Helping Houston Heal — One Small Something at a Time

Jennifer Galek
Sep 11, 2017 · 33 min read

If you’re watching coverage of relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey or Irma thinking, “I want to go help, but I have no idea how,” please read on. Most importantly, if you’re willing and able to actually go help, you abolutely should. I guarantee you will easily find a place to contribute. Let me tell you how.

I hope the story of how I found my own way to impact the life of an amazing woman named Margaret will inspire you enough to go do the same for someone else.

Over the holiday weekend, I spent 2 days elbows deep in muck volunteering in Kashmere Gardens, one of Houston’s most impoverished neighborhoods, which was devastated by Hurricane Harvey and, like so many others, is in desperate need of your help.

Below is an account of my experience, and what I’ve recently learned about how to independently help with hurricane relief efforts. Please keep in mind that I’m definitely still trying to process everything I’ve seen in the last few days. It’s a heavy experience — Heavy enough for me to abandon my psycho standard for proper grammar, which is simply not top priority at this point. A lot of normal things are not top priority at this point, as you will soon see.

I live in Dallas, a 4-hour drive from Houston. Like everyone else watching the storm pound the Gulf Coast, I was heart-broken and compelled to find a way to help.

I posted my plans on Facebook, including information about how to send donations, which I promised to use to personally help someone in need. Within 24 hours, $700 in donations were sent to my Venmo account.

Tip: You can raise far more money than you think. People who want to help remotely in time of crisis are always looking for a way to donate to a channel that they know will be used to directly impact victims of a natural disaster. They are especially willing to donate to a source that will later tell them how their money actually helped. The $700 I raised was donated when my original intentions were to help in Austin. Based on past experience, I’m fairly certain I would’ve raised at least triple that if my initial ask said I was going to Houston. People genuinely want to help.

My original plan had been to fill a need I heard about on social media; processing Spanish-speaking evacuees in Austin. After two days of finding nothing but misinformation, I ultimately found it impossible to get involved with the Red Cross.

My search for other ways to help led me to get involved with Sketch City, the non-profit technology group of volunteer hackers who have been building a host of online hurricane resources such as Texas Rescue Map, Texas Muck Map, and After a few days of building communications strategies and execution plans, I was honored when they eventually asked me to lead their marketing efforts. Regretfully, I had to decline.

I’m a marketer by trade, and a damn good one, but using donations to have a deep impact on specific lives is definitively my jam.

Plus, I still had that $700 mission to carry out.

“Looks like it’s time to get down to Houston.”

Texas Muck Map was an online tool that connected independent volunteers to families that needed help getting their houses cleaned out after the flooding brought by Hurricane Harvey. Sketch City has since combined efforts with larger organizations and is directing all future inquires to their site at

I made arrangements to stay in Houston with John Jenkins, a dear friend I met back in business school.

He described the amount of need in the area by saying, “It’s not a six degrees of separation thing. In this case, it’s literally two. Everyone here personally knows someone who flooded to the point they have to live elsewhere.”

At one point, while listing out the most recent people he’d heard were asking for help, he let out an exhausted sigh and said, “Dude. Just get down here and we’ll go do stuff.”

In retrospect, I can tell you that’s precisely the job.

I got to Jenkins’ house late Sunday evening and we went to grab dinner with a few friends.

Literally, the only topic covered during dinner was flooding: who they helped that day, the displaced father-in-law that is a terrible house guest, someone’s trip to Rockport and how no one is helping there or in any towns that didn’t get much press, incredible accounts of people doing amazing things to help strangers… It was endless and the same conversation was happening at every table.

“Dear God, that’s awful. I wonder if I could help by doing this thing… Whoa. That’s terrible, too. I bet it could help if I connect them with that one resource…”

Our conversation with the waiter revealed that he was “dry,” but that his {insert person} took {insert #} feet of water. Every encounter. Rinse and repeat.

“We mucked X, Y, and Z houses today. Tomorrow, I’m making my way over to blibbidy blah neighborhood to do it all over again.” The entire city has been constantly running that loop for over a week now.

Try to imagine it for a moment because it’s utterly surreal.

When we got back to Jenkins’ place, we made plans to join the efforts of a mutual friend named Jess Arnold.

By leveraging his network on Facebook, Jess had mobilized a mucking crew to help out in Kashmere Gardens, a neighborhood on the edge of Houston’s 5th Ward, which is severely lacking the resources it needs to expedite the recovery process as quickly as needed. His first crew was able to help two houses on Sunday and planned to go back to KG the following day.

That settled, we went on to polish off a few bottles of wine, as you do while catching up with your best friend after a year apart.

Experience-Proven Pro Tip: It is highly advisable to go to bed at a decent hour and to imbibe minimal amounts adult beverages the night before a day of mucking. However, this advice goes out the window on a multi-day mission. More on that later.

