From the outside the aging Port Arthur house doesn’t live up to the name people in this small Texas town have given it: the Christmas House.
The blue shingle-sided home is surrounded by a sagging chain-link fence and was built in the days before indoor plumbing was required. It sits just a block or so from the Intracoastal Waterway that links Port Arthur and its oil refineries to the Gulf of Mexico. For many years it was an eyesore on a street that is also home to stately mansions.
But the house, once a dilapidated example of how far Port Arthur has fallen in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Rita, is starting to make a comeback, thanks in large part to people like Rick Wiersma.
Wiersma, from Hudsonville, Mich., is among a dozen or so volunteers with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee’s Disaster Response Services (CRWRC-DRS) who have been working hard to see that the house—home to Linda Knight and her 10 children—is restored before the Christmas holidays.
The story began last Christmas with a visit from Port Arthur police officer Rocky Bridges.
Every year, Bridges tries to do something for a local family. After a Baptist pastor told Bridges about the Knight family, he went to see them.
Once inside the house, Bridges was shocked. A few Christmas presents were not going to help Knight, 58, and her children. Among other problems, water damage from Hurricane Rita had rendered the upstairs mostly unlivable. He spotted a sleeping bag in a closet, where one of the children slept.
“It was bad, and I knew it was going to take a whole lot more work than I was thinking I would be able to do to help,” says Bridges.
Prayer, a plea to a local interfaith organization, the sweat and labor of several individuals and local contractors who donated time and materials, and the help of DRS volunteers got the project going.
“I’m not sure anyone thought this could be done,” says Wiersma, a retired Steelcase executive. “But it looks to us like God had other plans.”
“This is really an amazing project,” agrees John Tjaarda, a volunteer from Chino, Calif. “This house is looking better and better every day.”
CRWRC got involved in Port Arthur after Hurricane Rita ripped through the community in 2005, damaging homes and nearly destroying the downtown area.
Of more than 100 homes affected, CRWRC reconstruction crews have worked on about 90 of them, says Loye Kemp, director of Lutheran Social Services, whose job it has been to help rebuild homes hit by Rita.
“For so many people to come from so far to do so much good in our community is amazing,” says Kemp. “This is just an unbelievable project.”
Linda Knight, who works in a school cafeteria, says she is deeply grateful that so many people have helped her and the children. During the construction they are living in another residence, located with help of a local interfaith organization.
“We see our job as to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with and to help and pray with people like Linda at their lowest point,” says Bonnie Wiersma, on-site manager of the former Lutheran daycare center in which the DRS volunteers are housed and fed.
The DRS volunteers “have done amazing things all over Port Arthur ever since we got hit by Hurricane Rita,” Bridges says. “If someone said something bad about them, I’d have to fight.”
YOU CAN HELP
CRWRC has been active with Hurricane Katrina and Rita response on the Gulf Coast since the storms hit in mid-2005. To date, 6,000 volunteers with CRWRC’s Disaster Response Services have donated a half-million hours of their time and skill to rebuild homes and businesses.
In response to Hurricane Ike, CRWRC plans to provide additional housing rehabilitation and reconstruction of up to $1 million.
To help families who are still in need get their homes repaired, go to www.crwrc.org and fill out the volunteer application under the “Get Involved” menu, or support CRWRC-DRS financially by clicking on “Donate.”