Comfort Dogs With Hearts The Size Of Texas Offer Relief To Those Impacted By Hurricane Harvey
It is said that everything is bigger in Texas, and Hurricane Harvey did its best to prove just that with the damage it created in late August/early September.
After the storm tore through much of the Lone Star State, Lutheran Church Charities' (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dogs joined together to help those affected by the hurricane not feel so alone.
Newtown's very own LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Maggie, of Christ the King Lutheran Church, was one 15 LCC dogs across the nation to first deploy to Texas shortly after the hurricane.
Two of Maggie's LCC trained handlers, Lori Flandreau and Cathy Reiss, along with Christ the King Lutheran Church Pastor Rob Morris, sat down with The Newtown Bee following Maggie's return to Connecticut to share the impact the comfort dog ministry had on people all throughout Texas.
Maggie And The Mission
"Lutheran Church Charities first brought comfort dogs here after 12/14. Maggie had just finished up her education at that point, so she was about a year old," Ms Reiss said about the organization's start in Newtown.
During that difficult time, Maggie visited Sandy Hook Elementary School and Newtown High School once they reopened to bring a sense of relief to the community.
Christ the King Lutheran Church (CTK) saw the immediate connection many students made to the dogs following the tragedy and hoped to get a dog of their own for the ministry.
Maggie was placed with the church in September 2013, after gaining an extensive background of training, which included learning valuable socialization skills in a Dogs Behind Bars program in an Illinois women's prison.
She now has 14 handlers through the church, all of which are trained through LCC, and regularly visits local schools, nursing homes, churches, hospitals, special events, and disaster response situations.
When Hurricane Harvey hit, the LCC comfort dog ministry director reached out to the churches in their program for help, asking who was in a position to deploy right away.
The response was immense, as 15 dogs and 30 owners - including Maggie, Ms Flandreau, and Pastor Morris - went to Texas in the first round of help. A second group that went down afterward to relieve them of their duties after nearly a week of round-the-clock work.
What Was Seen And Felt
"God lined it up..." Pastor Morris said, reflecting how perfectly things fell into place for them.
It just so happened that this year CTK did not participate in the Labor Day Parade, which as a direct result allowed him, Maggie, and Ms Flandreau to be available for their first official deployment.
After receiving the e-mail asking for help, Ms Flandreau left immediately for Texas with Maggie on Friday, September 1. Since the Houston Airport was still closed at the time, the group flew into Dallas.
"I had so much support when I got there," said Ms Flandreau, who was picked up by a host family upon their arrival.
They spent the next day traveling. Then on Sunday the two went to services at a large church, where people expressed their appreciation for them being there.
Meanwhile, after delivering the service at Christ the King that morning, Pastor Morris flew out to San Antonio on Sunday, and met up with LCC member Ken Fay, a former elder at CTK who now lives in Washington.
The two men stayed with friends in the area that night then grabbed a rental car on Monday morning to join up with the rest of the LCC team in the field to help spread the ministry.
They visited major cities like Austin and Houston, as well as other areas affected by the hurricane, including Katy and Victoria. Each night the LCC team members returned to Camp Lone Star, a Lutheran Camp in La Grange, west of Houston.
"Every community we went to they'd tell you the percentage of homes that had been damaged if you asked - 60 percent, 80 percent; one place, because of the winds, it was 90 percent of homes that had been damaged," Pastor Morris explained.
The team traveled to nursing homes, residential neighborhoods, and churches, the latter doubling as distribution centers for many community members to get supplies.
They also visited multiple schools that had just reopened after the hurricane.
"That was where Maggie was happiest, because that's what she's used to," Pastor Morris said.
Many of the children Maggie met in the classrooms had their homes affected by the storm in some way and were overjoyed to get to pet Maggie. One young boy even curled up beside her and gently rested his head on her soft, furry belly.
