Sophomore creates legal aid clinics, leads muck-out teams after Harvey
Sophomore True Furrh saw the hundreds of UH students trapped in residence halls during Hurricane Harvey just itching to volunteer, somehow.
He responded by creating a Facebook group, which now boasts 1,500 members, to bring would-be volunteers together. In the process, he hauled crates at the George R. Brown shelter, created legal aid clinics and led student teams to muck out homes all over the city.
More than three weeks after Harvey exited Houston, donation drives and more calls for volunteers are still posted in the group, UH Harvey Relief Carpooling & Volunteering Opportunities, each day.
“We had like six people posting non-stop opportunities, and then everyone else followed what they said,” Furrh said. “So it was very hive-mind: You go here, you go here, you go here.”
Furrh, who studies environmental sciences and civil engineering, said that while he was riding out the storm in Cougar Place, he noticed that many students wanted to volunteer, but they lacked organization.
He wanted to create a way for students to post volunteer opportunities, since any coordinated effort by the University would take time, as it was still closed at the time due to the deluge.
“It’s been really fun watching the other orgs get involved through the page,” Furrh said.
Furrh separated his own volunteering efforts into three phases. First, he volunteered for two days at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
“All I was doing was unloading these 700 pound crates of MREs,” Furrh said. “That was fantastic. The guy that was leading our crew was a marine who was actually off-duty at the time. He was spending his vacation time to come to Houston.”
Furrh’s second phase of volunteering consisted of setting up legal aid clinics at George R. Brown. His parents both work at Lone Star Legal Aid, a firm that provides free civil legal aid to vulnerable and low-income populations. The office in Downtown Houston, which has helped thousands of hurricane victims in other storms, burned down during Harvey.
“I got a phone call that said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get some supplies dropped off for you. Try to open up a clinic at GRB,’ So I did,” Furrh said. “That was intimidating.”
Furrh laid the groundwork for the aid service by setting up the tables and supplies, organizing volunteer lawyers and passing out brochures.
Furrh was standing in line attempting to cut through some bureaucratic red tape when an employee from Baker Botts LLP, an international law firm based in Houston, tapped on his shoulder.
The employee had heard Furrh mention his parents’ law firm and expressed interest in doing pro bono work with Lone Star Legal Aid.
“So I immediately call someone who actually works at Lone Star, say, ‘Hey, are y’all interested in this?’ and they were. It was fantastic,” Furrh said. “We had a partnership with one of the big three law firms in Houston totally out of the blue.”
The third stage of his volunteering, Furrh said, was demolishing houses affected by the storm.
“I have some experience in demo and construction, and I figured people are gonna need this,” Furrh said. “My home was destroyed in Hurricane Ike, so I had experience knowing what it looks like, knowing what you had to do, so I figured, why not do that in Houston?”
Furrh said he’d been a team member before, but he’d never organized a large-scale effort. During Harvey, he organized carpools, gave out assignments and participated in the actual muck-outs.
“It was cool. We volunteered in three distinctly different parts of Houston,” Furrh said. “We hit the Southeast, we hit the Meyerland and Westbury area, and then we’ve been in West Houston lately, as their waters recede.”
Political science senior Diana Smiley has volunteered with Furrh twice since Harvey hit. She said Furrh was responsive to the emotional needs of the people they were helping while staying clear on the things that needed to be done.
“Everybody that we visit is so absurdly grateful for just the little stuff that we have done,”Smiley said.
Nutrition junior Fatema Shipchandler also joined Furrh in some of his volunteering efforts. That day, the volunteers were known as “True’s Crew.”
“Six other students and I piled into True’s minivan on Labor Day morning to head to two clean-up locations,” Shipchandler said in an email. “We first went to a house in East Houston, then took on three houses in North Houston — one being the home of two fellow students from UH.”
Shipchandler said they spent the day removing drywall and insulation, clearing floorboards, sorting out salvageable belongings and throwing out the damaged ones.
“What stood out to me that day was the sheer compassion of people in our community,” Shipchandler said. “Wherever we went, the owners of the houses and even strangers on the road would constantly offer us food and cold water.”
Mucking out a house depends on the amount of people that come along, Furrh said. With a group of three people, they removed all the drywall and insulation in a house in about four hours.
With a 15-person crew, Furrh said they were able to muck out six houses in one day.
“It’s not just the physical work you’re doing. You’re comforting the homeowner,” Furrh said. “I know what it’s like to lose a home, and it sucks. I think a lot of it is emotionally supporting them just by being there. You don’t have to say anything. If they want to talk to you, they’ll initiate the conversation.”