The lives J.J. Watt's Hurricane Harvey fundraiser helped save
The water was rising. Up, out of Halls Bayou, through the dark of night, plotting its ambush on Kenneth Carter’s northeast Houston home.
It was around 11 o’clock on Aug. 26, 2017, a date superimposed over any present-day portrait of America’s fourth-largest city. Rain hammered roofs. Television sets nodded off. Before Carter could join his, and the rest of his tranquil neighborhood, for a fulfilling Saturday night of sleep, he reached for his flashlight and aimed for his backyard. That’s when he saw it. The paint bucket. Floating. Suddenly, like millions of objects and people throughout southeast Texas, at the mercy of the sky.
Fourteen months after the heaviest rainstorm in U.S. history sprung into its most devastating gear, Carter still remembers the panic. Still remembers his evacuation mission, trudging through knee-deep water, knocking on doors, assisting elders and vehicles up to the top of the street. Still remembers tying a 150-foot rope to his flat-bottom boat, letting the current carry him to Mr. Baxter’s second-floor window, salvaging the man’s essential medicine. Only after he was hauled back to safety did the wait begin. Under a red awning, then in his car, surveying the scene. Houston, right before his eyes, was drowning.
And 250 miles away, J.J. Watt watched on, helpless.
He watched, initially, as rainfall projections multiplied. As flash flood watches became flash flood warnings, then emergencies. As water crept under tens of thousands of doors, seeped into wooden floors, and soaked carpets.
He watched, still from afar, as the atmospheric animal now known as Hurricane Harvey ripped his adopted city apart. As it destroyed the tangible — houses, businesses, schools, furniture, belongings. As it gutted the intangible — jobs, communities, routines, friendships, comfort. Ceilings caved. Daycares closed. Families lay on damp mattresses, huddled into the only inhabitable corners of their ravaged homes. Children wept, distressed and confused.
Watt, in between Houston Texans meetings and preseason practices, watched as water — murky, toxic, brown liquid — rushed through the sprawling streets. He watched it turn humans into soulless shoulders and heads; cloak freeways; rock rescue boats and disable buses; take lives. Up above, helicopters roared. Ropes dangled. Stricken citizens grasped them with the last of their sapped strength.
And still he watched, stuck in Frisco, as the impossibility of recovery dawned. Churches and convention centers, moonlighting as shelters, overflowed with victims. Convenience store shelves had been emptied. Millions of meals had been spoiled. Disease festered. Debris proliferated. Houses would soon be reduced to 2x4s and cement.
Watt saw a city frighteningly bereft, materially and emotionally. And all he could do was point a camera at his face and talk.
He began with $100,000 of his own money. Nineteen days later, he had raised over $37 million. Houstonians were amazed. Appreciative. Inspired.
And then skeptical. September bled into October. Watt, with respect to the millions, had gone mostly silent. Victims sought aid, but drew blanks trying to apply. Facebook posts and Instagram replies wondered: Where had the money gone? Watt had promised it “to the people.” The people hadn’t yet seen it. So they grumbled, and even speculated: Had Watt’s supposed heroism merely been a reputation-bolstering ruse?
That is, until it changed — and in some cases saved — their lives.
Four months of post-Harvey heartache had led Linda Villanueva — one of more than a dozen Harvey survivors who spoke with Yahoo Sports this fall — to the first-floor computer room of a Comfort Suites. There, in December, she sat, in figurative darkness. The elevator up to her FEMA-funded hotel room terrified her. Her son and daughter-in-law, with whom she was living, infuriated her. Her life was devoid of joy. As she admits now: “I felt no desire to live.”
Her life prior to the summer of 2017 had featured enough gut-wrenching twists to fill a novel. As a child, she and six siblings witnessed domestic violence. They were left with a single mother and dangerously copious freedom. Alcohol and “the wrong crowd” entered her life.
In 2000, there was the crippling car accident. The debilitating back injury. The subsequent physical limitations that forced her to leave her job. The aches still persist today. So does her fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. And the irritable bowel syndrome that worsens with worry.
The physical disabilities led her to apply for social security, a process that sent her to various doctors, including a psychiatrist, where a standard questionnaire asked whether she’d ever been happy. It was a question she had never even pondered, let alone confronted. The answer — “no” — provoked a startling realization.
A trip to a low-income clinic and a therapy session helped. But Villanueva couldn’t afford regular visits, nor medication to treat her depression. In 2016, it worsened as her sister, Phyllis, battled cancer. The disease gnawed at Phyllis’ body, eventually making even the most affectionate hugs and kisses painful. It took her life in June of 2017.
[Slideshow: The faces of J.J. Watt’s relief effort]
“I was overwhelmed with so much hopelessness,” Linda says of the days after her sister’s death. “No desire to keep going. No desire to wake up. Angry that I woke up. That I had to continue to live.
“And then,” she later says, her voice splintering into an emotional whisper, “the storm hit.”
