Sampson’s post-Harvey call for national donations exemplified Houston spirit
In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey displaced thousands and took several lives. Among places impacted by the storm, Houston was on the receiving end of one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
As the city surveyed the destruction, UH Men’s Basketball coach Kelvin Sampson was busy devising a campaign to clothe the countless Houstonians separated from their homes and possessions in the aftermath.
“It seemed like the city was underwater,” Sampson said, “I was getting numerous calls from friends and people who cared, they could see how bad it was so they kept asking ‘are you alright?’ But they all ended the conversation with ‘man, is there anything we can do to help?'”
Sampson knew they could, but at that point, did not know how. The vision for the plan became all too clear after Sampson and his family watched a news broadcast that featured a women holding her son as they evacuated on a fishing boat.
“She kept readjusting him so he didn’t dip into the water,” Sampson said, “I was thinking, that Monday would’ve been the first day of school for public schools in Houston.”
Families finished preparing their children for school just in time for Harvey to destroy their hard work. Kids lost clothes and homes, and they had next to nothing left after the storm.
After seeing this, Sampson realized how his friends could help. He knew that at sports programs around the country, all had some amount of extra clothes. Whether they were athletic shorts or shoes, most schools had something that they could contribute.
With this knowledge, Coach Sampson and his children tweeted a challenge to those schools to donate their extras to the struggling Houston families.
“I remember sitting down at my kitchen table writing down what I wanted to tweet,” Coach Sampson said, “I still have that envelope in my house. I’ll keep that forever, probably.”
After Sampson crafted the tweet, with the help of his children Lauren and Kellen, they sent it to just about every basketball program in the United States. They sent it to D1, D2 and D3 schools. They sent it to Men’s and Women’s programs. Every school got the request to donate 20 t-shirts, and 10 pairs of shoes.
Sampson also took advantage of his friendship with national sports news personalities. He asked them to help him push his challenge to a national level so it couldn’t be ignored.
Any and all donations were accepted. Sampson didn’t pressure any schools to donate, but he urged participation from anyone with with the means to contribute.
Sampson never expected the amount of supports his efforts and the city of Houston received.
“It’s one of those things, be careful what you ask for,” Sampson said. “We were getting in excess of 500 to 700 boxes a day. And most schools were not sending 20 t-shirts or 10 pairs of shoes. They were sending 150 t-shirts. Some sent 20 pairs of shoes.”
After weeks of receiving high-volume donations, Sampson and the team had amassed thousands of shirts, pants and shoes from more than 600 different schools — and from programs of nearly every sport.
Over the next several weeks, staff members separated, collected and helped distribute clothes to people affected by the hurricane. Sampson’s daughter, Lauren, spearheaded these efforts, and she had all hands on deck to help make order from the chaos of a nation’s donations.
The team completely suspended all basketball activities for 10 days while it organized and prepared donations for distribution. When it was finally time for the gifts to be distributed, people came out in droves to benefit from this drive.
The effect on the community was indisputably positive. Later, during the season on the bus rides to Texas Southern’s basketball stadium, the team could see kids and adults wearing new athletic clothes from all over the nation.
Sampson and his team’s effort is just another example of how effective people can be when they band together. The drive was an exercise of human empathy, and the country’s response renewed many on the teams’ faith in humanity.
Even in the city, neighbors helped each other get back on their feet. The people of Houston worked together to rebuild after collectively absorbing the pain caused by Harvey.
“It was just people helping people,” Sampson said, “Disasters don’t care who they’re hitting. They’re just going to hit you. I was really proud of our city and the way we handled that.”
Though the people involved in this push were integral parts of helping people reclaim their lives after Harvey, their humility allowed them to recognize their contribution without inflating their egos.
“In the big picture, it was a very small thing,” Sampson said, “but even if we could’ve helped just one person, it was worth it.”
For the people they helped and the city of Houston, it was much more than just a small thing. A gesture that will be remembered as one of the most important efforts after the most destructive storm in Houston history can be simply explained: Neighbors just wanted to help neighbors.