The first Christmas after Harvey will be a struggle for many families across southeast Texas.
In Fort Bend County, however, Natasha Cerneus is doing everything she can to make the holidays joyous no matter what.
Last week Cerneus organized the Hurricane Harvey Holiday Event in Richmond, one of many big scale events she’s done to make dreams come true for many families in the area. Along with 300 Christmas trees, lights, stuffed stockings, and ornaments given to needy families, there were also household goods, books and backpacks for children, even a visit from Santa.
“We will hand-deliver the rest to families who were unable to make it to the event. We will not stop until the supplies run dry, or the need is not a need,” she said.
The idea for the event happened when Cerneus noticed holiday decor was out on the curb for trash during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
“I didn’t want the Christmas spirit to be a concern for the families,” she said.
Families in the crowd who brought home a new Christmas tree included Candice Braud and Sydney Pinkney of Cinco Ranch. The mother and daughter are in a temporary apartment for now, but are hopeful for the future. All of their holiday decorations were kept in the garage, which had flooded.
“This was truly a blessing – these people coming together and donating, making the holiday special,” said Pinkney. “The people behind this were truly were a blessing and we say thank you.”
Several supporters were part of the event including Gallery Furniture, Liquidity Services, Target, and Fort Bend County Sherrif Troy E. Nehls.
“For many families throughout Fort Bend County the flood waters may have receded from their homes but the lasting psychological affects from such a devastating disaster remains. These outreach programs provide some form of relief – knowing that people from around Texas care about them during the Holiday season,” Cerneus said.
Goods came into Richmond as far away as California.
Cerneus’s aunt, Paulette Elliott, a librarian from Roosevelt Elementary School in Redwood City, Calif., staged a backpack and children’s book drive, where students donated new or lightly used books, supplies and backpacks could be boxed up and sent to Texas in time for Christmas. After the book drive, “My aunt called and said ‘I thought it would be just a small box, but it’s a truckload of supplies!’”
The Denver native, now a resident of Rosenberg, has had her share of experience planning events like these. Cerneus’s call to action started in September when flooding started, mostly by making hot meals, visiting families who needed help, calling on friends and family to volunteer.
Immediately after the hurricane, she organized the names of every family she knew, every family she met when flooding started – and after – who needed help with supplies, household goods and more. Most of the information she received was either from personally knowing families or gathered through social media.
She kept a notebook of every family that contacted her – what they needed, the damage in their homes, etc. She kept names, wrote down addresses, went to the homes with supplies or help on where to get information.
“Thankfully, many contacted me directly, saying they have a family member or friend or co-worker or neighbor who needed help, so I put together this ongoing list of names and addresses, and lists of what they needed,” she said.
She then started visiting the families in need.
“At the beginning we had so many people reaching out, it was hundreds and hundreds of people. We were hand delivering supplies at first,” she said.
Supplies grew. So did the list of volunteers.
“We heard that Alvin, Missouri City and Pecan Grove were hit hard. We drove were we can, we brought meals with us,” she said.
For about a week, her four children and neighbors helped her in the kitchen making tacos, lasagna, and hamburgers.
“We put food in foil pans, brought plastic forks, paper plates. If we saw someone who needed food, we brought it to them,” Cerneus said.
Grocery stores were not open and if they were, lines were long. She then reached out to her company, Liquidity Services, in Houston for help.
“They helped with logistics support, using our Garland (Texas) warehouse as a receipt and storage facility and our own trucks and drivers to bring the donations to Houston on a weekly basis,” she said. “We still needed toiletries and food items. My company offered to resource the transportation portion … to then bring in truckloads of supplies needed. We had a Amazon link set up, where people could let us know what they needed, order from Amazon, we could load up at the warehouse, put them in the truck and transport them here – backroads, if needed – any way they could get here.”
The link she shared through social media grew.
Soon there were several truckloads a day. Her friends at Joe’s Oyster Bar in Rosenberg helped by offering to store the supplies.
“Groups of volunteers showed up each day to unload the trucks so we could get the supplies to families in need,” Cerneus said.
Needs are now changing for those affected by Harvey.
“We are now reaching back out to resources around the country to donate and help Texas. Instead of dry goods, we need sheetrock and nails and paint,” she said.
Cerneus does analytical work for the IT department at Liquidity Services, which explains the organizational skills needed to work with large groups of people. She’s counting on those skills as she gets back to planning a wedding in June – exactly a year to the day her boyfriend, Jeromy Haggerty, proposed.
Though focusing somewhat on her personal life after the first of the year, she will still remain active in helping the community. Families needing information, or have a need for holiday decor, can email Cerneus at firstname.lastname@example.org.