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President’s Column: Lessons from Hurricane Harvey and Other Unexpected Challenges

By Nancy T. Beane

Life in today’s world seems full of unexpected events and challenges. As I’ve watched the tragic unfolding of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in Texas and surrounding areas, I’ve simply been horrified. 

I lived in Houston for four wonderful years and never would I have expected what has happened there. The 24/7 news cycle has brought this tragedy even closer to home for those of us who live elsewhere. Sadly, we may have family, close friends, and colleagues who are impacted in multiple ways, and we feel their hopelessness. We’re thankful when we find that they are safe, but we know that many have lost everything, even if they and their loved ones are physically okay. One of our colleagues who works at a high school in Houston knows that her apartment has been totally destroyed, and I’m sure that others have similar stories. I’ve been staying in close touch with Angelica Melendez, Texas ACAC President, over these last few days, and I have been deeply moved by her updates and pictures, such as the one she sent of CE King High School where the water on Aug. 30 was already near the top of the roof for several buildings on campus.

Many, many good people have been doing what they can to bring relief to that area. How inspiring it was when we heard of folks who were themselves hurting, but volunteered to help others. Hopefully, we too have answered the call in some way. Whether it’s the Anne Naman Fund through TACAC, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the decision by Houston ISD provide all their students with three free meals per day this school year, or numerous other means of sharing time and resources, we are all called upon to step up, to do our part, and to make life better for those who cannot help themselves.

But we are also called in our day-to-day lives, to do our part, to make life better for the students we serve, colleagues with whom we work, or family and friends. Our daily challenges aren’t as dramatic as those from Hurricane Harvey, but they are just as important and finding solutions for them can make all the difference. Many of us wonder why it is only when disasters happen, such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Pulse Nightclub massacre, the Ft. Lauderdale shooting, the car bombings in many parts of the world, the recent tragic explosion at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, and now Harvey that we seem to awake from our privilege in whatever form it takes to spring into the kind action that is needed every day. 

I was struck this week by the Story Corps program that featured William Weaver, a man in his 60s who spoke movingly about his youth and people who help us at different stages of our lives, even if we don’t know it. When he was 14, Weaver was one of a small group of students to integrate an all-white Knoxville school in my home state of Tennessee. His experience was an absolute nightmare. Teachers in his new school harassed him, and evidently did everything they could to be certain that he was not successful. But Mr. Hill, the principal of his previous school came to his rescue. He heard of Weaver’s plight, called him, provided multiple teachers to tutor him, and helped him believe in himself again. That simple act of reaching out and then taking consistent action made all the difference. Dr. Weaver went on to become a surgeon, most recently working as chief of surgery at the Fayetteville, North Carolina VA Medical Center. It wasn’t until 37 years later that he found out why he received an unexpected scholarship to Howard University. Mr. Hill had filled out the scholarship application for him.

I cried when I heard that story. We can only hope that we are the Mr. Hill in our students’ lives, whatever their age, stage of life, or background. We can be the Mr. Hill with family and friends too, and it is important that we don’t wait for tragedy to hit before we make an effort to be there for others.

Often, we don’t know the outcome of our actions, but it’s important we expect the unexpected of ourselves—to go that “extra mile” every day, to “walk in another’s shoes,” and provide positive understanding and help. We can’t always control Mother Nature or some of the manmade disasters, but we can control how we respond. I pray that one lesson from the disaster of Hurricane Harvey will be for each of us to find ways to stand up and be counted when the unexpected happens. Sometimes, it’s just to listen. Other times, it’s to act. Whatever it is, it can provide the meaning that helps others, but makes our own lives far more worth living. 

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