West recovery will continue for years to come

By Enedelia J. Obregón
Senior Correspondent

As 2013 comes to an end, the small community of West is still working to recover from the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and devastated the community. Still standing with them is the Unified Catholic Response (UCR) team comprised of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Diocese of Austin.
Through this partnership, the UCR team has collaborated with local community partners to answer the call to action. More than six months after the disaster the following are some of the services that have been provided to help families during the initial recovery phase: 
• Distributed House in a Box units for 219 families with a retail value of $438,000; 
• Distributed more than 1,600 gift cards to HEB and Wal-Mart valued at $40,000; 
• Paid for 861 nights at the Czech Inn for displaced families at a cost of $71,000 and a retail value of more than $90,000; and
• Provided case management services for families who needed help in healing the scars of this disaster and navigating systems to access services.
Active partners in the response included Ladies of Charity of Austin, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Austin, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, 43 St. Vincent de Paul Conferences from around the country, National Council of Knights of Columbus, West Long-Term Recovery Committee and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. 
To ensure the community of 2,800 families continues to receive services needed in building and healing, the UCR partnered with the West Long-Term Recovery Center and Baylor University’s School of Social Work to conduct a community assessment to identify the continued unmet needs. The community assessment occurred Nov. 9-16 and more than 60 volunteers from across the Diocese of Austin canvassed the community of West and provided residents with the opportunity to share their thoughts. 
Under the leadership of Dr. James Ellor, Baylor University’s School of Social Work will analyze the data and the West Long-Term Recovery Center and UCR will utilize the results to design a road map for continued services for the long-term rebuilding of the community.   
Stacy Ehrlich, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – Diocesan Council of Austin, said “This is the first time residents have been asked about their community –– what is happening now, six months after the disaster, and what they would like to see.”
Barbara Budde, the diocesan director of Social Concerns, said the blast uncovered unknown poverty and unmet needs. “Everyone assumed everyone was making it,” she said. “No one knew there were some people on the edge of not making it. The blast uncovered that fact and made it more obvious.” 
Although the UCR is actively working to help families who were not insured or under- insured receive the financial resources to help build back the bricks and mortar, many families have needs that are not so easily visible and may have even been present before the disaster, said Sara Ramirez, the executive director of Catholic Charities of Central Texas. 
The community assessment was designed to help uncover such needs in a confidential manner. Among the questions asked were: Will people benefit from a social services office in West or can they easily get to Waco, about 20 miles away? Do they have transportation to get to Waco or do they need an office in West where they can sign up for the needed services? There is no public transportation available for those without a car.
“If you have a transportation issue then telling people to go sign up for help isn’t easy,” Ehrlich said. “What the survey will tell us is ‘What do you really need to help you recover?’”
The reality of the poverty in the community was hidden because of the spirit of cooperation and neighborliness that abounds in West, Budde said. 
“As the town rebuilds, our prayer is that this determined community is only made stronger,” she said.
Ramirez said recovering from a disaster takes a long time and that the UCR teams will be with the people of West for however long it takes. 
“We will walk alongside our brothers and sisters until their time of need is no more,” she said. 
The UCR also presented a six-month follow up report to Bishop Joe Vásquez, which detailed the financial and human resources support to the community from the diocesan organizations, parishes and others. The financial support included the following information.
The diocese and Catholic Charities together have collected $1,014,104 and more than $279,000 was spent in direct services for families in West, said Jennifer Orr, controller for the diocese. That leaves $734,000 to be used for addressing the long-term needs such as rebuilding homes, as well as providing on-going social services that the community identifies as a priority in order to heal.
The SVDP diocesan council raised $77,000, of which $43,000 was donated by the different SVDP conferences, Ehrlich said. One of the goals of SVDP is to establish a St. Vincent de Paul Conference –– or chapter –– at St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish in West. 
These figures do not include any financial aid sent directly to St. Mary, Church of the Assumption Parish in West.

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