BLOOMINGTON, Texas—The five young Amish women arranged themselves in a brand new home in this beat-up Texas town and began to sing. The house, built by volunteers, was a vibrant mustard yellow, the talk of the town.
The Houston Chronicle reports the girls harmonized.
"They say I have nothing, but they are so wrong."
Ernest Licerio, 55, watched from his wheelchair. He grew up here. Thirty years ago, he was run over by a train, an accident that left him with one arm and no legs. This house, Licerio said, was the first new thing he owned and something, with Thanksgiving approaching, for which to be grateful.
"It means that there is hope for tomorrow," he said.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, 15 months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through this chemical-plant town, 13 miles southeast of Victoria, and nine days before the second Thanksgiving since the storm.
People such as Licerio needed assistance desperately. But Harvey, he says, was also a blessing in disguise. It brought strangers, saviors, into his life, like the Amish women serenading him, or the Mennonites who coordinated the work that gave Licerio this new wheelchair-accessible home, where he should be living by Christmas.
"In my heart, I'm rejoicing, though the world may not see."
Bloomington, a struggling town of 2,500, is just the kind of place the Mennonite Disaster Service, a group that organizes volunteers to fix and rebuild homes after disasters, seeks out. They want to help people who might otherwise slip through the cracks. In Bloomington, a place few outsiders have heard of, an estimated 17 percent of residents lived below the poverty line before Harvey, leaving them especially vulnerable to the hurricane's impact.
Victoria County Commissioner Danny Garcia put it this way: Harvey may not have hit Bloomington harder than anywhere else, but, as in the story of the Three Little Pigs, they were the ones with the houses made of straw.
And so the Mennonite volunteers last year set up camp and, except for a break around harvest time, stayed. They brought trailers with tools and showers. They built bunk beds and dormitory partitions in a local church gym. "ITS ALL ABOUT JESUS," the basketball hoop backboard reminds them.
The volunteers come from all over for varying amounts of time, some in weekslong leadership roles, some just lending a hand for a week. Not all are Mennonite, or even the same kind of Mennonite. Any Christians are welcome to be leaders and anyone can volunteer.
Some Mennonites in Bloomington now are from Canada, where they celebrated Thanksgiving in October. The young Amish women came from Indiana. Some described it as a religious calling, a way to give back.
The group plans to spend two more years here and was at work on this past Thanksgiving. There are also ongoing projects in Rockport and La Grange.
"Bloomington was really kind of overlooked," said Bruce Weber, a 65-year-old from Ontario, who has overseen the site since October. "We just need to continue on the work of people who have been here prior to us."
At first, the outsiders were a strange sight in Bloomington. Some spoke with Canadian accents. Some men wore long beards and women long dresses. But community members embraced them, grateful for what they were doing. "It's almost unbelievable," said Garcia, the commissioner.
As the holidays neared, the group was almost finished building three new houses. Mennonite Disaster Service has worked on nearly 200 homes in town, by their count, including roof work and cleanup, and repairing 20 more.
Before they gathered to sing on that chilly afternoon, some of the two-dozen volunteers did a final cleanup at Licerio's home, which lacked only appliances and furniture.
At a second house, under the guidance of 69-year-old Don O'Neill, volunteers installed laminate flooring and touched-up the wall paint.
A retired educator and carpenter from Alberta, O'Neill was here in what he said was "the spirit of service."
Sixteen-year-old Kayla Graber and 18-year-old Marianna Eicher, working on hands and knees on the dusty floor, said they and seven other young women from their youth group came because they thought it would be fun—and, based on their giggles, it seemed it was.
At home in Indiana, one worked in a bakery and the other a cabinet shop.
"We just enjoy doing it," said Martin Stoll, 68, a grandfather of another of the girls, who was installing a bracket for a closet door in a third home. "They need help. They really need help."
Volunteer Ryan Sprunger, 69, put together the porch railing outside that third house. Sprunger, who is from a different part of Indiana, was almost done with 26 weeks of volunteer-work this year, including in Fort Myers, Fla., and Pine Ridge, S.D. The group says 3,335 volunteers this year have been in 32 locations in the United States, Canada and their territories.
Carol White, 74, stirred a pot of chili in an RV that she lives in on the property where Stoll and Sprunger worked. Harvey destroyed the three-bedroom mobile home there that she and her husband once called home.
In the RV, it was hard to get around, even with White's husband out driving a bus for the local school district that afternoon.
They lived on limited incomes, but had looked into taking out a loan.
A year ago, they got a phone call: the Mennonites wanted to build them a home.
"It felt like a miracle," White said. "It really did."
White and her husband took the chili to the volunteers that evening. The girls slurped it up in minutes.
Licerio offered fruit as thanks for his near-finished home. With light from the setting sun streaming through the windows, the girls sang for him in return.
It was a striking moment: here, in a house built by so many hands, was a group of Amish women who rode for 18 hours to a Texas town in the coastal plains. They came from a place where they did not drive, where they stopped school after 9th grade, where they learned the songs they sang now from their mothers.
Their voices rose in a home being given to a man whom life has tested. He chose the mustard color as a symbol, based on a saying about the strength of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree.
"There's a roof up above me and a good place to sleep Thank you Lord for your blessings on me."
"There's a roof over your head," 63-year-old Marj Weber, who helps manage the projects there with her husband, Bruce, said when the song ended. "That's what they said. There's a blessing on you."