By Karl Brooks, contributing writer
Liberty County residents are all too familiar with the story of Hurricane Harvey and the deluge of rain with the massive flooding that it brought. Emergency services were overwhelmed, the Texas National guard was called out, and good citizens used their boats and lifted 4×4 trucks to bring help and sometimes rescue the people trapped by the floods.
A piece of the story that may not be known is how a feisty north Liberty County woman and her husband helped their neighbors with food and supplies, which three years later has grown into a sizable community outreach. These days, Gale Sumerlin Parham is helping people to survive the economic impact of lockdowns, small business restrictions, and any other misfortunes that leave them struggling financially.
It all started when Hurricane Harvey flooded Parham’s neighbors, whose property next to the river is about 20 feet lower than Ms. Gale’s property up the road. Some of her neighbors asked to park their vehicles and some equipment in her pasture area; others came up the street by boat to get supplies. This was the beginning of the Rainbow Baptist Community Outreach. At first all they had to offer families was two 16-ounce bottles of water and two paper towels folded up in a baggie. Ms. Gale had help from her husband, Red Parham, and her friends from church, Michele and Brandon Rose, and Terry McMillan.
In addition to the first donation of water and paper towels, Parham was given some food from her friends in her old neighborhood of Deer Park. In a couple of weeks, they ran out of those supplies. Word got around about the makeshift “food bank” she had started, and help came in like manna from heaven.
“Right down the road is the volunteer fire department in Romayor. They had some food they brought to us and we handed it out. Then we closed up shop and left. Later that day I got a call before I’d even made it to Cleveland letting me know that we had five semi trucks parked at the church loaded with food,” Parham said.
Rainbow Baptist is a good-sized country church, but still there was barely room put it all. With 8-10 volunteers, including the church pastor, Gale recalls, “We didn’t have a pallet jack so we set empty pallets down inside the back room of the church, lined up in a chain gang and unloaded it manually, one box at a time, stacking them on the pallets we had set down. There was a lot of produce and everything else. We gave a lot out right away. People just came in — they didn’t have to sign in or anything — came in and took items they needed.”
Some weeks later, another church that had opened a community shelter called to say they were shutting down their operations.
“They had extra food and asked us come get it, so we took three or four cars and packed it up for the food bank. We had one gentleman come up to help one day, and when he realized that we manually unloaded these trucks he said he knew where we could get a pallet jack for $100,” Parham recalled. “The weekend before that we had another family come out and cook Thanksgiving meals and we handed them out free. Some hunters came by for a meal and left us a donation of $100, which is exactly what the pallet jack cost us. That’s still the one we’re using now. It’s like every time we’ve had a need it’s just been there.”
Parham has seen a lot of growth in the food bank.
“We really didn’t track the number of families back then, anybody that came and needed food we would give it to them. Then we got hooked up with Christine Shippey, and I can’t think how that happened. I don’t know if she heard about us or somebody told us to call her at Covenant With Christ out of Cleveland. We went in under her umbrella for the [Houston] Food Bank and we’ve been doing it ever since. Now we have over 300 families that we help — over 600 grocery loads per month. During this past summer Borden gave us a thousand gallons of milk,” Parham said.
Parham said she was motivated to start the food bank after seeing the need in the community.
“People just needed the help. I had been going to Rainbow Baptist church for several years before Harvey struck. When it did, somebody came by and brought us a couple of cases of water. People didn’t have water and they didn’t have any money, so we used to load up a truck and go down to the Trinity River Lake Estates where they would bring boats up to meet us and we would send food because they couldn’t get out to come to the food bank at the church,” she said.
Now Parham and her crew of volunteers distribute food twice a month. Check for the day and time on the Facebook public group, Community Outreach, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1818404061721690. She relates that they used to do a distribution weekly and then monthly.
“We had the big truck that would come up and just we’d hand food right out of the truck. That got to be so hard on everybody we just couldn’t do it, so now the truck comes on a different day than the distribution day,” she said.
Red and Gale Parham moved to Clark in north Liberty County from Deer Park six weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. They have two adult children and six grandchildren. This wasn’t their first rodeo dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane. However, it is her first organized food bank.
Shortly after she got started, Parham picked up two additional volunteers who soon became assistants, helping her run the program: Ms. Jenifer Johnson Gorsha and Ms. Judy Rippy. Parham has nothing but praise for them.
“They are great. They provide the extra hands we needed to handle all the freight. Now Jenifer does a lot of the paperwork, helps manage the ordering and receiving, as well as helping to manage the volunteers unloading the truck and passing out the food on distribution day. Judy helps manage the food repacking into parcels for distribution and anything to do with the church. They still do a lot of the handling work, too! Dan Gonzales has also been with us for a long time and he is our workhorse doing the heaviest work,” she said.
When asked if there is anything they need, Jenifer was ready to answer that: The old pallet jack has a broken axle mount and needs to be repaired or replaced. (If anyone can help with it, please call or text 936-402-7829). They are short of freezer space, so another large chest freezer is on her wish list.
All three say they are motivated by the feeling of doing the Lord’s work and meeting great people along the way.
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