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Bryan and Jennifer Caswell

Bryan and Jennifer Caswell


Living to Give

By Ray Dennison & Carl Mickelson

Photography by Richard Cross, Julie Soefer & Jack Thompson


In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, this city has shown the world resilience, generosity and a true can-do spirit. Here are six local power players rising to the occasion and living Houston Strong.

Two big fish in the local restaurant scene help first responders and launch a relief foundation.

When restaurateur Bryan Caswell and his wife, Jennifer, went to inspect roof damage at their Midtown spot, Reef—which Bon App├ętit named the No. 1 seafood restaurant in America back in 2008—they saw a kitchen in good shape and plenty of food. They immediately got to work and made Reef a command center for meal preparation and distribution to shelters all over Houston and the Gulf Coast. “Jennifer was a force of nature on social media,” Bryan says, “and we started finding out the widespread need for food across the region.” Before long, the duo had a well-oiled machine of food-product donations from distributors paired with an army of volunteers who helped prep and deliver meals to first responders, shelters and other areas in need. As lovers of the Gulf Coast, the Caswells not only dished out the best for their hometown, but they also focused on the smaller towns ravaged by the storm, such as Rockport, Port Arthur and Beaumont. The couple founded the Southern Salt Foundation in 2015, and it helps them continue the effort to directly provide aid to victims along the coast.

Claire Furse

Claire Furse

As the tech world booms, a St. John’s School senior harnesses the power of the ’net to help kids find volunteer opportunities.

The impulse to get out there and make a difference resonated with people of all ages during Hurricane Harvey, but finding out where and how to make the strongest impact wasn’t as straightforward. Earlier this year, St. John’s School senior Claire Furse, 17, launched Serve for Good, a web portal that helps youth volunteers match with charities that fit their interests and skills. Through the spring and summer, the site gained traction with some high schoolers looking for summer service projects, but traffic exploded in the aftermath of Harvey as the city mobilized to assist those in need. “A lot of people who tried to volunteer at the NRG Center or the George R. Brown Convention Center found long lines, and some places had too many volunteers,” Furse notes. In order to provide guidance and maximize the impact of those wanting to assist, Furse quickly updated the website with an emergency Harvey list highlighting smaller shelters and churches that weren’t making it on most radars. The database now features more than 100 local charities, and Furse hopes traffic continues to grow as young people mobilize and get engaged. “The sun is back out, but Houstonians are going to need help for a long time to come,” she says.

Never one to drop the ball, the NFL MVP has raised more than $37 million.

Since joining the Houston Texans in 2011, J.J. Watt has constantly broken records and received the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award no fewer than three times. The 6-foot-5 defensive end is the stuff legends are made of, but that’s only part of the reason he’s a Houston icon. It’s his personality off the field—and those H-E-B commercials with his mom—that have truly captured the city’s heart. So when Harvey struck, it came as no surprise that he quickly stepped up. He and fellow teammates boosted morale and swapped out weight training for heavy lifting at shelters and distribution centers. And Aug. 26, Watt quietly set up a crowdsourcing fund with the goal of raising $200,000. The results were staggering: By the time it closed a few weeks later, more than 200,000 individuals had contributed more than $37 million dollars, 185 times his initial goal. Now, he and a team of experts are working together to make sure the money is used carefully and purposefully to help families in the region rebuild. He may be out for an injury this season, but he’s undoubtedly an MVP, and he’s not even thinking about slowing down. 

Pierce Bush

Pierce Bush

The home team, lead by a local baseball legend’s son, knocks it out of the park.

In the midst of the most electrifying season in franchise history, the Houston Astros have emerged as a unifying symbol of the “Houston Strong” ethos. When news of Harvey’s devastation broke, Astros owner and chairman Jim Crane, the Astros ownership group and the Astros Foundation immediately pledged $4 million to relief efforts. The play didn’t stop there, though, as Reid Ryan—son of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and president of business operations—immediately got the team out into the volunteer field. On Sept. 1, the day before a doubleheader, 16 Astros players pitched in at the George R. Brown Convention Center, and the energy continued from there. Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel was spotted serving meals to first responders. All-star shortstop Carlos Correa is now part of a fundraising effort supplying new beds and linens to victims. Pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and his wife, Kara, have championed no-kill pet rescue shelters, including the Humane Society and Pets Alive. The team has even started a crowdfunding site that’s raised $250,000. “Our players have a heart for this city and its people, and they’re playing for something bigger than themselves,” Ryan says. “Sometimes, sports can be that galvanizing force that helps a community heal and get back the pride.”

A presidential legacy continues as the next generation rallies in the aftermath of the story.

Pierce Bush, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Lone Star Chapter, was in the right place at the right time to help channel support to Houston children impacted by Hurricane Harvey. More than 100 of the “Littles”—that’s lingo for kids in the mentorship program—were affected by the storm. Thanks to private donations and support from Ecclesia Church, the grandson of George H.W. Bush and nephew of George W. Bush was able to quickly distribute provisions to the families who needed it. “I’ve been humbled by the outpouring of neighbors helping neighbors [that] we’ve seen all over Houston. It’s the same idealism that drives our BBBS mission.” It runs in the family, of course, and his grandmother’s charity has also been doing its part to help flood victims. Sept. 25, the Young Professionals Group of the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation hosted its third annual Jungle Book Gala along with Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who served as honorary chair. The black-tie affair at The Dunlavy at Buffalo Bayou Park raised more than $80,000, which will go toward the purchase of new home libraries for children who have lost their homes and personal belongings.