Hurricane Harvey struck the southern Texas coastline on August 25, 2017. The deadly storm became the costliest tropical storm on record, causing $200 billion in damages. This International Volunteer Day, we recognize the efforts of Murad Ajani and the Aga Khan Foundation’s volunteers’ in the southwestern region of the United States for their willingness to come together for a common cause and dedicating over 13,000 hours to serve those affected by the hurricane. Ajani’s experience exemplifies how diverse groups of people working together for a common cause can bring positive change to a community in need.

The moment Murad Ajani learned that Hurricane Harvey was approaching the southern coast of Texas, he knew he had to do something. Through his community, Ajani was able to unite 2,500 volunteers, many of them members of the local Ismaili community, to help out with recovery efforts in the greater Houston area.

After the storm, thousands of volunteers convened at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center, which doubled as a shelter for those forced out of their own homes. Volunteers then spread out and helped distribute food and clothing to affected Houstonians at the Houston Food Bank, the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter, the NRG Center shelter, St. Theresa Catholic Church, St. Laurence Catholic Church and the Southeast Food Bank.

The volunteers also went door-to-door delivering meals and helping senior citizens safely exit their uninhabitable nursing homes.

Ajani and the greater Houston Ismaili community’s efforts to help those in need were recognized at the Deep from the Heart: The One America Appeal” benefit concert; the funds of which went towards further hurricane relief efforts in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Ajani and his community of volunteers were recognized with the Daily Point of Light Award, in the presence of all five living former presidents – Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

Image credit: Aga Khan Council for Southwestern United States

We had the opportunity to learn about his experience and how he has been inspired by the support of the community.

How did the volunteer initiative begin?

Like most Houstonians, we began with volunteers from the Ismaili Council wanting to make sure their neighbors were safe and provided for. As the effects of the hurricane became more severe, we recognized the need to organize and deploy mass numbers of volunteers to meet the dramatic needs of the thousands of Houstonians whose homes had been flooded.

How did it grow into being such a large effort?

The effort grew thanks in large part because of the excellent community partners who were willing to work with us.  The Houston Food Bank was ready to host nearly a hundred volunteers for hours each day.  Houston’s ABC affiliate, ABC 13, worked with us to organize a food and supplies drive.  St. Theresa Catholic Church and St. Laurence Catholic Church both helped connect us with people who needed food and supplies, and who needed help with gutting their homes.  From our side, as each of these opportunities to deploy volunteers came, we simply put the call out within the Ismaili Muslim community.  The response was overwhelming.  Hundreds of community members were ready to volunteer each day — from 6 year old children and their parents to high school and college students, all the way up to seniors.  It really grew out of the mindset that Ismaili Muslims have: volunteerism is part of all of our duty in our communities.

Why did you want to help in this way?

Volunteering is a central component of the Aga Khan Foundation and Ismaili Muslim community’s ethos.  Helping each other and embracing each other’s differences is important in today’s changing world. We have an organized group under the Ismaili Council, called i-CERV, which organizes service projects and opportunities year round.  For us, this was not a one-off activity.  We wanted to help in larger numbers due to the gravity of the situation. But the practice of volunteering is a value that we instill from a very young age in the Ismaili community, and which I think is fair to say that Houstonians overall tend to instill in their children.

What led you and the Ismaili Council to take action, when so many people say they want to help, but don’t follow through?

What was recognized by the Points of Light Award was the scale of the Ismaili Council’s volunteers’ activities.  What led us to deploy 2,500 volunteers to perform 13,000 hours of service was twofold — first, in a time of crisis, as we saw all around Houston, this city is full of citizens who want to and are proud to help one another. Second, service is contagious! As the recovery phase of our activities got busy, we found that the more volunteers we deployed each day, the more volunteers we were able to deploy the next day.  Volunteers were coming back to serve the next day and bringing their friends and family with them.  So, it was the volunteers, from across the community, which made the scale happen.  It’s really all of them who should be recognized.

What would you tell others about the importance of volunteering?

Volunteerism and service are nourishment for the soul. These are values we all aspire to live by, but the moment we engage in volunteerism, we immediately receive the benefit ourselves from that service.

My faith teaches me that not only is it my responsibility to serve humanity and care for those in need, but that it is a blessing to have the opportunity to do so. Volunteerism really is a blessing for those who have the opportunity to serve others.  It’s available to all of us, and we should all, myself included, be looking for more ways to give of whatever time we can to benefit and enrich the community around us.

Murad Ajani is the President of the Southwest Council of the Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A.