I started my Labor Day frantically trying to figure out which of the random mucking clothes I’d packed would work best. Based on Jenkins’ recommendation, I only brought things I was okay with immediately throwing away.

“It’s going to be hot, so I don’t want to wear pants, but am I supposed to cover up my legs so I don’t get cut by broken stuff?”

I opted for old yoga pants that cut off at the knee, a sports bra (mandatory, ladies), a sleeveless green t-shirt, tall, goofy socks, and rain boots that were two sizes too big. It all worked fine.

The only real requirements are tall shoes, gloves, and a vented respirator mask. A bright shirt, or some item that makes you easily identifiable, is also useful while working with a group of strangers whose names you might catch, but may not remember. There’s a LOT to take in. Names aren’t a priority. I was saved in more than one phone as “Jeni Green Shirt” that day.

I reached for my makeup bag, planning only to quickly address the bare essentials and paused.

“Really, Jeni? Put your Dallas away. You’ve got work to do.”

Jenkins and I grabbed our crowbars and water bottles and headed out to join Jess.

Jess found his original target when a friend responded to his Facebook post, informing him that her uncle’s house had flooded. When they finished the first house, he asked the friend for another target and was connected to a woman named Charmaine.

Miss Charmaine Watson, a golden-hearted woman with an unsinkable spirit, eventually found herself in the role of KG liaison to Jess’s mucking crew. A few days earlier she’d been asked to check on the uncle when his house flooded.

“At first, he refused the paramedics’ help. Finally they came back with the police to open the door and they found him on the floor, covered in bugs. That drove me to go by the area just to see what I could do. That’s when I started talking to people, got out of my car with my hammer, and went to work. We came. We saw. We did.”

Y’all catching the theme yet?

I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I got to Kashmere Gardens, but nothing I’d caught on the endless news coverage prepared me for the scene we drove into Monday morning.

I’d already encountered plenty of evidence of Harvey’s destruction all over Houston the night before. The first one that got me was the random mattress hanging over the divider of the HOV lane on I-45 on my drive in.

“It’s so weird that nobody’s done something about that yet.”

This was a recurring conversation I’d have with myself over the two days I spent in Houston.

Mangled construction signs lying on curbs, debris nestled in every corner, a car bumper propped up against a tree: it was everywhere.

“Yep. I guess that would be pretty low on the priority list, too. The entire city has more pressing issues to deal with. Makes sense, but damn.”

Clearly, the entire Kashmere Gardens neighborhood sat at some level between the twisted signs and water-tossed car parts on that same priority list. In the midst of an entire city that’s banding together to help each other pick up the pieces, I got the sense that KG has somehow been left behind. It would seem that the entire city has more pressing issues to deal with.

Having spent only two days there, I don’t know Kashmere Gardens well enough to paint an accurate picture for you, so I asked Jess to help me out.

Kashmere Gardens is a historically African-American community located in Northeast Houston just north of the Greater Fifth Ward neighborhood. 2012 census data reports a total population of 10,842 residents indicating the ethnic makeup is 69% Non-Hispanic Blacks, 28% Hispanics, and 3% Other.

The census also shows that Kashmere Gardens is one of Houston’s least affluent neighborhoods, with a Median Household Income of $21,492, and a Median Housing Value — $65,511, with only 7% holding a college degree.

This paints a bleaker picture of the neighborhood than what one would find if they ventured out and walked the streets pre-Harvey. Kashmere Gardens is a proud neighborhood full of neat, well-kept, single family homes. It is home to the world famous Kashmere Reunion Stage Band — a collection of musical talent solely sourced from Kashmere High School alumni. It’s where you can get a few cans of cold beer and dance all night to Zydeco or Blues at the Silver Slipper. The neighborhood has the best damn homemade sausage and boudin balls in town behind the meat counter at the Sing-On Supermarket. Kashmere Gardens is a great neighborhood, and it’s one of Houston’s older and most storied neighborhoods. And early last week, much of it was under several feet of water.

While Kashmere Gardens is strong, some of its residents are the weakest of the weak. I have been in destroyed homes of the very ill and infirmed in the neighborhood, where some residents have been literally forced by the floods to rot inside along with their possessions. I’ve seen the elderly with no possible means of replacing everything that they lost — and by everything, I do mean everything. I’ve met women without shoes, men without medication, and families living in mold because they can’t help themselves, and no-one has knocked on their door yet.

I love Jess’s rallying style — straight and to the point. No need for rhetoric. Just get there and do stuff.

When we arrived at the first house, admittedly a little late, the process was well under way.

House #1 was on Kress Street, first house on the left, facing a white church on the opposite corner. Similar to the rest of the houses on Kress, there was a wet assortment of the owner’s former life already discarded on the street, but this house had something none of the others had. This particular house had a crew of 10 mask-faced volunteers, hard at work, armed with wheelbarrows, crowbars, shovels, and hammers.

