By MaryJane Mudd, American Red Cross

Dennis Hayes has a presence about him. Tall, soft-spoken, yet direct, with silver hair and an engaging smile. This church deacon and volunteer American Red Cross shelter manager has a sense of mission too, grounded in his faith.

“Every day we are reminded of the fragility of life,” Hayes said. ” Serving others is what faith is about – it’s what community is about.” Little did Hayes know that that belief would put him at the head of a partnership – Saint Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church and Red Cross – that would care for hundreds during some of Houston’s hardest days.

“Back in 1998 I looked around and realized our neighborhoods were always flooded,” said Hayes, reflecting on his Jersey Village community north of Houston.

“But our church, St. Maximilian, was like an island – it never took on water. A few of us realized we could better serve the community if we made the church available as a shelter when it was needed, so we went to the experts – the Red Cross.”

Red Cross volunteer, Deacon Dennis Hayes, St Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church (Red Cross photo by Jim McIntyre)

Hayes’s path to shelter management began with a stint as a Red Cross Disaster Action Team member, responding to home fires at all hours of day and night. “I did it for seven years and valued comforting people who had lost everything,” he said.

During this time, Mother Nature gave the shelter team at St. Maximilian an exercise in the form of Tropical Storm Allison. “We were a bit surprised when it hit us in 2001, but we rallied to bring in as many people as we could,” Hayes recalled.

Shortly after came 9/11, where the St. Maximilian Red Cross team went to airports with provisions for travelers stranded when airlines were grounded. Then Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and the church served as a distribution hub for evacuee shelters.

Hurricane Rita saw more than 400 stranded motorists flowing through the doors of St. Maximilian, where they were greeted with food and a place to stay. Last year’s storms didn’t damage Jersey Village, but sadly, some of the church’s parishioners died in flood waters. Hayes officiated at their funerals.

St. Maximilian was ready, then, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall. With more than 370 cots and enough provisions to feed 500 people three meals a day, the church was a refuge for hundreds. At its peak, the Harvey Rescue Shelter housed and fed 368 community members in need of a warm, safe place to stay.

The church even partnered with the HP Foundation to have a mobile emergency connectivity unit on site so evacuees could stay in touch with loved ones.

Hayes is pleased that his community of faith and the humanitarian organization he joined nearly 20 years ago were able to extend the hand of hope to their neighbors in need.