‘We were reaching a population that wouldn’t otherwise be served.’
By Andrew Edmonson
When Bill Baldwin awoke on August 27, the Sunday morning after Tropical Storm Harvey arrived, he jumped on his bike to survey his Heights neighborhood before heading downtown to the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB), where a shelter was opening.
When he reached the intersection of Sawyer and Watson, he found that it was flooded with water up to his waist. He hoisted his bike above his head, waded through the water for about 40 feet, and continued onward.
After arriving at the GRB, still wet in his biking clothes, Baldwin was assigned to be the coordinator of volunteers. As flood evacuees poured in, he and his impromptu team scrambled to assemble over 2,400 cots, borrowing towels from the nearby Hilton Hotel so the waterlogged evacuees could dry off.
Thirteen hours later, Baldwin collapsed in a hotel room at the Hilton. After sleeping for three hours, he washed his biking clothes in the shower, dried them with a hair dryer, and set out for his second day of work.
“We got 10,000 people at GRB on day two, and it was overwhelming,” he recalls. “On Monday, there weren’t enough cots. There wasn’t enough food. My experience at the George R. Brown—working 12- to 16-hour days—was amazing.”
With his entrepreneurial background and his commitment to social justice, Baldwin was well positioned to lead the GRB volunteer effort. As the owner of Boulevard Realty, he has a long history of community involvement that includes serving as president of the Houston Heights Association (HHA) and on the boards of Recipe for Success and the Houston Epilepsy Association. In 2011, he was named Citizen of the Year by the HHA.
Along with philanthropist Nancy Kinder, Baldwin served as cochair of newly elected mayor Sylvester Turner’s quality-of-life transition committee, and he currently serves on the City of Houston’s Planning Commission.
“Bill has amazing generosity. If he feels he can help, he will always rise to the challenge,” says Houston Public Media presenter Ernie Manouse, who cochaired the 2015 and 2016 World AIDS Day luncheons for AIDS Foundation Houston with Baldwin. “He never sees obstacles as barriers. Instead, he views them as challenges that can, and will, be overcome.”
“His leadership is astounding,” longtime Houston public-relations executive Cindy Clifford says of Baldwin. “Keep an eye on him; he’s going places.”
On August 31, with the situation at GRB stabilized, Baldwin turned his attention to launching a warehouse hub that could serve alongside the City’s existing aid and recovery efforts. “GRB stopped taking donations because they were overwhelmed,” he says. “I thought that there should be a place where people could continue to donate. My observation was that Houston’s people wanted to donate, to volunteer—to do something. They needed an outlet. I really wanted to do something to channel that energy.”
Baldwin met with State senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), who was receptive to the idea, and approached developer John Deal, who agreed to donate the use of a large warehouse at 2500 Summer Street for collecting and distributing donated items for flood survivors.
He assembled a stellar volunteer team with whom he had first worked at the GRB—including Chris Brombracher, Erin Overhouse Locke, Rick Smaile, and Pablo Vega—to launch the Harvey Relief Hub on September 2. Their focus was on accepting and dispensing donated items to flood victims, connecting volunteers with opportunities, and generally serving as an informational hub for hurricane survivors and volunteers. The Hub, which was initially planned to be open for a week, went on for 15 days. “The first Saturday we were open, we saw 300 people,” he recalls. “The second Saturday that we were open, we had 1,100 people. And then 1,300 clients came through on Sunday.”
The operation was staffed entirely by volunteers—recruited from Facebook, other social-media sites, and word of mouth—who worked tirelessly in Houston’s late-summer heat for hours in a warehouse with no air conditioning. “The very first Saturday we opened, one volunteer worked all day, and then donated $1,000,” remembers Baldwin. “The needs [of flood survivors] were overwhelming. Volunteers would work all day, and then go to Target and buy bleach and diapers to bring back to the Hub.”
Truckloads of donations poured in to Baldwin’s warehouse operation from New York, Arizona, Kentucky, and other states. “A significant number of people we served were undocumented immigrants. ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] was at some of the shelters,” he says. “The undocumented immigrants couldn’t ask for help from FEMA. We were reaching a population that wouldn’t otherwise be served.”
Witnessing the desperate straits and the many needs of some Harvey survivors was, at times, an intensely emotional experience. “When [our] police chief [Art Acevedo] came, the clients started crying. He started crying, and I started crying,” Baldwin recalls. “[Then] he gives them money out of his own pocket. There was the feeling of, ‘What resources do these people have at this particular moment?’”
Not long before Harvey, Baldwin and his partner, Fady Armanious, creative director for Tootsies, had spent two weeks in India. They reveled in the beauty of the Taj Mahal, rode elephants, and were deeply moved by a visit to the Mumbai home of Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Baldwin was also struck by India’s extremes of wealth and poverty, and the way in which hundreds of thousands of people in Mumbai live in huts and tenements under flimsy blue tarpaulins to protect themselves from the elements—especially the monsoon rains.
“I’m sure that that 15-day trip to India had an impact on my immediate desire to go to GRB and serve that first day. [I saw] that same level of families with needs in the city where I live,” Baldwin says.
“There wasn’t much that I could do about it in Mumbai,” he adds. “But here in Houston, I could make an immediate impact. The Hub was about making an impact for individuals who weren’t being served.”
This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.