ALAMOSA — When Houston called, Azeneth Heredia answered.
Following Hurricane Harvey, Heredia was one of the Save the Children staff who went to Houston, Texas, to help serve the needs of the hurricane’s youngest victims. She spent a month working with children in one of the large shelters in the Houston area as well as going out to childcare facilities and other locations in Houston and hurricane-damaged cities to distribute supplies and funding.
A valuable member of the team — and the only member of her group of 30-40 who was bilingual — Heredia has been asked to return to Houston for two weeks. She leaves for her next deployment on Saturday.
“I am excited,” she said. “I really like the work.”
The days were long and wearing but very rewarding, she recalled.
“It was an amazing experience. Save the Children is all about kids, keeping them safe. Right after Hurricane Harvey hit, immediately Save the Children was on the ground setting up what we call Child Friendly Spaces within Red Cross shelters.”
Heredia first served in the Child Friendly Spaces in the George R Brown Convention Center Shelter in Houston, which initially housed 10,000 people. Heredia arrived the second week after the shelter was operational, and there were still 5,000 people in the shelter.
Child Friendly Spaces provided safe places for parents to leave their children through the day while they waited in long lines for distributions, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other resources. Heredia and others would keep the children busy with activities such as reading and games.
“They are reading, they are learning, playing, smiling,” she said, “getting a sense of normalcy for a little bit.”
Heredia spent two days with the shelter’s children in Child Friendly Spaces.
The remainder of her first two weeks of deployment Heredia participated in distributions at the shelter. Save the Children provided such items as baby cribs, strollers and high chairs.
In her third week Heredia worked with the community outreach team in childcare recovery efforts. By that time many families had gone back to their homes and back to work, but many childcare centers and schools were heavily damaged by the hurricane and needed help to resume childcare and educational services.
Save the Children provided monetary help — for example helping with repairs to a church’s bathrooms so it could resume Sunday School — as well as materials such as furniture and baby items for daycare centers.
Although she was working 12-14-hour days, “it was so rewarding. At the end of the day you feel like you actually did something.”
She added, “I always say that children are the stars. We are there to do whatever it takes to keep them safe … to give them a better future. Everything we do in Save the Children is for the children and for the families.”
Heredia and her team served in the greater Houston area as well as Beaumont, Port Arthur and Rockport, Texas. The team also reached out to the consulates for Guatemala and Mexico as well as organizations such as FIEL, a large nonprofit immigrant organization, to assist children whose parents may not have gone to the shelters or other distribution points because they were undocumented residents. (She said one in nine Houston residents is undocumented.) These families may have remained in their damaged homes or moved in with neighbors. Five or six families might be living in one home, Heredia said.
“Houston is huge with so much need,” she said. “A lot of these places were damaged. We are still trying to get into these areas and see how we can help.”
Further efforts will continue to focus on immediate distributions as well as recovery assistance for childcare centers, schools and “anything that has to do with children.”
Save the Children will continue to distribute items like cribs, car seats and highchairs as well as baby (and adult) hygiene kits, baby blankets, books and other items.
“Anything the flood water touched they have to get rid of, they can’t keep,” Heredia said. “In the streets there’s debris in front of every house. It’s really sad.”
Heredia has been performing Save the Children work for about six years, the first three as a school district employee in Alamosa and going on three years now as a staff member of the Save the Children team. She said she had always thought of Save the Children as an international organization, and it does exist in 120 countries, but it also has official programs in 14 states in the United States including Colorado where the sole official Save the Children program is in the San Luis Valley.
Heredia had never participated in Save the Children’s emergency response efforts before going to Houston but found that work very rewarding. In addition to Houston, Save the Children currently has teams in Florida and Puerto Rico. Heredia said Save the Children will probably have a presence in Houston for two or three years helping with recovery efforts.
“I am very grateful to Save the Children for the opportunity. The experience was so amazing. I just can’t even describe the feeling.”
She added, “You meet so many wonderful people. I have met so many heroes. There’s so many people out there willing to help. Even though they themselves might be in need they are still willing to help. It was just a great experience.”
Heredia said sometimes celebrities visited the shelter and were in and out, but she was impressed with the sincerity of actress Jennifer Garner, Save the Children board trustee, who spent more time with the children and families affected by the disaster.
“She has such a beautiful soul,” Heredia said. “She loves children.”
She went to one of the deeply affected areas of the city, for example, and sat on the sidewalk talking with the children and reading to them. She also visited shelters, preschools and daycare centers.
“She was so connected with these kids, so engaged.”
Heredia was only supposed to stay in Houston for two weeks, but at the end of that time she was asked to extend her deployment to three weeks and then a month.
“It flew by,” she said. “It’s worth it. It’s so rewarding.”
She said this term of service was an answer to prayer for her, because she had been feeling like she was not doing enough, and this opportunity arose at the perfect time to allow her to do more. When her supervisor at Save the Children asked her if she was interested in being part of the response team after Hurricane Harvey, “right away I said ‘yes’. I didn’t hesitate. I said I would love to go.
“This was a great experience.”
Those who would like to help Save the Children with its response to Hurricane Harvey and other disasters may donate through www.savethechildren.org/hurricanes.
Courtesy photo by Susan Warner-Lambert.