Beyond our house, I didn’t see a bustle of activity on Kress. Sure, there were people moving muck to their curbs, but there weren’t any groups that might pass as even a small crew. I definitely noticed people who seemed to be kind of just standing by their piles. A little more observation made me realize –

“These people are moving every bit of their damaged belongings themselves, which causes a lot more acknowledgement of each individual loss. I can’t imagine how tortuous that must be. Ugh. Okay. Shake it off.”

We walked up to the house and just took it in for a moment. Everyone said hello as they passed by on their own particular missions, but no one immediately stopped to introduce themself. A woman walked up and set a cooler down next to my feet and said, “There’s plenty of water, whenever you get thirsty,” smiled and disappeared into the garage.

“Feels like there should be some kind of orientation, but I suppose the objective here is pretty clear.”

The focus was on the garage, with the back half of remaining sheetrock quickly disappearing to reveal more of the house’s skeleton as a few people knocked it out with various tools or their hands; weapon of choice. One guy was scooping up the pieces with a giant shovel and dumping them in the wheelbarrow. Another guy was just gathering the giant chunks and carrying them out by hand. Closer to the front, a girl sprayed the exposed beams with bleach solution while another woman swept.

The owner of the house, an elderly woman in a blue, silk blouse, was sitting on a folding chair on the long, wooden ramp that led up to the front door. The ramp was still swollen from sitting under water for several days. She held a phone up to her ear, though didn’t appear to be talking, while watching the crew. Another woman, possibly in her 50s was standing next to her, also just watching.

“It’s rude to walk into the home of a person you don’t know, let alone just walk in and start tearing out their walls. Should I wait until she’s off the phone and then go introduce myself? I wonder if she’s on hold with FEMA. What’s the protocol here? Oh, right. There is no protocol for this stuff.”

Jess and our friend Peter walked up and we gave sweaty hugs, and exchanged various forms of the ole gratitude loop: “You’re so awesome for doing this.” “No, you’re awesome for coming from out of town.”

Jess mentioned that two of the girls in the day’s crew had flown in from Cali for two days, with zero plans beyond just helping out wherever they could. They were connected through Lord knows who, but were now sleeping in his back house and part of the crew. (Serious props to Alamanda and Kelci. You two are exceptional human beings.)

Someone said, “Man, there’s so much to be done” and it was off to work. I thought about asking Jess if there was a specific task he’d like me to take on. Instead, I grabbed my crowbar and then I just went and did stuff.

As soon as I noticed the owner was off the phone, I went and introduced myself. She shook my hand and told me her name, but I can’t remember it, which feels really weird. I gutted a woman’s garage and threw out her belongings two days ago, but I can’t tell you a thing about her.

She showed me a framed black and white picture of her as a young woman that she’d been holding in her lap. I told her she was beautiful and asked if I could give her a hug, which she accepted. Stoically, she thanked me for helping. I think she was tired.

“I’m so happy she was able to salvage that picture.”

The woman standing next to her commented on how beautiful it was to see people coming together to take care of each other. She went on to say, “It should be like this 365 days a year. I think that God decides to make things like this happen as a way to remind us about that when we start to forget.”

I gave her a hug and said, “That’s the best explanation I’ve ever heard for tragedies like this. Thank you.”

Charmaine had our next target locked and loaded and we headed that way as soon as we finished the first house.

Looking back, the house on Kress Street was a softball.

This is the Facebook post that led me to Ms. Margaret.
This is 4810 Dabney, home to Margaret Ratcliff and her family. We didn’t feel right taking pictures in this sort of situation, but I before I left at the end of the day, I knew I would be sharing our story, so I asked Peter to take a picture when there was no one else outside.

Along with the rest of our caravan, Jenkins and I pulled up to the house on Dabney Street and hopped out with our tools, ready to jump in and knock out another one. It was a single-family home, with plenty of muck already on the curb, and several cars lining the driveway and into the backyard that looked like they’d been there for years. The surrounding terrain was damp, but the water was gone.

At this pace, I wondered if we might be able to muck three houses that day, which would be awesome, considering the crew of was only able to get through two the day before.

Those aspirations disappeared quickly as the crew loosely assembled at the end of the driveway, watching a confusing scene unfold.

On the left side of the house, Jess was crouched over, trying to get a better look at something underneath.

A conversation was taking place on the front porch, between Charmaine and one of the homeowners, Margaret Ratcliff, a woman in her mid-fifties who was visibly distressed. She was barefoot, and had clearly been in the same clothing, jeans and a grey t-shirt, for at least a few days.

Her husband didn’t say much, but I sensed he was angry. I can’t tell you when I became aware of him, but I remember he had on a white undershirt and blue pants. He used a cane to get around slowly on what appeared to be two post-injury walking boots.

