Creating a Refuge with Stories

Remembering Hurricane Harvey

I originally came back to Houston the weekend Hurricane Harvey hit because of a Coldplay concert. I was planning to surprise my partner with the tickets, but the concert was soon cancelled when the storm began to bear down on the city. I was staying at my partner’s apartment near the Museum District, but I saw my parents at their home in Richmond, Texas the day before the water destroyed their first floor. After the storm hit, the roads were impassable so I couldn’t get back to Richmond to help my family deal with the flooding. I felt pretty helpless.

In the meantime, WITS (Writers in the Schools) sent out an email request to see if any of the writers on staff were able to volunteer at the George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center. It was incredible to see how many people signed up so quickly.

We had bit of an informal training before we were allowed to volunteer. Paramedics talked us through how to identify children with certain symptoms who needed to be examined. We were told where to bring a child who needed medical attention and/or a professional to talk to. Then we were stationed in the Kids Zone and organized books into different age groups, encouraging people to take any books they wanted.

Though the activities were simple, they did their job because they allowed a kid to be a kid again, even if just for a little while.

I spent a great deal of time with one child who just really needed a friend. We read books together, and we did some art and writing projects. We took turns drawing sections of a very large monster. When we finished creating the monster, we created a comic strip with panels depicting what the monster was doing. Then we wrote stories based on our drawings of the monster. Though the activities were simple, they did their job because they allowed a kid to be a kid again, even if just for a little while.

When I arrived at GRB, I was overwhelmed. At first, I looked around and felt as if my service wasn’t needed, but that changed when I started passing out comic books. Our books were popular among the kids, bringing people who didn’t even know each other together. And ultimately, our goal was simple: we wanted to offer a life-affirming distraction from the disaster. Houston, after the storm, was a bewildering and difficult place for many. The magic of stories is that they can provide a welcome escape to other worlds. This was what we provided to those whose world was torn apart by Harvey.

Photo (top): WITS volunteers Joshua Nguyen, Robin Reagler, Emanuelee Bean, and Reyes Ramirez with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Photo courtesy of WITS.

Joshua Nguyen is a Kundiman Fellow, collegiate national poetry champion, and a native Houstonian. He has been published in The Offing, The Acentos Review, Freezeray Poetry, Button Poetry, The Texas Review, and Birds Thumb. In 2015, he was part of the Word Around Town Poetry Tour (WAT) in Houston, Texas. He is currently an MFA candidate at The University of Mississippi. He is a tapioca connoisseur and plays an aggressive-tight strategy in poker.