Family flooded twice still finds time to volunteer in spirit of the season
Kendrell Johnson suffered through the devastating flooding of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and, like many others, she eventually made her way to Houston to start fresh with her five children.
But Hurricane Harvey “was like Katrina all over again,” she said, and now they’re making do in water-logged and moldy public housing, waiting to be relocated until their current apartment in the Clayton Homes public housing development is demolished because of flood damage.
So it was a temporary respite to take her five children to volunteer and participate with nearly 1,000 others at Sunday’s holiday gift and food celebration put on by the nonprofit Kids Lives Matter community service group with an assist from The Steve Francis Foundation and the former Houston Rockets star himself.
“It brings a joy to our faces to be here and help with all these kids,” Johnson said. “It’s inspirational for all of us.”
It helps make the season feel more like the holidays, she said, while they await new public housing. They’re not OK, she said, but they have to act as if they’re doing OK to make it through this.
Houston educators Catherine Smith and Madelyn Traylor co-founded Kids Lives Matter early this year to help serve children, especially in the Third Ward, Fifth Ward and downtown regions, with an emphasis on ensuring children have hot meals and warm mattresses. They spun Kids Lives Matter out of their existing Power4Life faith-based ministry group.
Sunday’s holiday gift event was held at the Third Ward’s Cuney Homes housing development near Texas Southern University, and families were bussed in from throughout the region so they could participate.
The event served gifts, grocery bags, personal care packages and, of course, big meals complete with fried chicken , green beans, dirty rice and potato salad. They had live music, bounce houses, face painting, video games and sports for the kids.
“We’re letting them know situations can change with education and stick-to-itiveness,” Smith said. “When you have a kid coming to school with malnutrition who hasn’t slept well, you have a kid who’s not prepared for the day. We’re trying to fill that gap.”
Jessica Lusekelo, a senior at Wisdom High School and president of the school’s National Honor Society, was among a group of Wisdom students who volunteered Sunday, packing candy for kids and filling up grocery bags for parents.
“This is life-changing for all of us,” Lusekelo said, noting that it’s easy to overlook how many people in Houston are in need. “We’re just very grateful for everything and to be here to help.”
Steve Francis, the former Rockets all-star who’s made Houston his home, arrived to hand gifts to children and sign autographs. Francis grew up in a low-income environment in Washington, D.C. and his mother died when he was still a teenager. She instilled in him the importance of community and education, he said.
So many people are needy during the holidays, and it’s important to help and be present, not just give presents. “A lot of times it’s not just about money, it’s about the camaraderie,” he said.
“It’s important to be here for the kids where they’re able to have fun and do whatever they want, and not worry if the police are going to come by or if they’re going to eat today,” Francis said.
And, for Francis, it’s about moving on after a difficult holiday season last year when he was arrested twice - for a DWI in Houston and a car break-in in Florida. He’s settled both matters legally and moved on.
“To me, last year at this point nobody cared about Steve,” he said. They only saw the athlete who they could get two minutes of fame from, he added.
Sunday’s event was for him to get back to his roots and help young people like he was at their ages.
“I just love this,” he said. “It helps me keep my feet planted and not bigheaded.”