The state they were in made me feel like we’d found them in right in the middle of the flood. I got the sense they had very recently been confronted by the reality that they couldn’t live in their home because of the mold and that everything had to be ripped out — like, maybe 5 minutes before we showed up. I’m pretty sure they were each in their own form of shock. Who can blame them?

It was unclear what to do for them. It was just as unclear what to do for their house.

To clarify, we could’ve rattled of a list of hundreds of tasks that needed to be done. The bigger question was about priorities. What could we do in that afternoon that would have the greatest impact?

In a hushed tone, word spread that there was a dead dog under the house that had been there for several days, rotting. Attempts to remove him, or the smell, had been unsuccessful.

“Who the hell is in charge of removing all the dogs that drowned?”

One of the volunteers emerged from the front door and quietly warned us that we should prepare ourselves for the smell inside the house because it was overwhelming. Luckily, I have a terrible sense of smell, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what the last few days had been like for the Ratcliffs as they were trying to get things out of their home as the smell continued to get worse.

That dog situation was one that our crew wasn’t prepared to handle. We just couldn’t make it our priority. So, we went onto the next things on the priority list. We’d get to help another dog, the now legendary Pooch Pooch, soon enough.

Mr. Ratcliff told us there was another large pile of wet belongings behind the house that they needed help transferring to the curb for pickup. The pile was mostly clothing with random things mixed in, standard muck. Neither he, nor his wife can get around very well. He’s a diabetic and she has COPD. It would have taken them an entire day to complete just that task. The team got to work.

I remember a girl backing away, saying, “Needles. Be careful.”

“Who in the world is in charge of freakin’ hazmat?”

Upon further investigation, all I saw were hypodermic needles laying in the grass, still packaged, for Mr. Ratcliff’s insulin shots. Still, I opted to work on the other side of the pile and just grab clothes.

As we picked up wet blouses, pants, whatever, a large spider emerged from the pile. Then came another. One of the women said, “Come to think of it, this is actually a prime spot to find snakes as well.”

“Why didn’t any of us think of that before? Who’s in charge of freakin’ spiders and snakes? Jesus. This feels like some Wild West shit.”

We opted to move the rest of the pile using mainly the wheelbarrow and a shovel, which caused a bit of a bottleneck. Being fairly arachnophobic, I needed to find something a little less personally terrifying to do anyways.

A statement I overheard some time before finally registered. “There’s a little girl in there.” I distinctly remember being floored by the fact that my brain was on so much sensory overload that it took a long time for that statement to even register.

I walked around to the front of the house and froze in the front yard.

The front door was wide open. Right next to the door, silently sitting alone on a wet couch, a precious 3 year-old named Courtney was staring back at me intensely. While the majority of her face was hidden by a blue, adult-sized medical mask, I could easily see how huge her eyes were. She was terrified.

I’m torn about sharing this, but Jess, who ultimately became my de facto editor in writing this story, encouraged me do so. The scene I describe in the story has been frozen in my head. My friend who is a trauma specialist told me it would help me process the memory to literally sit down and draw it. I’m no artist, but it was intense enough in my head that I sat down and followed her recommendation as soon as we got off the phone.

I was told to draw this by my friend Jessica Montgomery, a trauma expert, because I couldn’t get it out of my head. Drawing or writing about an experience is believed to assist in the mind’s process of processing upsetting memories and expelling trauma. I later learned that Margaret has been taking care of both Courtney and her older sister, Chloe (5), for the last two years for someone else for a reason that still escapes me. Chloe was elsewhere with her father at the time.

I immediately realized how terrifying it must be for this little girl to be sitting in her flooded out, ransacked home, with her caregivers behaving so strangely, while a group of masked strangers stomped through her house taking everything away.

“Who’s in charge of taking care of scared little girls?”

This immediately became top priority on my list.

I entered the house, sat next to her on the couch, and took it all in.

Mr. Ratcliff was just standing by the tv with his back to us staring at something he was holding, while Margaret was over in the dining room, a pacing ball of confused anxiety… as anonymous workers passed us by in a blur of activity, too distracted to realize she was even there.

I turned to face the little girl and readjusted to sit cross-legged. I felt my pants begin to absorb the flood water from the couch. In a somber tone, I first acknowledged what I assumed she was feeling. “I bet this is really scary, huh?” She just stared back at me.

I then forced the biggest smile I could in hopes that she’d see it beyond my mask, and continued, “It’s okay. My name is Jeni. Me and my friends are here to help your mom and dad. I think they’re upset, too. What’s your name?”

After telling me her name, I asked if she’d like a hug. She nodded yes. As soon as I did, she returned my embrace. It was clear she didn’t want me to let go, so I scooped her onto my lap and just rocked her for a while, repeating in a soothing tone, “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. Mom and Dad are really busy right now, but everything is going to be okay.” She squeezed me tighter.

“Is it even okay for me to be holding this kid without permission?”

