Story and Photos by Laura Bray
At any given moment, Heather Linville could juggle a request for repair on a faulty toilet in the church gym, a status update on an incoming work team, a payment inquiry from the church’s food provider, a notification of an incoming supplies shipment.…or a myriad of other topics, all at once. Heather wears a lot of hats at First UMC Victoria.
Nominally, Heather serves as the Business Manager for FUMC Victoria, taking care of the church’s financial matters and overseeing facility maintenance. But sit down with her for just a few minutes, and you quickly learn that she does much more besides.
“She’s the church host to incoming VIM and ERT disaster recovery teams at FUMC Victoria making sure they get settled in well,” said Vicki McCuistion, Disaster Recovery Asset Manager for the Rio Texas Conference. “But locally, she plays many roles.”
Her organizational skills show in her office space. A long work table in front of her desk holds carefully labeled baskets of disaster recovery projects in various stages of completion. Above it, a white board lists dates for incoming work teams and where they’re coming from. A rolling cart holds notebooks and contact information that she takes home every evening, so she can answer questions during off-hours. It’s a far cry from the “piles on the floor” approach she started when I first met her not long after Hurricane Harvey hit.
During the storm, Heather and her family (who live in nearby Cuero) evacuated to Liberty Hill. She recalled, “The first day I came back to the church, I just burst into tears. There was just so much destruction.” When she returned to work, she asked the Conference office about how the church could help, “and the next thing we knew, we were the central hub for storm response for a 60-65 mile radius.
“For the first several weeks, I was just trying to figure out how to do things right. The scope was massive, and no one was prepared. We had a lot of help from the Conference office and experienced disaster response coordinators, such as Jim Street of the Capital District.”
Heather oversees the Volunteer Village at FUMC Victoria, supports the ERT teams, serves as the Unmet Needs committee chair for the local Long-Term Recovery Group, while also being a board member. In the months since the storm, FUMC Victoria with support from the Rio Texas Conference upgraded the Volunteer Village to include bunk beds and more showers. The portable shower unit, with four showers and two washers/dryers, is on loan from the Cal Pac Conference (out of Ontario, CA, 1,400 miles away). After their initial visit last fall, they returned home, fitted out the trailer, and brought it back to FUMC Victoria. “We’re also working out agreements with area gyms so we can use their showers,” said Heather.
“Right now, we can accommodate 62 volunteers,” she said. “During the summer, we plan to host more volunteers in our day school facility just across the street.”
Heather evaluates pending ERT jobs and decides how best to deploy incoming teams that have ERT members. She makes sure to have a clear work plan. “Incoming teams want us to be ready and have work for them to do right away. The worst thing we can do is make them wait,” she said. [All long term rebuilding and repair work is supervised by the Rio Texas conference construction staff.]
Even now, nine months after the storm, the amount of ERT work is staggering. “I have more than 50 Early Response Team jobs still awaiting completion,” she said (which includes roof tarping and removal of damaged drywall). Many elderly residents haven’t yet been able to return to their homes. Crews sometimes return to a home to reattach the roof tarp if a subsequent storm has blown it loose. Work can’t begin on the interior of the home until the roof is secured from the weather.
Heather said the work is physically and mentally exhausting but spiritually renewing. “All these teams are just strangers with big hearts and tools that go out and love people—that’s almost as important (if not more so) than the building work,” she said. “They go out and talk to people, listen to them, let them know they do matter.”
She recalled an early incident with a family and their 10-year-old daughter. Their roof was gone, and the home was destroyed. The team assessed the needs of the entire family, including the daughter. “The storm had destroyed her aquarium and a goldfish, and she was heartbroken. The very first thing we funded was a new aquarium and goldfish. Afterwards, I told our pastor, ‘I’m not so sure I should be in charge of the budget.’ I mean, an aquarium? He assured me of my decision. He said, ‘You made things OK for that little girl.’ It’s the little things like that which keep you going.
“We have a sign out front, covered with clear plastic with moveable letters underneath. The day of the storm, the sign read, ‘Be the reason someone believes.’ The storm ripped off the plastic cover, but the letters stayed put. That’s the hand of God; that’s what we’re doing here.”
“By this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”—Acts 20:35 (NIV)