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Editor’s Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the LGBTQ heroes of Tropical Storm Harvey, who were the subject of OutSmart’s October 2017 issue. For more, visit TinyURL.com/LGBTQharvey.
By Shirley Knight
When Tropical Storm Harvey’s torrential rains finally began to subside, Blaise Mladenka had only one thought: “I just have to do something.”
In the six months since the storm, the 69-year-old Mladenka has led volunteer teams and organized efforts on behalf of Recovery Houston, a grassroots organization providing assistance to affected homeowners. In the first 30 days, he volunteered in 27 homes.
And Mladenka has done it all in his husband Jeff Bricker’s pickup truck—which is proudly emblazoned with a Human Rights Campaign equality sticker.
“I have no problems referring to my husband these days,” Mladenka says. “I’ve been dropping that with volunteers who come in from other places, and it’s liberating. I’m really pleased that for most people, being gay is OK.
“This guy from Colorado, I couldn’t read him very well,” Mladenka recalls of one volunteer. “So at one point, I referred to my husband’s truck. Then, when we were sitting having lunch, the volunteer said, ‘You know, I’ve always wondered: why do gay people refer to people as straight? It’s not like gay people are crooked.’
“I thought that was really neat,” Blaise says. “And after that, we were able to talk about relationships and things like that.”
Mladenka, who is retired from a career in special education, initially signed up to volunteer with the Red Cross. But while waiting for an assignment, he went on the NextDoor website and saw a listing for Recovery Houston, which was launched by Kat Creech, Jason Fajkus, and Kim Comer with the help of numerous volunteers.
At the height of the recovery effort, Mladenka was “mucking out” houses—removing wet and damaged items, including sheetrock and insulation—four days a week.
“Sometimes I would wake up and think, ‘Oh God, I have to go muck out a house,’” Mladenka recalls, “but then when I got there and was doing it, I felt really good.”
As a Recovery Houston team leader, Mladenka communicated with homeowners and assessed their needs, collected and transported tools and supplies, and organized and trained volunteers. He says he led crews of up to 50 people, from as far away as California and Boston.
“I am really, really impressed with all the people who have come to help,” Mladenka says. “At first, I was impressed that 100 volunteers showed up on Labor Day weekend, and then I started realizing that we had people coming from other parts of the state and from other states. People were taking their vacations to come here and help us.”
Mladenka also marvels at the gratitude of homeowners who lost everything.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’re throwing your stuff out on the street, and here you are being so grateful,’” he says. “It blows me away. I walk into my house and think, if this happened to me, I might just run and leave it all behind.”
Mladenka recalls people standing in their yards in front of everything they owned giving thumbs-up signs. He remembers a man in a wheelchair picking up sheetrock scrap, saying he needed to do something.
Some homeowners were decisive about discarding things. Others needed time to sit and cry. Most got emotionally and physically drained to the point that they could no longer make decisions. “Some are really in a state of not knowing what to do next,” Mladenka says, “so we say, ‘We can help you.’”
Helping people seems to be part of Mladenka’s nature. He says it may have been ingrained in him as a child by his mother’s annual fundraising drives for cancer prevention in their small town.
“I think maybe that’s who I am,” he says. “I could just read books and watch movies, and I would enjoy them, but that wouldn’t make me feel as good as helping other people.”
For the last 18 years of his professional career, Mladenka worked with various school districts matching special-needs children with technology such as communication devices.
He spent his childhood doing chores on his family’s farm in Wied, between Houston and San Antonio, where they picked cotton and corn and raised dairy cows.
When it was time for high school, Mladenka left the farm to attend Catholic seminary in San Antonio, intending to become a priest. “This was really good for me,” he says, “because I found out that not everyone thinks like we do in Shiner.”
While attending the University of Houston, Mladenka says, “I accidentally landed in a speech-therapy class, and I found I was fascinated.” He transferred to the University of Texas in Austin to major in speech therapy before earning a master’s degree in early-childhood special education with a certificate in deaf education.
At the time, Mladenka was engaged to a woman. “I was really naive,” he says. “My dear, sweet sister, who is a nun, sat me down and said, ‘I watch you with your male friends, and I watch you with your fiancée, and I want you to think about this: maybe you’re gay.’”
Mladenka says he immediately called a gay friend in Oklahoma, who told him, “Meet me in Dallas.” There, they went to a gay bar and obtained recommendations for places to go in Austin, which included a bar called the Pearl Street Warehouse.
“I tried to go a couple of times, and finally I did. I was sort of standing in the corner,” Mladenka recalls. A man struck up a conversation with him, “and he’s still one of my best friends forever.”
While in his first same-sex relationship, Mladenka came out to his mother, who told him she already knew. “Things became easier then,” he says.
Mladenka and Bricker, who’ve been together for 26 years, have an adopted son who is now 19. In 2014, they were married in New York’s Central Park surrounded by 40 friends and family members. “I don’t think people have to get married, but I’m glad we did,” Mladenka says. “Our theme was Imagine,” he recalls. “I never imagined I could be married, and now I am.”
When he’s not helping storm victims, Mladenka supports various other social causes and is active in politics.
“We’ve come a long way, and there are people who want to stop us—not just from being gay, but from caring about other people, and sharing the wealth, and taking care of the environment,” Mladenka says.
“We still can make progress,” he adds. “Little by little, things are happening. I would say to Millennials, ‘Listen up, we can still save this planet.’ There will always be bad things happening. There will always be people who are downtrodden, but we can keep making things happen. That’s what we’re here for, to make things better.”
This article appears in the February 2018 edition of OutSmart Magazine.