In fact, it was; because in situations like this, typical social protocols are completely irrelevant. That little girl needed somebody in that moment and her parents weren’t available. So that somebody had to be me.

This was to be my job for the next hour — just hanging out with Courtney. It was, by far, my most important job during my time in Houston.

Still barefoot herself, Margaret was on the phone, presumably on hold, trying to figure out what to do next, while she was digging through piles trying to find Courtney some shoes so she could get her outside, away from the mold. When she found a pair, we sat Courtney on the back of the couch while she tried to put them on. Her hands were shaking. I finished the job while she broke down in tears. Poor, sweet Margaret was completely overwhelmed.

I put Courtney on my hip and wrapped my arms around Margaret and the three of us just hugged for a while.

“I’m crying with this woman, while holding her child, and I don’t even know her name.”

In that moment, names just weren’t a priority.

This should go without saying, but I want to make it clear that Margaret is an excellent, loving caregiver who cares about Courtney probably more than anything else in the world. She needed a little help and I’m honored she allowed me to step in for a while.

I spent the next hour with Courtney on my lap while we sat on the driveway of a neighbor named Mrs. Jean. Her house had also flooded and needed mucking, but she didn’t know how to rip out the drywall. I hate that I couldn’t do that for her. I was at least able to help her make sense of the FEMA claim response she’d received that day. Ms. Jean thought FEMA had denied her request for assistance. In fact, the letter was just an acknowledgement of her claim.

“These people need so much help. What we’re doing just isn’t enough.”

She also told me about the house next to her. The owner has been away for 3 years and the place is still filled with belongings. It took at least 4 feet of water. Not a single person has touched that house yet. With no one to lobby for the needs of that house, it is sure to remain at the bottom of everyone’s priority list.

There is no shortage of needs in Kashmere Gardens. There is no shortage of needs in the small towns surrounding Houston. And there will be no shortage of needs after Hurricane Irma.

A volunteer brought Courtney a Hello Kitty toy and a colorful, beaded necklace which I assume belonged to her daughter and happened to be in her car. After a while, Courtney warmed up to her and I sensed she felt comfortable enough for me to go and contribute elsewhere.

Someone mentioned that Jess was losing steam and it was about time to wrap up. I jumped in on some dry wall, which was a nice way to get rid of some of the frustration about my inability to help everyone I’d met that so desperately needed it.

“Where is this family going to sleep tonight? We’ve gutted their home and now we’re just going to leave? What happens next for them? What is the rest of their night going to be like?”

I found Margaret standing outside talking to Charmaine. She was finally wearing some slip-on jellies that Mrs. Jean loaned her. I noticed that half of her heels were hanging off the backs of them. The crew was leaving soon. I didn’t have time to fix her shoe problem. The night’s lodging was my new priority.

When I asked her where she was going to stay that night, she broke down again while she told me about people she’d tried to contact, but couldn’t accommodate her as they were already housing others. Margaret’s family had slept in their molding home the night before. While Charmaine worked with Margaret to find something, I was distracted by the happiest, little gray dog jumping at my feet.

Meet Pooch Pooch.

Someone said Pooch Pooch was Margaret’s dog that went missing and, considering the situation under the house, everyone assumed was dead. Then that tenacious little survivor just showed back up out of nowhere. I also heard somewhere else that Margaret had to dig Pooch Pooch out of some rubble. The accumulating tales of Pooch Pooch the Great Survivor took on a life of their own.

We’ll never know what that dog was up to while he was away, but ole Pooch Pooch came back with a mysterious helmet-looking matting of hair on his back that made it look like he had some bizarre tumor that could double as a saddle. Pooch Pooch couldn’t care less about his hair. He was home and thrilled that this flurry of activity was clearly a party being thrown in his honor.

Remembering my latest mission, I reentered the lodging conversation to observe that zero headway had been made.

“I have $700 in donations! I’m in charge of where this family is going to sleep tonight!”

Some time before, Jenkins had to head over to Blibbidy Blah neighborhood to help a friend he knew whose {insert person}’s house had taken {insert #} feet of water. I didn’t want to keep track of my purse, so my phone and credit card were inaccessible out in Blibbidy Blah.

Both Jess and Peter had been deemed responsible for my eventual transportation back to Jenkins, but in Wild West land with people carrying out countless, individual missions, I thought it wise to also ask another super solid volunteer I’d met named Scottie to also assume responsibility for making sure I wasn’t left behind.

I had to make a particular, newly reprioritized, very important thing happen quickly and my resources, which I was used to having readily available, were insanely difficult to access due to present circumstances. That whole issue with my over-stimulated brain processing things with significant delays made my current mission feel down-right impossible to carry out. I considered dropping the mission.

“This is exactly how Margaret feels.”