The LCC comfort dog ministry team covered such a large portion of Texas during their time there, that by the end of the six-day visit Pastor Morris racked up 1,200 miles on his rental vehicle. By the end of Ms Flandreau's nine-day trip, her host family's vehicle had an additional 1,700 miles on it.
Pastor Morris says the group went as far south as Rockport, a whopping six hours away from other areas they helped.
"That's like from here to Portland, Maine, or even a little further. You just realize how much territory was affected," Pastor Morris said.
It was in Rockport that Maggie and the team met an older couple, of retirement age, who had been living in a single-level home they thought they would be in forever. The storm completely flooded their house, and they were left struggling to decide whether they should rebuild and risk another storm or rebuild and sell the property.
The ministry saw countless people facing similar situations like that throughout Texas. Not only were people faced with the stress of figuring out what to do next because of the physical damages, but they were also left with a full range of emotional uncertainty.
When the LCC team visited communities where people were working tirelessly to clear up debris from the hurricane, the comfort dogs were able to shine some light on their day, even for a brief moment.
"Everyone who saw us ... you saw their jaws drop," Ms Flandreau said. "We just saw so many smiles, it was wonderful."
On top of that, Ms Flandreau said, when the team would tell people that they had traveled all the way from Connecticut, she would see people's eyes well up at the thought that they cared that much. Just them being there left a big impression on people.
A Message Not Always Heard Through Words
"As humans, we often struggle for words, but animals don't even try," Pastor Morris explained. "They don't speak, are quiet, and just want to be loved."
Whether the team would approach people or wait to be greeted, people of all ages and backgrounds gravitated to the dogs. The animals' calming presence welcomed many to begin to talk about what they had gone through without having to be asked.
"People sometimes will open up in a way that they wouldn't with a human," Pastor Morris said. "Sometimes it is the first chance to smile or let loose emotionally."
One woman, the team recalled, was driving by them and pulled over, hopped out of her car, and ran over to pet Maggie and the other comfort dogs.
"Tears were rolling down her face," Ms Flandreau said.
The woman petted all 12 LCC comfort dogs that were there and began to tell the team about the damage the storm caused to her trailer and how her neighborhood had been destroyed.
When interactions like that occurred, Pastor Morris and the team would ask the person if it was an appropriate time to pray with them.
The LCC comfort dogs like Maggie created a special connection with the people of Texas during their time after Hurricane Harvey, and it is just the beginning of their efforts to help communities in the future.
Christ the King Lutheran Church in Newtown hopes to establish a physical response team in the next couple months, so in addition to the comfort dogs creating a lasting impact they will also be able to offer home repair work for those effected by disasters like Hurricane Harvey in the future.
Pastor Lends A Hand To Texans In Need
Even though some of the areas that the LCC's comfort dog ministry team saw appeared seemingly untouched, there were plenty of places that had clearly suffered wind and water damage, proving there was no rhyme or reason to Hurricane Harvey's path of destruction.
From houses that had fallen apart to a series of telephone poles that were snapped in half, the gravity of the situation was not lost of the LCC team.
In addition to the outings with the comfort dogs like Maggie, Christ the King Lutheran Church Pastor Rob Morris also pulled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty helping Texans begin to move forward.
One of the churches in downtown Houston that the team went to had flooded and had large industrial fans in its sanctuary to try to dry it out.
While they were there, they noticed a large white board that had a list of addresses pertaining to people who had asked for assistance.
"Ken and I had a chance, since there were enough people with the dogs doing the greeting, to help some people with some of the physical labor," Pastor Morris said, referring to former CTK Elder Ken Fay, who connected with the Newtown group while it was in Texas.
The two drove out to a Texas neighborhood where they saw all the homes had been severely flooded.
Pastor Morris recalled there being commercial dumpster-size piles of dry wall, flooring, and anything the water had touched sitting out by the roadside in front of each home.
That day they worked tirelessly alongside the homeowners to help clean up the yard and begin to pick up the pieces that had been left behind.