“We are called to serve…we need to do something.” Those were the words of Daniela Dominguez, assistant professor in the School of Education and coordinator for the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at USF’s Santa Rosa campus.
That “something” wasn’t just donating money or goods. Dominguez, along with nine other USF faculty and students, travelled straight to where help was needed most: Houston, Texas. They volunteered on the ground with aid efforts in light of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction and displacement of thousands of families. Dr. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Marriage and Family Therapy, partnered with the Baker-Ripley Center — a neighborhood center in Eastern Houston — to send USF students to Houston to aid in the relief effort for Hurricane Harvey Victims.
Three of Hernandez-Arriaga’s Houston-based acquaintances opened their homes to volunteers, allowing ten USF students and faculty to stay there. After housing was squared away, the group packed and flew to Houston, just four days after the plan was finalized. Dominguez and Hernandez-Arriaga created a public online fundraising page to fund the trip.
Student volunteers included representatives from USF’s Santa Rosa, Sacramento and main campuses, and one alumni. Seven were selected by Hernandez-Arriaga and Dominguez for either their language skills or crisis management experience. Additionally, four of the travelers had either grown up or studied in Texas, including Dominguez and Hernandez-Arriaga.
Graduate student Gabrielle Leblanc, from Port au Prince, Haiti was one of these volunteers. “I responded to the call for volunteers because I wanted to do my part in helping those affected by Hurricane Harvey,” Leblanc said. “I am very familiar with the impact a natural disaster can have on a community. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I witnessed the outpouring of love and support, and I believe in the power of united effort and service.”
Dominguez described the shelter they worked in as 700,000 square feet of a convention center, just one of multiple mass-shelters in Houston. Inside were hundreds of families along with law enforcement, attorneys, mental health counselors, medical professionals and even celebrities, including Jennifer Garner and Kevin Hart.
Dominguez talked about discrimination and injustices that she witnessed. “There was a range of attitudes and intentions […] some of these volunteers were social-justice driven […] it was also evident that some others had prejudices,” Dominguez said.
In response, the USF representatives found themselves taking on the roles of both counselors and social justice advocates. They advocated for the installation of gender-neutral bathrooms and showers, additional services for undocumented and non-FEMA-qualified survivors, bilingual and Spanish services and additional training for law enforcement who could be “really cold and dismissive,” according to Dominguez.
“It was very clear that human rights and social justice was important to us and we carried the spirit of USF with us into this unfamiliar place,” Leblanc said. “There were people from various socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds, race, etc…The people were not sure who to ask for help and others needed someone to advocate for them because their voices and needs were being ignored.”
The experience was a learning opportunity, as well. “As students we tend to doubt our knowledge, but in the field there’s no time for doubts — just appropriate action. We quickly realized that we knew more than we gave ourselves credit for,” Leblanc said.
The Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) currently has a YouCaring page to raise funds that will directly benefit families affected by Hurricane Harvey. They are also raising money and applying for grants to send a similar batch of students to Florida to help survivors of Hurricane Irma. Dominguez and Hernandez-Arriaga are also in communication with other universities who are helping to continue their efforts in Houston.
Featured Photo: USF student and faculty aided victims in the shelter pictured above. Courtesy of Yasmin Navarro.