I snapped out of it and found a way to communicate the tasks I needed help with to get the family a motel room nearby for the next few nights. Peter fronted the money. Someone looked up local accommodations. Another someone made phone calls. Peter and Scottie rearranged their plans to take me to pay for the room and get the key.

I went to get Margaret’s ID because the motel needed a copy before they’d hand over a key. We hadn’t even thought to let her know that we were getting her a room. For the first time that day, Margaret cried sobs of pure relief. “I’m going to get to take a bath tonight. I don’t even know how many days it’s been since I was clean.” We had ourselves a good hug over that tiny milestone of recovery.

I finally told her my name and wrote down her phone number. This was the picture a friend sent me to help keep track of Margaret after we all parted ways.

Things were moving so quickly that I didn’t have time to find what I needed to write things down. I asked my friend to take a picture of everything so I’d have a way to find Margaret later.

Scottie and Peter drove me to the motel. I’m glad they got out of the truck and went with me to handle the transaction because it seemed like the kind of place that might have also offered hourly rates. I felt guilty for putting them up in a place like that, but with so many people unable to stay in their own homes, the standard of acceptable accommodations had been reduced to simply having a bed that was dry.

On the way back, Scottie had to drive around a dead German Shepherd lying in the middle of the road.

“I can’t believe somebody hasn’t taken care of that yet.”

When we returned to give Margaret her key, she and Charmaine were in the company of a freshly bathed Pooch Pooch, no longer sporting his hair helmet. Another vigilante volunteer who stopped by just happened to cut hair professionally. He took it upon himself to knock out that need for Margaret.

Ms. Charmaine Watson & Pooch Pooch
The barber, who came to Kashmere Gardens along with a friend, just to knock on doors and see how he could help.
Ms. Margaret and Pooch Pooch, sans mullet helmet. Turns out, she’d had his hair styled in a mohawk before the flood.

Once plans were in place to get the family settled for the night, Margaret and I hugged our goodbyes. Charmaine promised to check in on her, along with the owners of the other houses helped by Jess’s crew. I felt deep appreciation and gratitude for her willingness to continue looking after the needs of the people whose homes we’d ripped apart.

I left unsure if I’d see or hear from Margaret again, but I knew she was good for the night, which I guess had become my overall objective for the day.

This was the only room in Margaret’s house that Jess’s crew was able to muck on Labor Day. The rest of her house remains to be mucked, while mold continues to grow.

The majority of Jess’s crew made plans to meet at a local bar after finishing up whatever missions they’d found themselves in that day.

Scottie dropped Peter and me off at the bar, but couldn’t join us because he and his wife had plans to go get pedicures. I felt a sort of mild disconnection when we exchanged gratitude loops and parted ways. Besides a brief chat during a water break on the back of his truck and some laughs we shared on the ride over, I didn’t know the guy.

“We were part of a team that was doing taxing work in a sustained, intense environment. That’s a connection. I also trusted him to be sure I wasn’t left in an unfamiliar neighborhood even though I didn’t really know him and he followed through. Definitely a mini-connection. Yep. Makes sense.”

I took a seat at the bar. When the bartender asked what I’d like to drink, I totally drew a blank. I apologized for being such a weirdo and explained I’d just spent the day mucking and was a little out of sorts for some reason. She said, “I’ve had lot of people come in saying the same thing this week.”

After she grabbed me a beer, she left to take care of something in the kitchen. For a moment, I was the only person in the room. I felt strange.

I let out a huge sigh that expelled a notable amount of tension and anxiety along with it. I distinctly remember how weird it felt to suddenly become aware of my own needs again. I never even knew I was ignoring them in the first place. It was like all the warning lights simultaneously popped up on my dashboard of personal needs. I was incredibly hungry and excessively thirsty. I high-tailed it to the ladies’ room. I ordered some food, grabbed my beer, and made my way outside.

Within a short time, most of the day’s crew had reassembled for what I would eventually realize was our final project for the day: decompressing. This time, we weren’t huddled around a muck pile infused with needles and spiders, or hesitating together at the end of a driveway leading directly into chaotic uncertainty.

Instead, we were gathered on a breezy patio, at one of a series of long, wooden tables, arranged neatly within a perimeter lined by living plants that shielded us from physical evidence of the disorder that Harvey left for us to clean up. I remember appreciating that the bottoms of the table were turquoise, my favorite color. It was nice to see color after spending the day in a world of nothing but brown.

That patio was the perfect place to share and compare our individual experiences; to see if we could find some answers to the countless questions we accumulated, but never had time to ask. Most importantly, it was the perfect place for us to begin to process the feelings that come after being exposed to a world of people suffering in a dire situation.

That process is different for everyone. For most, it includes a decent amount of alcohol, which serves as a way to accelerate the act of distancing oneself from the hardship to which you were just exposed. It’s painful and consuming.

