Lake Charles neighbors lend a helping hand
Words by Lokelani Howe
Plenty of folks drink whiskey, laugh loud, and work hard. But how many also drive across state lines to help a neighbor in need? By my count, there's at least 12 here in Texas, and they all drive Jeeps.
They travel by convoy toward Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide disaster relief in Hurricane Laura's wake. The sun is setting by the time I catch up with them, and dinner is on the grill.
Steered by Dave Martin and Raghu Bhupathiraju, these Jeepers are passionate about paying it forward. As a nonprofit organization, Jeep Life, Inc., leads give-back operations for diverse communities by supporting veterans, aiding abused and battered women, helping the homeless, and providing disaster relief.
Dave and Raghu met in Hurricane Michael's aftermath on a disaster relief convoy to Panama City, Florida. On the long drive home, they told stories over the CB radio. They shared their highs and lows, funny stories and frustrating moments, and even the uncomfortable stuff.
Raghu grills tablitas (flanken beef short ribs) as Dave opens the daily briefing. Together, they share from the heart with a rare vulnerability, and our collective empathy grows. When all our bellies are full, Raghu shares a story from his childhood. "Our family spent my mom's birthday serving in the orphanages or feeding the homeless. But back then, as a kid, I hated it. When you serve food to someone, you look at him. Then you see yourself and that other person living on the opposite ends of the spectrum. And, of course, it's uncomfortable."
Today, we live in a nation divided by race and class. Our political future may remain unresolved even as this story goes to print. Most folks are feeling uncomfortable right about now.
Get off the beaten path, though, and you'll find working professionals, stay-at-home moms, and students, each one holding unique political, religious, and cultural beliefs. But together, they're navigating pathways of self-sacrifice and love.
The next morning, we travel into the heart of the devastation, where homes have been obliterated. We drive along streets lined with gutted houses. Soiled and ruined goods spill onto the curb: couches, dollhouses, books, carpets, drywall, insulation, and pipes. Mangled tree limbs form massive mounds, like ancient funeral pyres. And I can't help but wonder where it all will go.
When we arrive, the team jumps down from their Jeeps, ready to work. Tim and Bobbie clear debris. Demshock, Timothy, and Kainoa take down hazardous trees. Regina and Grant shoulder heavy tree limbs. Alex, Anna, and Maya wrangle the branches. Raghu and Dave keep the grill warm and fill in the gaps. Together, they labor from sunrise to sunset for love. They joke around like all rowdy families do, but when it's time for dinner, they bow their heads for grace.
The team works from Cessford Street to North Goos Boulevard, and finally, down Commercial Street. We meet Mrs. Jackson on Cessford Street. She grew up here, and she knows her neighbors by name. There's a clearing now, where tall trees once stood, behind her house. As we look at the remnant of trees, she says, "These trees have been here for as long as I've been here."
On Commercial Street, Bobbie says, "Look what I found." In the palm of her hand, she holds a heart, beautifully broken and gritty, the remains of a shingle shaped by the storm. It seems to be a sign. So they press on, cleaning up the mess as co-laborers and bringing neighborhoods back to life one street at a time.
Later that evening, Regina speaks up during the evening briefing, saying, "When we pulled into that third site, I was done. I felt sweaty and gross. I wanted to get back to the hotel and get a shower. But then I watched Kainoa pick up that cross and plant it back into the ground. When I read the words, All is Well, I was ready to keep on going."
"This is what the cavalry does," says Dave. When the heroes are outnumbered and the challenges are overwhelming, the cavalry rides to the rescue. That's how it goes in the movies, at least, and the storyline bears out here in Lake Charles. Most folks might never know who cleared away the rubble, but that doesn't matter. As Dave says, "the best reward is helping."
Are you a Jeeper with a passion for helping folks? Do you love the off-road community? You might make a great fit with Jeep Life, Inc. Dave won't pay you, and he certainly won't give you props on social media, but Raghu will cook you a darn good meal on the grill.
For more information, go to JeepLifeInc.org or follow @JeepLifeInc on Facebook.