the Sheriff Department asked if anyone knew the area and could assist with boat rescues, Brent did not hesitate.  Leaving his belongings in his flooding house, he only grabbed 8 life jackets that a neighbor had given him some time ago, and joined boats that rescued a total of 600 to 700 people.  These life jackets were instrumental, he explains, as the currents were so strong that when he got out of the boat to rescue a lady who was stranded on top of her car, the water took a shoe right out of his foot.

Following the floods, Brent, who had been in the construction industry since 1985, helped pressure-wash and sanitize flooded homes in the area.  He did not charge anyone. Sadly, he was infected with MRSA 4 times as a result of germs and pathogens from the floods, landing him in the hospital.  

Brent used to train home builders and inspectors, and was excited to work closely with the volunteers as they helped rebuild his home.  “I was really disheartened.  And then you guys came and lifted my spirits and I appreciate that”, he says.



All Hands Volunteers remains in Louisiana,  repairing and bringing damaged households, institutions, and daycare centers back to full recovery in collaboration with long-term recovery partners to help. Hundreds of volunteers are still urgently needed to lend their hands to these rebuild efforts. For further information, go to www.hands.org/ or apply to volunteer

Something We Can Do

I returned to All Hands Volunteers after working in Bogalusa, LA as an AmeriCorps NCCC member during the 2016 flood response. I had been mucking and gutting homes, as well as performing sanitations, when I was offered the opportunity to learn how to conduct assessments. This was the first time I was able to interact closely with homeowners.

One morning, we received a call about a flooded mobile-home park, where an elderly couple hadn’t received any help. We drove to where the couple lived and found their home had been flooded with at least 4 feet of water. The husband was suffering from severe health issues and when the door was opened, the stench of mold was overwhelming. They didn’t have electricity, running water or an alternative place to live; this was at least 2 months after the flooding had happened.

Due to health issues, the husband was unemployed and required a day-nurse.  The nurse warned the couple that if they continued living in their house another month, he wouldn’t make it through the summer.

This really struck me.  I could see how easily that could have been one of my loved ones. It showed me how easily people fall through the cracks and ignited a fire within me to create change.

I was truly inspired by Brandon, one of the staff members. Although All Hands Volunteers couldn’t do anything to save the mobile home, Brandon made phone calls to anybody that could potentially help. He was determined to find a solution and by the following day had identified a new trailer for the couple.

This was a truly moving moment for me. I was so desperate to help those people and to see how hard Brandon worked to try find a solution, made me realize there is always something we can do to help.

Having had this realization, we visited an elderly woman who hadn’t received any assistance. As soon as we entered the home we could see and smell mold. The owner told us there was one room which was particularly bad and when she opened the door there, mold hung from the ceiling. She didn’t know how bad her living conditions were and the effects this mold could have on her health. As we explained the dangers of her living there and what we could do to help, she immediately started crying, saying she wouldn’t be able to pay us.

That moment gave me chills because she was so distraught thinking she had to give something to us; being able to tell her that we didn’t want any of her money and just wanted to help her was such a humbling experience.  It reinforced why I want to continue this work.

From Son to Father

We are told you are never too old to learn, but for most of us it is a parent who teaches their child, the old hopefully passing on wisdom to those younger and less experienced than themselves. For me however the roles have reversed.

In late 2014 my younger son, Dom Bryant gave up his career as a journalist to volunteer with AHV in Tacloban, Philippines, rebuilding after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan the previous year. He had heard about All Hands from a friend who themselves had volunteered. Dom went for three months, and stayed for nearly a year such was the positive impact of the work being done on both the local population and the volunteers themselves. He returned briefly in November 2015, before moving to Berlin with fellow volunteer Evelyn Maria Kallas They both worked hard and almost a year later headed to Nepal to volunteer with All Hands again following the earthquakes of April 2015, this time staying six months to see the end of the Bachchhala school project completed.

As any father might do I researched AHV when Dom first spoke about volunteering and learnt more from his experiences once in the Philippines. Linked with his comments, I was impressed by an organisation that seeks to harness goodwill not just into financial contributions but by enabling individuals to use their time and labour for the benefit of others less fortunate. I went to Tacloban for a few days in 2015 and saw for myself the combined efforts of volunteers and the local community. I even gave a limited hand on one site. What was being delivered in Tacloban was inspiring and positively changing lives.

Back home, still working I did what I could do to support both my son and AHV through contributions. I spoke to anyone who would listen, and still do about this organisation that responds to natural disasters throughout the world. In 2017, I ventured to Nepal to see Dom and Evelyn, and spent a few days working with All Hands on two new school buildings where I again met individuals from all parts the world united by a common purpose – ‘good people, doing good things’ as I am fond of saying.

A father naturally has pride in a son’s achievements. For me however, this pride is not about material gain or a position of authority achieved, it is the content I feel inside for what All Hands has enabled my son to demonstrate. He always had empathy, he always cared about others. He has now had the opportunity to demonstrate this in a practical way with his hands and his heart, and this life changing process has impacted on me as well as him.

All Hands Volunteers speaks of rebuilding hope. For me it has helped build a son into a good man, and it has given me hope that I can use my remaining years to help others.

Ian Bryant