No one ran home to take a quick shower. All of us were still in our mucking gear; things we’d normally never wear out in public. Oddly, the mess we had on proved to be a sort of badge of honor. While everyone around us was freshly bathed and dressed like any civilized person would be when going out for the evening, they also knew what we’d been doing.

In a normal world, showing up in public in such a state would be met with curious glances, if not blatant frowns of disapproval. But in the bizarre new normal of Houston, we instead received nods of appreciation. It felt good. After a day like that, we all genuinely needed a little help to feel good again.

We showed up filthy and disgusting, because the need to remove the heaviness we were feeling was a much higher priority than getting physically clean.

Hence, my earlier advice about minimal drinking on a multi-day mucking mission: Take it easy on the first night if you can, because on the second night, you’re likely to drink far more than you normally would.

That heaviness makes its way out in some peculiar ways as well.

At some point, in the middle of catching up on the introductions many of us never found time to get to earlier, Jess busted out in a fit of laughter. “I just can’t quit thinking about that stupid dead dog. The smell was so horrible.” He buried his head in his hands and laughed harder.

Some of us laughed with him. Others just shook their heads. But we all instinctively understood what was happening. I think he cracked up 4 or 5 times over the course of a few hours. One of those times, I joined in the laughter and then found myself crying with my head hidden behind someone’s back for a moment. None of it was even slightly weird or uncomfortable.

We were raw and we felt defeated.

I was glad to be working through my emotions in an environment that felt peaceful and orderly. I knew who was in charge there. General societal protocols were in place and we knew our boundaries. It felt safe and I felt relieved.

But with that relief came an even stronger sense of guilt.

“It’s not fair that I get to feel relieved when Margaret and her family don’t know where they’re going to sleep two nights from now.”

Not a word was needed to know that every person at that table was distracted by their own variation of the same sentiment. It was tangible.

The reality is, once you’ve spent time working in an area like Kashmere Gardens, the magnitude of the situation is almost too much to bear.

“All of this effort barely even scratched the surface.”

For every one home lucky enough to find themselves with a volunteer crew hard at work, there are another 10 surrounding it that are getting zero help.

So many of these unfortunate homes are occupied by elderly or disabled people that cannot help themselves. The people around them are doing everything they can to take care of each other, just like everywhere else, but their home team has too many people that are forced to sit on the sidelines and wait until someone else can manage a way to lend them a hand.

The 12 of us came together and joined the heaviness of what was happening in the lives of these people and busted our asses to make it better in any way we possibly could for an entire day. It was grueling in so many senses of the word, but we kept putting in as much effort as we possibly could and didn’t stop until our bodies and emotions literally forced us to.

“It’s still just not nearly enough.”

It would have taken Margaret and her husband several weeks to accomplish what our crew did for them on Monday. And we weren’t able to gut even half of it in that time.

That is the core of why I’ve put my own life on hold and spent the last five days writing this story.

After contributing that depth of heart, all the while witnessing the indescribable amount of work around you that needs to be done, it’s impossible to let it go.

What we did that day wasn’t some charity ball-style philanthropic effort to raise money for nameless people motivated by rewards of bragging rights and feeling good about ourselves. In fact, every one of us consistently had the same reactions in our countless gratitude loops. We didn’t want praise because we felt guilty about all of the pending needs we just couldn’t address. Still, each of us were deeply compelled to express our appreciation because of how thankful were to have someone else, anyone else, there, working beside us.

We were all there because we desperately wanted to help fellow human beings pick up the pieces of their broken lives and put them back together.

The fact is this: This. Is. A Herculean Effort.

The Press is shifting its attention towards Irma and myriad other current events. That has to be their priority. But that shift of focus is quickly dulling the urgency to help that the world has been feeling. It’s already becoming easier for some to get distracted by their daily lives; to put that strong desire to help out of their mind all together. We can’t let relatively meaningless “obligations” like barbeques or play dates sit at the top of our own priority lists while there are children still sleeping on wet mattresses in molding apartments. We all have to make a concerted effort to not bury our heads in the sand about this. We cannot assume other people are taking care of it.

I have to do my part to implore you not to forget what is happening here.

It’s going to take infinite, arduous efforts like those of Jess’s crew. And at the end of many of those long days, those earnest contributions are going to feel almost pointless in comparison to amount of work that remains to be done.

The sheer scale of help that is needed in neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens is impossible to portray. And the situation is just as dire, if not worse, in countless small towns outside of Houston that were never mentioned in the news.

The only way we can truly help is to get out there and help without hesitation. The problems we may encounter may seem impossibly daunting and the list will grow longer the closer we get to the people in need. I’ve learned that all one person can truly do is all that a person can do, whatever it is — but it’s something.

And Houston needs a million little somethings right now, just like Kashmere Gardens, just like Margaret. If we all leave our homes today to do one little something — whatever it is, Houston will be that one little bit further on the road to recovery.

