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1.--Shared-Blessings

Volunteers working for the Sienna Shared Blessings Warehouse, a hurricane recovery donation site. (L-R): Michelle Solo; Jennifer Ciulla; Jaime Phillips; Kimberly McElreath; a representative from Shared Dreams, a short-term assistance program for Fort Bend ISD students in need; and Alicia Dague.

6.--Sienna-Strong-logo

The Sienna Strong logo.

Sienna Plantation pulls together to help people recover from Hurricane Harvey

By Judy Latta

As Sienna Plantation residents Jaime Phillips and Jennifer Ciulla sat wearily at a friend’s house after evacuating their own homes because of Hurricane Harvey, they, like so many others, worried about what they would return to when the floodwaters receded. They monitored the situation on the news and social media, becoming increasingly concerned as the water rose and began to enter some neighborhood homes.

“After helplessly watching the disaster happening all around us, we brainstormed on how to help,” Jaime recalls. “Jennifer came up with the idea of a Facebook page. We decided on a name and sprang into action.” Under the banner Sienna Strong, she says, “We’d find out where help was needed and figure out a way to make it happen.” Within 24 hours of launching the page, the group had 1,500 members.

 

Weathering the Storm

The first few days after that disastrous stretch in August, which included the hurricane, a tornado ripping through the neighborhood, a lightning fire and flooding from an estimated 34 inches of rain, Jaime and Jennifer used their new Facebook page as a clearinghouse to provide critical information to residents and to fact-check rumors floating around on social media. Additionally, the page was used for stranded families to connect with rescuers with boats, evacuees to request updates on conditions, requests for wellness checks on neighbors who did not evacuate, and recruitment of volunteers to help levee engineers monitor and fortify the levee.

When the Homeowners Association and Johnson Development opened the community room for first responders who had been working tirelessly around the clock, Sienna Strong teamed up with them to help provide food and comfort items. Jennifer says, “We decided to create a sign-up on the Sienna Strong page for meals and to conduct a toiletry drive for first responders. We received so many toiletries that they not only went to the Fort Bend Sheriff’s office, but also to the local fire stations and the Missouri City Police Department.”

 

The Recovery

After a few days the water subsided and the mandatory evacuation was lifted, and residents began returning home to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of one of the most destructive storms in modern history. It was estimated that more than 200 homes in Sienna were damaged from the series of natural disasters. In response, the Sienna Strong page was continuously updated to connect people in need with resources.

“Our efforts became focused on how to help those returning to their homes,” Jennifer explains. “We went door-to-door delivering flyers so that residents knew free help was available.”

As more people learned about the group, Sienna Strong began taking on a life of its own, morphing from a social media vehicle into an army of volunteers and donors. Ridge Point High School alone put together a team of hundreds of students, faculty and family members to pitch in where needed. Scouts, local churches, schools and a multitude of other groups and individuals posted to let residents know they would be traveling around the neighborhood to help, and community restaurants and other businesses donated food and supplies even though they also were struggling. Teams formed to collect provisions, such as building supplies, fans, dehumidifiers, and toiletries, and volunteers warehoused the supplies in their homes.

A horde of volunteers prepared food and did laundry to help those who lost their appliances in the flood, and teams formed for demolition, spiritual support, babysitting and more. Volunteers even found a way for younger children to get involved by bringing them together to make thank you cards for first responders. “We wanted them to feel like they could help too,” Jaime says.

A few days into the recovery effort, a group put out a call on Sienna Strong for donations and volunteers for a hotdog cookoff to feed those in the neighborhood who had lost their kitchens. Their goal was to feed about 300, but the turnout was so immense that they fed 1,200 people in Sienna and neighboring communities. Volunteers also planned a community barbecue that raised more than $20,000 for hurricane relief, and Leonetti Graphics pitched in by printing and selling 1,800 “Sienna Strong” T-shirts to raise an additional $40,000.

The proceeds from these events went to Hope Advocates, a nonprofit in Sienna Plantation founded by community member Alex McElreath that supports those in need in the Fort Bend community. Alex says that the goal of Hope Advocates is “to get our kids involved in the community so they can gain compassion for others through service.” In addition to directly helping to rescue people trapped by the flood, helping evacuees to check on their properties, and mucking many homes, Hope Advocates distributed nearly $100,000 to area flood victims with funds from the barbecue, T-shirt sale and other donations.

Branching Out

Soon, volunteers began to seek ways to help people in other areas and to “adopt families,” both within and outside the neighborhood, who had lost everything in the flood, including a police officer who regularly patrols and protects the Sienna community. Ridge Point High School held a gift card drive to aid football rival Dick­inson High School, which had suffered tremendously in the hurricane. On the night Ridge Point played Dickinson, the team delivered hundreds of notes and gift cards worth more than $10,000 to help the Dickinson community with recovery efforts.

Right after the hurricane, Sienna resident Noreen Covey and friends began collecting donations of necessities for neighborhood residents whose homes flooded. With a generous donation of items from a benefactor in Conroe, she opened the Shared Blessings Warehouse, a hurricane recovery donation site, in a newly built strip mall at the entrance to Sienna. The space was donated by businessmen Mubarek and Asim Menasia. The warehouse filled up quickly, and before long, Shared Blessings was partnering with local organizations such as the Second Mile and Harvest United Methodist Church, and accepting truckloads of donated clothes, furniture, cleaning supplies, diapers, toys and other basic necessities from all over the country to distribute to hurricane victims across Fort Bend, Harris and Brazoria counties and beyond.

 

Moving Forward

Sienna Strong now has 3,000 members and continues to provide help to those in need. In the months since Hurricane Harvey, Sienna Strong volunteers continue to support those impacted by the hurricane and have also supported the victims of a house fire and families who lost loved ones due to events not related to the hurricane. Money was also raised through Sienna Strong and sent to disaster relief organizations in Mexico, Florida and Puerto Rico.

“When a tragedy strikes, people spring into action, but time goes on and people forget,” Jaime says. “We don’t want that to happen. We want to keep Sienna involved in helping those who need it. There are so many good people out there who want to help, it’s amazing.”

7.--Leonetti-Graphics-Check

Leonetti Graphics raised $40,000 for Hope Advocates, a nonprofit organization in Sienna Plantation that supported flood victims, by printing and selling “Sienna Strong” t-shirts. (L-R): Carson Caffey, Leah Caffey, Alex McElreath, Jenni Leonetti, Omar Mata, Alicia Jimerson-Knox, Ron Ewer, Rick Van Eyk, Mike DeLuca and Shawn Reed.

Carson Skotak enjoying lunch at the Sienna Barbecue fundraiser.`

Carson Skotak enjoying lunch at the Sienna Barbecue fundraiser.`

Sienna resident Noreen Covey (center) along with friends Kim McElreath (left) and Lisa Tagliarino opened the Shared Blessings Warehouse, a hurricane recovery donation site that collected basic necessities for hurricane victims across the region.

Sienna resident Noreen Covey (center) along with friends Kim McElreath (left) and Lisa Tagliarino opened the Shared Blessings Warehouse, a hurricane recovery donation site that collected basic necessities for hurricane victims across the region.

 

#SiennaStrong

 

 


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