Helping the heroes: After a hurricane, a store manager joins forces with a sergeant

Editor’s note: Standing Up, an occasional series highlighting inspiring people, is inspired by Starbucks Upstanders.

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HOUSTON -- They would have never met, if the sky hadn’t fallen.

But when Hurricane Harvey swirled over greater Houston, followed by days of rain and a historic flood, washing away homes, cars, police stations and the routines of regular life, Starbucks store manager Jen Do wanted to do something.

She put on a raincoat and rubber boots and headed out with her friend, Dory Fung, to help in whatever way was needed.  “I thought we were going to be out rescuing people,” she said.

Instead, she ended up restoring the rescuers – the hundreds of police officers in Houston and the surrounding areas, who were spending countless hours in deep water, pulling people out of their homes, off bridges and out of their flooded cars.

It was a chance encounter that brought her to the Houston Police Officers Union. She was collecting food to donate when she met a police officer who said they needed help back at the union office, which had become a de-facto command central for many officers, including those whose own stations had flooded. Back at the union, they’d try to get something to eat, find dry clothes to change into and maybe take a nap. Many were on duty for days in a row. They were exhausted and hungry.

Do remembers the scene that greeted her when she walked in: The kitchen was chaos, with boxes piled on the floor and counters. A number of police officers were in the kitchen but no one seemed to be in charge.

So, Do, who manages a Starbucks not far from the officers’ union, stepped up.

“The way I organized it, I just ran it like a Starbucks but with different products. And instead of serving customers, I got to serve heroes – the first responders,” she said. “I just felt like the officers, they already had a lot of things going on … they didn’t need to worry about this stuff, so I just went ahead and did it.”

Sgt. Tom Hayes, a 35-year member of the force and chairman of the Assist the Officer Fund, which is tied to the union, said that Do and Fung, a pastry chef, “started saying things (to the officers) like, ‘Well, you’re not doing it wrong but maybe if you do it this way, it’ll be better’ and ‘Why don’t we put some times and dates on some of this food so we know exactly what we have on hand?’

“So probably in 30 minutes, they had that kitchen organized and running. The two (officers) who thought it was their kitchen were standing in the corner with their mouths agape like, “Well, I’ve just lost my kitchen. What happened? Who are these people?”

A deeply personal inspiration

Do, 38, had never had any interactions with the police before. This was her first time even really talking to any of them, she said. She grew up in a tight-knit family in southern California with three siblings. She was particularly close to her oldest brother, Danny. He had a giant heart and always tried to do whatever he could to help others, she said.

Even after she moved to Houston, they stayed connected. Now, as she volunteered with the police officers in the long days after the hurricane and the flooding, she thought of him often. A decade ago, he’d had a heart transplant. The family had recently received word it was failing and he didn’t have long to live.

She didn’t tell the officers any of this, not wanting to burden them. But “he was what inspired me,” she said. Some days she volunteered for 20 hours straight, not wanting to go home while she felt there was more she could do for the officers she’d come to see as family. All the while, Danny was on her mind, her actions a living tribute to him.

‘There were so many calls for rescues’

The rain kept pouring down as the streets flooded and the water kept rising. “It was almost biblical,” said Hayes. And police officers couldn’t keep up with the calls. “There were so many calls for rescues, so many people trapped on overpasses, on houses, in their cars, we were scrambling to find boats and dump trucks, anything to maneuver in high water,” said Hayes.

A call had gone out for all the officers in the area to report to work and plan on a 48-hour shift. Sgt. Steve Perez, a 34-year police veteran known for his devotion to the job, had set out to get to his station and spent several hours before he realized he couldn’t reach it. He called in to ask if there was another station he could go to – but he never arrived.

When word reached the union that his body had been found, the officers grew quiet. “Whenever you have a line of duty death, you’re devastated,” Hayes said. 

But there was no time to stop for grief. An estimated 40,000 homes had been lost in the Houston area. And many people needed to be rescued. Rather than be defeated by Perez’ death, his sacrifice to serve others inspired and rallied the officers, said Hayes.

Meanwhile, day after day for more than a week, Do continued to focus on helping take care of the officers’ needs, Some days, she was there at 6 a.m. and stayed until 2 a.m. With her store closed due to flooding, she devoted all her time to supporting them. As the officers came in, drenched from wading in toxic waters and standing in the pouring rain, she steered them toward tables where they could get dry socks, underwear and clothes. Along the way, she got to know them. She learned some had lost their homes. She learned some had family members who needed rescuing themselves but they couldn’t get to them.

Her own home was dry and she’d invited several families to stay with her, including one officer.

When donations ran low at the union, Do rallied her friends, co-workers and family. As word spread, people from all walks of life came and volunteered. “The synagogues, the mosques, they were all bringing in volunteers,” Hayes said.

During the stressful times, Do offered an encouraging presence, Hayes said. “She’s so overwhelmingly bubbly and energetic that you can’t help but smile when she’s around.”

A week after the waters receded, the officers mourned Perez at his funeral. Police came from all around the country. After the service, they gathered at the union to be together. Just as during the storm, Do was there, to serve them coffee and offer a listening ear.

The next day, standing outside the union, next to a flag flying at half-mast, she greeted one officer after another. “She’s family,” said Hayes.

The streets are dry now, and cleanup around the city is underway. As Hayes looks to the future, he sees hope. “We’ll do what Houston always does,” he said. “We’ll rebuild, we’ll make things a little bit better and we’ll go forward.”

And with her immediate job done at the police officers’ union, it was time for Do to go home to California to see her brother. “The first thing he said when he saw me was ‘Good job in Houston’,” she said. He died three days later, on Sept. 17, with Do at his side.

The storm is long over now, but the relationships forged during those days are just beginning, say both Do and Hayes.  She plans to continue to volunteer with police whenever they need her. On the day after her brother’s funeral, she learned about an officer who was trying to get a flood victim family new beds. Do and her family immediately committed to buying them. It was only after that, when Hayes texted her concerned that the officers hadn’t seen her for a few days, that she told him about Danny.

Hayes said he is overwhelmed by all that Do has done for them, especially knowing now what she’s been through personally. She came in and “opened up our hearts,” he said. “(She) started a flood of what eventually became a whole bunch of love coming into this police department. It still is unbelievably moving.”

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