When Hurricane Harvey hit in August, students and staff at University High School immediately started looking for ways to help people hit by the massive storm. But they wanted to be sure to address specific needs that could get tangible results, business teacher Lori Romero said.
When Romero told her students about a new deaf education teacher who had come to the district after being displaced by the storm, left homeless in Houston and separated from his wife, they knew where their help was needed, she said.
In an ongoing effort, University High students and staff have raised more than $1,500 through various fundraising efforts to help Victor Vodounou get back on his feet and eventually find a more permanent home in Waco.
But Vodounou needs about $5,000 for deposits and utilities and has been relying on spare beds and sofas of fellow employees since he started Sept. 25, he said through an interpreter. Hurricane Harvey struck the coast about a month prior, dropping more than 50 inches of rain in some areas.
Vodounou has been working with NeighborWorks Waco, a nonprofit that helps with affordable housing, to find the right place. He is spending his Thanksgiving as he has spent much of his time in Waco: relying on the kindness of others, he said.
“He comes to work smiling, happy and with a pep in his step every day,” Romero said. “To go through something that traumatic and literally still be homeless, his family is homeless, and still have so much joy is a true testament to his own personal character. I can’t say I would be able to do it either.”
Romero only learned about Vodounou’s story after she scribbled out questions for him to answer a few weeks ago, she said. What he wrote back left her crying at her desk in front of her students, she said.
“We were in the living room, and the water started rising,” Vodounou signed, with interpreter Jamie Kenny translating to spoken English. “It came up, higher and higher and I was like, ‘We need to go, we need to get out.’ The water came up to about my hips in a matter of about 10 minutes, and it was too little too late to save anything.”
Vodounou and his wife didn’t heed the warning from family and friends. The couple and their daughter and son thought they would be safe because they were living on the first floor of an apartment complex in a part of Houston not expected to flood, he said.
Instead, they were lucky to escape with their lives when they made the choice to go up to the second story and wait to be rescued. But the couple lost their furniture, four cars, paperwork, clothes, appliances, basically everything, Vodounou said.
Once they were saved, he and his wife moved into a shelter at a Houston church.
Before the hurricane, he and his wife did mission work, he said. But when he learned financial help from FEMA would be limited because they were living in an apartment, and insurance would only cover part of their losses, he knew they had to find a better way to provide for their family, Vodounou said.
Luckily, insurance helped cover the damage to a couple of the cars, and the shelter organizers were letting them stay as long they helped pay for some of the amenities. But the shelter was going to start charging rent, and they needed to figure out what to do next.
So he and his wife started looking for school districts that had openings for deaf education instructors, he said. His wife found a substitute position working with deaf children in Houston, but when Waco Independent School District offered him a job, he jumped at the chance, Vodounou said.
He has been traveling to and from Houston every weekend to visit his family in the shelter since accepting the offer, he said.
“It’s just been a great surprise,” Vodounou said. “My first day here, I met with some of the interpreters and we introduced ourselves, let them know about our situation. … The people here are just very welcoming and very helpful.”
Vodounou’s story was shared through a schoolwide video broadcast and fliers, Romero said. Students, including senior Ana Balderas, helped gather money during lunchtime, sold T-shirts and organized a pie throw to support Vodounou, Romero said. Romero helped coordinate the effort, including launching a GoFundMe account for anyone who might want to donate outside of school, she said.
“I just really wanted to help him, because I felt we do stuff here all the time to help others,” Balderas said. “In AVID, we did a fundraiser for the mom of one of the teachers. She wanted to buy a microwave, out of all the things she could have wanted, she wanted a microwave. I was like, ‘Well, if we’re doing that for her, we could probably do something else together for this other man who also lost everything.’ “
The fundraising efforts will continue at least through Thanksgiving break, Romero said. The timeline just depends on how much donors contribute, she said. She is hoping more people will step up to help as more people hear Vodounou’s story.
“We have a little saying, ‘UHS has heart,’ and that’s how we showed we have heart and we really do care about our faculty and we do care about our staff and our student body,” Romero said.