It separated her from her grandchildren, and from a home rendered unlivable. Three generations of family members scrambled, first to a sketchy Super 8 motel, then to the Comfort Suites. But the cramped quarters, the clashing lifestyles and parenting philosophies … Villanueva’s already overwhelming situation reached a tipping point. She admitted herself to a hospital. She was suicidal.
A week in the psychiatric ward did wonders. The subsequent solution was her own apartment. But that meant rent, which meant money — money she therefore didn’t have for food. Even before Harvey, weekly grocery hauls from a local ministry pantry had kept the family afloat. Now, Villanueva needed them more than ever. But so did the hundreds who lined up for a canned meal, a piece of fruit, a glimmer of hope. To satisfy so much hunger, the ministry needed support.
And J.J. Watt offered it.
His $7.5 million donation to the non-profit organization Feeding America benefitted four Texas food banks, which distributed meals and supplied local pantries. One of the many was the Hearts and Hands of Baytown. It “full-on fed” Linda Villanueva during the most trying months of a trying life. It even employed her part-time while she fought the “vicious cycle” of compounding mental and physical pain. And in October, with her health improving by the day, she landed an assistant manager position at Burger King. It’s her first full-time job since 2011.
Over in Groves, a small town 90 miles east of Houston, Stacy Fitzgerald’s clean-up operation began with a towel. But with the downpour ongoing, no towel, she soon realized, could quell Harvey’s weekend rage, nor make the roof at Kids Harbor Learning Center impermeable.
Fitzgerald has operated the daycare for 16 years, originally as a 450-square foot hub for the children of employees at her salon across the street. By 2017, it had grown into a multi-campus community rock. But as Harvey rolled ashore, it was crumbling. And so were the lives of many of its 200-some students.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, was powerless; safe, but trapped in her nearby home until the rain abated. When it did, she arrived back at her two main buildings in shock. “Sickening” is her word for the scene. Floors had buckled. Ceiling tiles had fallen. Water was trickling in from above, down the walls. Mats in a beloved two-story indoor play area were saturated, ruined. Books, curricula — everything that the kids took comfort in, precisely when they needed comfort most — damaged beyond repair.
In the aftermath of catastrophic storms, early education becomes critically important. Preschoolers, unable to comprehend why their routines have been torn to shreds, require refuge. Without it, in Harvey’s wake, parents like Jennifer Taylor contemplated leaving children with in-laws in Arkansas, or grandparents in Florida. Single mothers of four, like Britny Arnett, wondered how they’d maintain jobs — and the income necessary to reconstruct their family’s life.
Fitzgerald, though, was prepared. Prepared with sheetrock to cater repairs. Prepared to spend beyond her means. And prepared to work 24/7.
She and around 25 colleagues spent days and nights at her original campus, mopping and disposing and fixing, working up to 44 hours without sleep. Out of sheer compassion and benevolence, they paused the renovation to cook hundreds of meals for a nearby shelter and nursing home, where elders were trapped on upper floors. Then the Kids Harbor staff turned their attention to one another — restoring homes and fulfilling desperate needs.
All the while, with daycares shuttering or reeling all around them, they prepared for a Monday re-opening, nine days after the storm struck. They accepted area children enrolled elsewhere with open arms. They drove to Lake Charles, Louisiana, via a back route, to procure food. Fitzgerald waived tuition fees, for weeks or even months, aware of the relief free childcare would bring.
The repair costs would eventually exceed $500,000. To meet them, Fitzgerald took out a six-figure personal loan. Her balance sheets had been upended, her financial well-being — and the last pillar of normalcy in hundreds of kids’ lives — imperiled.
But on a momentous late October day, millions of dollars arrived in Save The Children’s bank account. It was the largest single donation the non-profit organization had received in Harvey’s aftermath. The source? Watt. The purpose? To rebuild childcare programs. Months later, Save The Children swooped in to foot Kids Harbor’s swelling bill. To reward Fitzgerald’s remarkable leap of faith.
In a sense, her heroism had already saved children, irrespective of eventual reimbursement. But the money’s essence wasn’t exclusively financial. “People like J.J. Watt and Save The Children,” Fitzgerald says, “empower us to want to do more.” To pay it forward, as they did by sending 50-gallon totes full of supplies to North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, accompanied by touching handwritten notes from kids.
“I don’t know what made J.J. Watt do what he did,” Fitzgerald says. “And I will never be a J.J. Watt. But he makes me want to help people. … He has been a tremendous blessing.”
DeWayne Bergen was sideways, trapped in the cab of his truck on the interstate in Arkansas. On a previously mundane mid-October day, a multi-car collision in front of him had sent Bergen’s heart jumping and his flatbed rolling. Emergency vehicles sped to the scene and eventually transported the 47-year-old to a nearby hospital. With the trauma unfolding, he had suffered what felt like a minor heart attack. And in an instant, the final upright stanchion of a fraught life collapsed.
Bergen had spent six years piecing that life back together. Alcoholism, which runs in the family, had derailed it. He’d been through two divorces; been arrested; been to jail. His mother’s death in 2009 sent him spiraling, putting down a half-gallon of whiskey every day. “And I was a mean drunk,” he admits.