So that is the point: If you want to help, go do something. Whatever you can do. All you have to do is walk down one of Houston’s flood ravaged streets, and something will find you that desperately needs you, and you will find your way to help.

In the words of Jenkins, “Just get here and go do stuff.”

To prove just how much every little bit helps, I’d like to wrap this up with a few brief, amazing follow-ups to what members of Jess’s crew have gone on to do since we spent Labor Day together mucking in Kashmere Gardens.

Remeber, this all started with Jess’s first “little something” — a simple Facebook post saying that he wanted to start a mucking crew one week ago.

Paul Castro and Katherine Smith, both in leadership at a local charter school, Houston A+ Challenge, decided to mobilize a mucking crew of their own. The day after working with Jess’s crew, the staff at their organization was able to clear out 3 more homes in Kashmere Gardens.

Additionally, they are leveraging Courtney’s story to help educate their teachers about the behavioral impacts of trauma as they prepare to welcome their students back to school.

Paul Castro and Katherine Smith formed a crew of their own and were able to muck three more houses in Kashmere Gardens the day after we worked together on Jess’s crew.

Alamandra Ramirez and Kelci Magel, the girls who flew in from Los Angeles, took on the mission of making sure Pooch Pooch was out of harm’s way. When they returned to Margaret’s house to see what they could do for him, they discovered that he was still in the house. Margaret left him there because the motel wouldn’t accept dogs. In the chaos of the day, Margaret hadn’t thought to ask anyone if mold was equally toxic to dogs. She is extremely grateful that Alamandra & Kelci came back and helped her get him out of their moldy house and in the care of a friend that will keep him until his family is placed in permanent housing.

Pooch Pooch the Wonder Dog

Caitlin Cecil set up a gofundme page to assist Margaret’s family with vet bills and supplies for Pooch Pooch. She will be helping get him to the vet to get him checked out for injuries during his Harvey adventures and to assist with a few pre-existing health issues.

To contribute, click on the link below.

The day after we mucked her house, I went back and spent the morning with Margaret. I took her to Target and used the remaining donations to get her set up with the things she needed: bras, underwear, socks, shoes, clothing, towels, toiletries, and a bag to keep it in. I got her a necklace with an “M” on it, too. We did a lot of crying together in Target that day as she continuously thanked me and told me that she hasn’t had the privilege of picking something new out for herself since she can remember.

While shopping, she kept stopping to put her hand over her heart and say, “I really feel like a somebody. I matter to somebody.”

Jess met us at Target and, together, we took Margaret to the shelter at NRG. There, she was set up in an open house that’s well furnished in a beautiful neighborhood. She’ll be there until September 25, while she waits for FEMA to get to her into a long line of people that still need assistance finding long-term housing. I have no idea what happens next with her home or when she’ll be able to move back yet. But, as soon as she gets home, she insists on having Jess and me over for her famous spaghetti. I can’t wait for that day.

We’ve been in contact every day. She sends me messages to celebrate the little steps of progress she’s making and the things she’s doing to help other people because she’s, “been blessed with so much kindness and support that just has to be shared.” She calls me her “she-ro” and we say, “I love you” when we get off the phone.

Margaret is excited that I’m sharing our story and hopes that it will get others to come help the countless people in need as Houston, and its surrounding areas, begin the long road to recovery because, in her words,

“Tomorrow, it’s not over for us. This thing is just beginning. We need all the help we can get.”

I will be continuing to help Margaret and her family with ongoing needs as they arise. If you’d like to contribute, you can send contributions on Venmo to @Jennifer-Galek.

Margaret Ratcliff, in her temporary home, thrilled to be wearing the new clothes I was able to buy for her using the donations raised on Facebook. This is a screenshot of one of the videos she sent me in which she’s singing, “I feel so GOOOOOOOOOOD!” I have included a compilation of her videos at the end of this story.

Jess Arnold and Charmaine Watson will be teaming up again on Saturday to help out yet again in Kashmere Gardens. Here’s what Jess has to say:

“Kashmere Gardens isn’t the only less-affluent neighborhood in our awesome city that is struggling to clean themselves out of the muck. But it is the neighborhood that I’ve adopted — that I am committed to help. And I hope, when I get out there this Saturday with a crowbar, hammer, and mop, I see that army of huge-hearted Houstonians already out there, lining up to help some of those who truly may need it most.”

Jess’s current Facebook profile pic.

This is how it happens. One step at a time.

Steps made by ordinary people like you and me.

The little things you can contribute will set off a chain-reaction of recovery and literally change the lives of the people you’re trying to help.

Please. Just get down there and go do stuff.

Below is a compilation of the videos that Margaret sent after getting settled in temporary housing. (Grab some tissues.)

Jennifer Galek

Written by

Thunderbird MBA. Marketer. Fascinated with human behavior. Geeky about data & process. Passionate about positive impact.

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