From August 25-29, Hurricane Harvey swept through southeast Texas, devastating Houston and the surrounding communities and leaving Jessica and Brandon Mott’s hometown, Shepherd, Texas, in shambles.
Unable to idly watch their hometown fall apart, the young Starksboro residents loaded hundreds of pounds of supplies into a U-Haul, strapped their 2-year-old daughter, Danika, into her car seat, and headed home to pick up the pieces themselves.
As the Motts set out on their journey Sept. 5, Essex resident Karen Alderman served as mission control, sending them incoming cash donations from community members via PayPal and tracking their progress via Facebook.
They’d planned to make the whole trip in one straight shot, but exhaustion and inclement weather forced them to stop for the night at Brandon’s mother’s place a few hours outside the city.
They were back on the road before sunrise, and Brandon announced the family’s arrival just after 2 a.m. Sept. 6.
Alderman, the owner of Karen’s Kloset, a women’s resale clothing store in Essex, had become an invaluable aid to the Motts in the days leading up to their journey. Using Karen’s Kloset as a donation hub, she and Jessica had gathered hundreds of pounds of donated clothing, baby products and supplies for Jessica to distribute to Texan families in need.
“If it weren’t for Karen, there’s no way that I would have been able to coordinate all of this,” Jessica said.
Before the storm, Alderman and Jessica were total strangers.
In the wake of the floods, the Motts heard of people being turned away from disaster relief programs and decided to take matters into their own hands. Jessica posted in numerous community Facebook groups asking for donations.
Alderman’s daughter saw a post and put the two women in contact. Alderman offered to use her store as a donation center and to help spread Jessica’s message.
“I told her I’d share the heck out of her posts and get her donations for the trailer,” Alderman said. “And from there it just escalated.”
Each night, Jessica reached out to friends and family in different towns in Texas to ask what supplies they needed. She compiled the requests into a wish list, which she posted on Facebook. Alderman kept her promise to share far and wide, tagging community members and businesses directly.
“I had people bringing in eight, nine bags of things at a time,” Alderman said. “I collected $500 in cash. Essex and Timberlane Pediatrics brought in baby formula, cases and cases and cases of it.”
On a normal day, merchandise at Karen’s Kloset piles up in colorful heaps on tables, shelves and mannequins. During its brief stint as a donation center, Alderman said, the place was practically bursting.
“Karen has made all of this happen for me. All we did was drive this down here. She did so much,” Jessica said. “She had connections within in the community that I didn’t.”
Community matters to Jessica. She traveled all the way to Texas to help rebuild hers, after all. But in Vermont, Jessica admits she doesn’t get out much.
“[The Motts] are good people,” Alderman said. “But they don’t have a lot of friends up here, because, for one, they live out in freakin’ Starksboro. And he works and she’s a stay-at-home mom, so she has limited ways to meet people.”
Chittenden County rallied around her nevertheless. On September 3, Alderman fielded a call from an unknown donor from Colchester.
“I had to walk her through PayPal so she could donate money,” Alderman said of the benefactor. “And then she donated more money. And then her daughter came in and brought in clothes. And then she donated more money.”
Alderman may not know Claremont, but Claremont knew Alderman rents her space from Claremont’s service dog breeder. The connection seems tenuous, but Claremont takes the concept of community seriously.
She entrusted Alderman with hundreds of dollars of her disability money. She also threw herself headlong into the Motts’ work with startling sincerity, sharing their status updates and checking up on them during their journey.
“My children have been raised to serve and to give and to help others,” Claremont said. “We’re not a wealthy family by any means; however, we have clothes, we have a roof, we have a car. I mean, Texas has lost everything. I cannot fathom what that’s like.”
Elsewhere, other Essex residents engaged in fundraising efforts. Molly Bailey, a third-grader at Founders Middle School, held a combination bake sale-lemonade stand-bottle drive at the end of her driveway on Indian Brook Road.
With the help of her grandmother and her 2-year-old sister, Sophie, Molly raised an incredible $700 for the Hurricane Harvey LGBTQ Disaster Relief Fund, an organization she’d researched thoroughly and determined to be the most reputable of her possible options.
“I chose to do it because I saw all the damage that Hurricane Harvey did,” Molly said, echoing Claremont’s sentiment. “I was just thinking about how many homes were destroyed and how much people lost.”
In Shepherd, the Motts felt that loss keenly and were trying their best to rectify it.
They hit some roadblocks, bringing more clothing than Shepherd residents needed and not enough food or money. A good number of the city’s fuel pumps were ruined in the flood, and skyrocketing prices at the remaining gas stations made the heavy, fuel inefficient U-Haul trailer too expensive to drag around.
Hesitantly, Jessica described the city as “apocalyptic.” She described abandoned cars along the side of the road, solo pedestrians walking to shelters and trash floating on flooded sidewalks.
“To be honest, I won’t know when it’s done. When my husband’s leave is over with at the end of the month, he has to go back no matter what. If he goes, I have to go with him,” she said. “Still, I don’t think the work will be done. These places, these businesses, these lives will still need rebuilding.”
But Alderman suspects Jessica will be up for the challenge, suggesting the Motts may organize relief for Hurricane Irma in Florida.
“She’d be great at it,” Alderman said. “I have a connection with her already that, in four days, it’s incredible.”
And Jessica wouldn’t be working alone.
“This is going to bring her into a community that she didn’t really feel a part of before,” Alderman said.