Passing the Torch in Houston

Laura Lark

Tonight, eight Clay Hunt Fellows of Cohort 6, all military veterans who came from across the country and have spent the past year helping rebuild Houston after Harvey, will graduate after their year of service. The Karbach Brewery biergarten is the perfect setting. It’s a colorful spot situated in the middle of a gray industrial area, and the place is just starting to teem with life. Construction chic: that was the dress code memo.  A few of the graduates are in their CHFP tee-shirts, jeans and work boots. As a joke, Tomas De Oliveira of Cohort 19-1 (H) and a couple of other men don gray, translucent, plastic cut-off jumpsuits cinched at the waist over own shorts and tees.

Clay Hunt’s parents are in attendance, and as the graduates take turns climbing atop a wooden barrel and telling their stories, I find it difficult not to feel moved by their unbelievable, as graduate Courtney Collum puts it, tenacity and grit.

Jesse Gutierrez, looking down from her barrel-perch, speaks to the crowd (specifically to her mother and brothers, seated at the picnic table directly below) about the past year and its profound effect upon her. Unlike most of the cohorts, Gutierrez is a Houston native and has a tough, tomboyish manner: always joking and smoking and wearing a men’s striped necktie over her gray t-shirt. Each of the fellows express nothing but gratitude; despite Jesse’s hard-as-nails demeanor, it’s particularly poignant to watch her choke back her emotions when talking about her time in the CHFP.

Jose Avila tells us that he was living in his car before he became a part of the program, and now that his time is through in Houston, he will go on to help those still affected by the earthquake in Oaxaca, his home state. The Clay Hunt Fellows Program, he says, took a man with no prospects and turned him into someone who not only derived meaning in helping others here, but looks forward to helping out more where he is needed.

Michael Davidson gives each of the eight graduates a hug, a new TR hat, and a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull; their journeys are complete; their journeys are just beginning.

Each of the fellows in Cohort 19-H that I’ve managed to meet so far are calling Houston home in his or her own unique way. Sam Shreier is living in a high rise in downtown Houston and is loving the light rail, something his home of Louisville sorely lacks.  

Cindy Robinson, whom I’d warmed to from my first day, is another one of the executive fellows; she’s sharing a house with Ginger Lawrence, a fellow CHFP Cohort 19-1 (H) member because they have several pets between them.

It’s getting dark and I take my leave, but the party at Karbach brewery is just getting started. The parking lot, deserted when I arrived, amongst the rows of industrial spaces, is now very well lit, very well patrolled, and very packed. Somehow, it’s a typical Houston scene: a surprise oasis of light and vibrance in the middle of what seems like a sprawling, post-apocalyptic war zone. It’s a rather perverse kind of charm. We residents have come to accept it, and I love the fact that every fellow I’ve talked to so far has embraced the place in a similar manner. I look forward to the coming year, and to seeing the inevitable transformations that the fellows in Cohort 19-1(H) will go through.

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