But he summoned the strength to overcome the affliction, and by August 2017, he was working on six years sober. He lived a steady life, out of a 33-foot trailer, with a 1993 Chevy 1500 and a truck-driving job.
Two months later, it was all gone.
Harvey had swallowed up the trailer and pickup. With them went his medication for diabetes and high blood pressure. After the heart attack — technically termed angina — Bergen failed his physical, lost his Commercial Driver’s License, and therefore his employment, too. Money dried up. Food was elusive. Shelter was non-existent. A park bench outside of Freeport beckoned.
Bergen spent days there, with a thin cover and cheap pillow, the late-autumn wind nipping at his insufficiently protected skin. Spare dollars paid for bus rides to a shelter with means to feed him, but without space to house him. Days became weeks. As they did, his blood sugar crept up, past 200. Past 300. Past 400, the numerical equivalent of an ambulance siren. His gout-inflamed body was deteriorating. His homelessness and joblessness preempted any hope of procuring prescriptions to treat it.
But as Bergen struggled, Watt schemed. He directed a healthy chunk of the eventual $41.6 million to Americares, and earmarked it to support medical clinics throughout southeast Texas. One, offering affordable care, popped up next to the homeless shelter every Wednesday. When a Salvation Army truck scooped up Bergen in mid-December, the clinic received him. His vitals — blood sugar in the 540 range, blood pressure roughly 200/160 — brought a doctor rushing to his aid. The first thought was an emergency room. Instead, the clinic replenished the medication that Harvey had looted. It cared for him weekly, and checked in via phone in the interim.
Gradually, his health stabilized. In February, he passed his physical. In March, he resumed work. In June, he found a job in New Mexico that tripled his wage. He’s now supporting his adult children, attending their weddings, and in December will move to Tennessee to join them.
Oh, and he’s grateful. For Watt, and for the many others who helped along the way. For Americares. For the Stephen F. Austin mobile clinic, and the man named Max who administered it.
“It wasn’t just one organization,” Bergen says. “It was Texas sticking together. I know J.J.’s not even a true Texan. But he lives as a Texan. So in my book, he’s a genuine Texan.”
That, perhaps, is the moral of this tragic yet uplifting story. It is about Watt, yes, but more so the anonymous generosity. The everyday Wisconsinites and Pennsylvanians and Californians who donated $5, $50, $500. The allowance-givers and 6-year-old lemonade stand operators who heard Watt’s plea and heeded it. As Watt said in several of his impulsive, low-tech videos during the fundraiser: “The most difficult times seem to bring out the best in humanity.”
“I’m fortunate to have been a voice for this,” he said in August. “But I think I speak for all of Houston when I say thank you to the whole world for supporting and backing us during such a difficult time.”
To be sure, he was more than just a voice. With the fundraiser churning last September, he became a city’s guardian. Human lives, in a way, were in his hands. It was, as he now says, a “tremendous amount of responsibility.”
Which is why he and his team researched and researched, for hours on end. He invited experts to his Houston home, phoned non-profit CEOs, stressed accountability and agonized over details. Watt, one of those CEOs recalls, wanted his money “to touch people” — to reach victims directly. Because he wanted its impact to be comprehensive.
Comprehensiveness, of course, was impossible. Through 12 months, according to an August 2018 news release, Watt’s fund had touched 600 homes, 420 scholastic programs, 16,000 children, and over 10,000 needy patients. It has fed millions. And it is still stimulating regrowth. Yet thousands remain disadvantaged — displaced, hungry, disturbed. An August survey reported that 30 percent of lives in Harvey-affected counties were still at least “somewhat” disrupted by the storm.
Relief organizations, therefore, still yearn for donations small and large. SBP, a disaster recovery organization started in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, will soon have rebuilt 100 homes destroyed by Harvey. Kenneth Carter’s was one of them. Four-and-a-half feet of rancid water and resultant mold had gobbled it up. For over five months, he lived in a bare-bones white trailer. SBP volunteers eventually returned him to normalcy. Yet when he looked around, he saw others in worse shape — or absent.
Watt still sees the same voids, too.
But the money, despite initial skepticism, did what it could. Watt, throughout the past year, has kept tabs on it, visiting pantries and daycares, and surprising the owners of SBP-renovated homes. These days, he operates in private, declining all Harvey-related media requests, opting to focus on football and a Texans team that has won six straight.
These are the lives that WE helped save. It never was and never should be just me. So many incredible people from all over the world helped make that possible. Forever thankful. https://t.co/w06RsLt2yQ
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) November 8, 2018
But he still occasionally connects with the lives he changed and saved; holds ribbons, doles out hugs, hands over keys; says “welcome home.”
Those who meet him are often star-struck. Those who haven’t are nonetheless appreciative. His compassion turned football agnostics into Texans diehards; non-watchers into No. 99 jersey-wearing fanatics. And from Carter, Watt’s effort even won an endorsement.
“Look,” the 54-year-old says, reflecting on what Watt has done for Houston, “he can be the mayor of this city any day of the week, as far as I’m concerned.”
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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.