Calipari, Vanderbilt, Harrisons see Houston in ‘recovery mode’

HOUSTON – Jarred Vanderbilt got off the plane in his hometown of Houston and stretched his 6-foot-9 frame before looking around.  Pride beamed across his face as bright as the sun shining overhead.

The city was in need of a little bit of both.

On Sunday, Sept. 10, Vanderbilt flew back to his hometown of Houston to visit for the first time since Hurricane Harvey. Harvey hit Houston as a Category 4 hurricane, the first major hurricane classified as Category 3 or higher, since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It flooded Houston with a year’s worth of rain in less than one week’s time.

Coach Cal, associate head coach Kenny Payne, freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt and former Wildcat guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison toured the American Red Cross facilities and an American Red Cross shelter in Houston on Sept. 10. (photo by Metz Camfield)

Now, close to two weeks later, beautiful sunny skies were overhead and the flood waters had receded. Houstonians everywhere were beginning to get back on their feet, and Vanderbilt, his college head coach, John Calipari, and two former Kentucky guards and Houston natives Aaron and Andrew Harrison, were in town to provide whatever help and escape they could.

“It feels great to come back to the city I was raised in,” Vanderbilt said. “Just to see the sun back shining in my city is a great feeling.”

Just one week earlier, the men’s basketball team, including Calipari and Vanderbilt, put on the “Teaming up for Texas” telethon at WKYT studios in Lexington and raised $1 million (with matching funds) to go to the American Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

Now, Coach Cal wanted to fly down to Houston to touch those affected by the storm and show everyone who donated where their money was going.

“Just let me tell you, what you’re doing here is such great work,” Calipari told American Red Cross volunteers at their Houston headquarters. “Many of us are trying to get you the resources that you need, but to do it day-to-day, that’s truly servant leaders. It’s one thing for us to have a telethon for one day, raise money, bring it down, here you go.

“The reason – we’re from Kentucky, it’s not a wealthy state, and in three hours there were a lot of people that gave a lot of money and I just felt, let’s go down and see what it’s all about. Let’s go to a shelter, let’s go to the headquarters and let’s just check it out so our people back in Kentucky know what they gave money to.”

Prior to heading down to Houston, Kentucky packed more than 600 T-shirts to distribute to those in need. Calipari wanted Vanderbilt to have the opportunity to come back to Houston and he also called the Harrison twins, who helped lead UK to back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015, to see if they could join them on the trip.

“It’s pretty cool,” Andrew Harrison said of his college coach helping out his hometown. “We know he cares about communities. It was a huge disaster. So, anything that anyone can do to help, we as a city of Houston, just greatly appreciate.”

Coach Cal, Jarred Vanderbilt and Andrew Harrison check out one of the American Red Cross’ emergency response vehicles. The American Red Cross deployed 190 ERVs across the state following Hurricane Harvey. (photo by Metz Camfield)

Marian Harrison, Aaron and Andrew’s mother, has already been hard at work in the days following Hurricane Harvey to help her sister out after the first floor of her house was flooded.

“It was great to help, but it’s just really sad to see,” Marian said. “She’s had some teary days. We just drive through the neighborhood and all the furniture and debris is sitting on the street, everybody’s ripped up sheetrock, furniture and all that.”

Calipari, Vanderbilt and the Harrisons toured the facilities at the “command center,” including an emergency response vehicle, which are most often used for mass feeding. The Red Cross sent out 190 ERVs across Texas after Harvey.

According to the American Red Cross, more than 7,500 people sought refuge in 31 Red Cross and partner shelters throughout the state, and as of Sept. 10 there had been more than 342,400 overnight shelter stays.

Later in the afternoon, Coach Cal, Vanderbilt and the Harrisons visited Copperfield Church. The church housed displaced people for a short period of time before reaching out to the American Red Cross for assistance. Now, the shelter has cots provided, volunteers who have gone through training and know how to organize everything, and a restaurant providing food for 30 days.

Copperfield Church can hold 200 displaced people, but the American Red Cross said it doesn’t like to keep shelters at capacity if at all possible in case smaller shelters have to close down and people need a place to go.

“It’s such honorable work, and I imagine you feel good every night you go home,” Calipari said to the volunteers. “Like, you’re exhausted, but you’re helping. We’re just here kind of watching and looking, and trying to take stuff back to Kentucky to say your money was well invested, and we believe that in all the events we’ve done with American Red Cross. It’s about you people.”

And the American Red Cross volunteers, many of whom traveled from all across the country just to help out for a couple weeks to try to get this city’s people back on their feet, appeared energized by the coach and his players’ presence.

Coach Cal spoke to the American Red Cross volunteer workers on Sept. 10, thanking them for all of their tireless work on behalf of others. (photo by Metz Camfield)

“Just to see (Coach Cal) not only showing his generosity for what we’re doing as an organization, but to then hop on a plane, come down here and talk to the volunteers, it’s just overwhelming and it helps to inspire them to do the work they’re doing,” said Greg Waite, an American Red Cross division director. “You heard him say, people working 12-, 15-, 18-hour days, they’re constantly tired, so I think it’s going to help rejuvenate them and give them a little more oomph to go out there and deliver our mission that much more.”

Walking around the shelter, Vanderbilt and the Harrisons were like rock stars to all the volunteers and displaced people. Each of the three basketball players were constantly taking pictures with the people and signing t-shirts or whatever other items they were asked to.

And to see the strong spirits remain of those who had been displaced was a powerful message to everyone involved. One young woman was without a home after moving to Texas just a few short months prior to Harvey hitting. And yet, her energy and faith did not waiver.

“God works in mysterious ways,” she said. “We’ll be alright.”

While Coach Cal, Vanderbilt and the Harrisons were touring the American Red Cross and one of its shelters, Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida. Still, Calipari saw the importance of this visit knowing that the work to repair the city of Houston and southeast Texas will take years of hard work.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Well, why would you go down now? That other storm (Hurricane Irma) is hitting,’ ” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Because they better not forget about Houston.’ ”

In time, the city and its people will be back on their feet completely. For Calipari, it was a successful trip in that he was able to see that all the money raised at the Teaming up for Texas telethon is being put to good use.

For the Houston natives, Vanderbilt, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, it was good to be back home, lend a helping hand, help put smiles back on people’s faces and see their city beginning to slowly regain pieces of normalcy.

“It feels great just to go outside and see the sun out – no rain, no clouds or anything,” Aaron Harrison said. “You see people out in the streets and on the highways. It’s a good feeling to know that we’re in a recovery mode.”