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Three years after Hurricane Harvey, Tierra de Esperanza opens doors to hope for 23 families in Texas

May 25, 2021

Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and Disaster Aid Ohio, in partnership with the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group dedicated the last 13 homes in the Tierra de Esperanza, or “Land of Hope,” community in Woodsboro, Texas, on May 20, bringing to completion a three-year unprecedented effort.

At  a dedication ceremony held at Sainte Therese Catholic Church in Woodsboro, Christopher Brandt, executive director of the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group, described how Tierra de Esperanza began when a small group of visionaries refused to give up, despite an initial lack of resources in Woodsboro, home to 1,344 people hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“All the people that participated in this program did so out of the goodness of their hearts,” reflected Brandt.

That goodness brought to completion the 3.6-acre neighborhood, located about 40 miles/64 kilometers north of Corpus Christi, valued at $2.3 million U.S./$2.8 million CDN. The first ten homes were dedicated in March.

“I’m truly humbled by the experience,” said Brandt. “When I was driving here today, I thought: who could ever built 23 houses during a pandemic amid soaring labor costs? You all are the ones who did it in such challenging times.”

Catholic Bishop Michal Mulvey, who attends the dedication and represents Catholic Charities, reads aloud the T-shirt of an MDS volunteer nearby: “Rebuilding Hope,” he said.

“This is what happens when we come together beyond whatever differences we have: the beauty of having a home—to have a real home to live in, to house our husbands, wives children, parents,” he added. “For those receiving homes and keys today, congratulations.”

Refugio County Judge Robert Blaschke commented on the durability of a small town that has been through a hurricane, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a winter storm in February 2021 that caused still more damage to homes and economic hardship.

“It’s about the relationships that we have with each other that bring people together,” he said. “Those relationships will last a lifetime.”

Woodsboro Mayor Kay Roach said the completion of Tierra de Esperanza didn’t mean that long-term recovery from Hurricane Harvey is over. The storm caused $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center—more than any other natural disaster in U.S. history except Hurricane Katrina.

“I hope the relationships we’ve made here aren’t over because we have so much more to do,” Roach said. “God has given us the opportunity to make changes.”

Atlee Kauffmann, who coordinated the work of volunteers from Disaster Aid Ohio, agreed with local officials that the Tierra de Esperanza was able to go from a vision to reality because people were willing to build genuine relationships even under post-disaster duress.

“In Ohio, when we first heard about Hurricane Harvey, we had no idea how many lives had been impacted all the way in Ohio,” he said. “It’s amazing what can be done if everyone works together and nobody is concerned about who gets the credit.”

Tom Smucker, MDS Hurricane Harvey coordinator, recalled the first conversation in early 2019 that sparked the vision for Tierra de Esperanza. MDS’s involvement began when Christine Cornejo—at that time president of the Rebuild Texas Fund—contacted Smucker asking how MDS could help in Woodsboro.

“She pushed and pushed to get MDS to come down to Refugio County and see what they have here,” Smucker said. “It began with a vision and with tenacity.”

Standing with Smucker, Cornejo also remembered that very first conversation. “I said to Tom, ‘I need you to come see: come see that there’s room for new households here—it’s not just repair work.’ He said he had a few minutes. I said, ‘that’s all I need.’”

By the time Donna Rosson, board president of the Coastal Bend Disaster Recovery Group, heard what Cornejo and Smucker were cooking up, she realized this was the biggest disaster recovery effort this small town had ever seen.

“I probably looked like a deer in the headlights,” she laughed. “But everybody had their own niche and their own jobs to do, and we all worked really well together. It took an army of willing souls, and hundreds of skilled hands and big hearts.”

The 23-home community will change the lives not only of the occupants, but also of generations to come, Cornejo said. “Twenty-three of you have a new home and a safe place to live with your kids, your parents, and your grandparents,” he said to the homeowners at the dedication ceremony.

After homeowners received their keys, many went straight to their homes to unlock the doors for the first time.

Eleasar Franco drove two hours to see Edna Sue Franco, his sister, receive her keys. As her brother pushed Edna Sue’s wheelchair up a ramp through the front door, her face lit up. “Look at that kitchen,” she said “It’s gorgeous.”

She wheeled over to the kitchen table, gently touching the surface. “Made out of wood,” she said. “It’ll last forever.”

Her brother smiled. “Somebody needs to do some cooking,” he laughed.