“Who are those guys?!?” I questioned aloud on KTRH at the height of our coverage of Hurricane Harvey, offering my best impression of the oft-quoted line from the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” referring to a local company whose name kept popping up in news stories about an evacuation shelter.
At the behest of Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, BakerRipley quickly opened NRG Center’s doors to those needing immediate comfort and shelter in the midst of the worst natural disaster to hit the Texas Gulf Coast since records have been kept. Their efficiency and organization were breath-taking in scope, their heartfelt compassion humbling in the face of nature’s random wrath, and their efforts now recognized as the gold standard of emergency disaster shelter response.
I pledged that when flood waters receded, I would find the answer and prepare a story to let the good people of Houston know who those guys at Baker Ripley are.
Tuesday, August 29th, as Ed Emmett considered opening a shelter, water began spilling over the north end of the Addicks Reservoir, something that had never happened in the 70-year history of the Army Corps of Engineers project. He called Angela Blanchard, CEO of BakerRipley, learning it might take 24 hours to get a shelter operational. When the National Weather Service announced a new U.S. rainfall record in southwest Houston at 49.32 inches the nation froze transfixed watching broadcast images of Coast Guard helicopter rescues from rooftops. Joining Houston’s exhausted emergency responders, Louisiana’s Cajun Navy arrived in masse, inspiring others to retrieve boats to retrieve neighbors while catastrophic flooding spread unexpectedly fast in unexpected areas in biblical proportions. Anxious, at around 4:30 Judge Emmett grabbed the phone and called BakerRipley again. Time was of the essence. By 10pm, Angela Blanchard, her staff and volunteers, some with hand-painted signs, swung open the doors at NRG Center to warmly welcome panicked and distressed newly homeless neighbors and their pets. Warm food was waiting, with dry bedding, fresh clothes, medical care and pharmacy goods, emergency supplies and complete child care available.
Begun in 1907, the Houston Settlement Association was created by Alice Graham Baker, grandmother of a future Secretary of State, propelled by a donation from the Daniel and Edith Ripley Foundation, changing names later to become Houston’s Neighborhood Center before another change to BakerRipley, is a social service non-profit organization that grew to serve half a million low-income residents each year at 70 locations in Texas providing programs for young and old, citizens and immigrants, sick and healthy, rich and poor, focusing on leadership, finance, education, nutrition, transportation, security and the myriad of other needs the Houston area required in growing from a population of 44,000 to more than 6 million. They aspire to be a welcoming landing place and an on-ramp for all who arrive on Houston’s shores.
“We’re a tribe,” Blanchard says of her associates and volunteers, the people who comprise Baker-Ripley. “Of the 1,400 paid staff and 7,000 volunteers who work on projects big and small, we’re all people who believe in our neighbors. We see ourselves as here to strengthen the region, whatever it takes.”
Their annual budget is in the neighborhood of $275 million, drawing from federal, state, local public and private funding sources. The scale of obtaining such diverse funding from such diverse sources with such diverse requirements, paperwork, and deadlines has necessitated an organizational capability that few enterprises are challenged to even endeavor. For BakerRipley, it’s just how they roll. “At our 70 locations we have community centers like the one in Gulfton, five buildings on four acres, including a charter school, a credit union, immigration services, a welcome center, a place for adults to take classes, employment services, all at one location. We have senior centers, which offer healthy activities and things to strengthen seniors and allow them to remain a part of their community.” She continues enthusiastically about the list of services they offer, and quickly draws attention to the many corporate and private organizations they partner with asking that all recognition given to BakerRipley be shared with their diverse and broad network of sponsors and volunteers.
Their Texas geographical base has informed BakerRipley with a can-do spirit of compassionate humanity that has few rivals. Integrating the region’s political, social and economic strengths, Baker-Ripley brings opportunities for those who can do the most with a helpful hand. Blanchard has another example. “We operate eleven sites in cooperation with Workforce Solutions, the publically funded system that helps people find a job, keep a job or get a better job. We’re very proud of our work there, including a focus on helping people find jobs related to Harvey recovery and move into more living-wage jobs. The whole history of our agency is to be a welcoming place for people that are new to our region,” Blanchard tells KTRH News. “As I like to say, whether they are crossing the river, the tracks or the ocean to get to opportunity, we want to be here to help them.”
Houston is enjoying newfound respect among our fellow Americans with recent heroic images of good and decent Texans risking it all to help others. What they, and we, are celebrating is a spirit and attitude that BakerRipley brings to the Houston community every day of every year, rain or shine.