Heather McCuen was at home with her family when she got the email: WeWork employees were headed down to Houston to assist in the cleanup after Hurricane Harvey. Would she be able to drop everything and join them?
“Saying yes was a no-brainer,” says McCuen, WeWork’s Director of Global Policy. “After a natural disaster like this, I think everybody feels a gut reaction to want to do something. But it’s often coupled with not knowing the best way to help out. It’s a huge gift to be able to take that desire and put it to work.”
About two weeks later, McCuen and more than two dozen other WeWork staffers were on their way to Houston. Their goal: help local families whose homes were severely damaged to start on the road to recovery.
For volunteers like Tracy-Ann Brown, it was their first time pitching in after a natural disaster. She said it was an experience she won’t forget.
“I immediately wanted to do it,” said Brown, WeWork’s Vice President of Global Policy. “I’ve been through a hurricane when I was in Jamaica, and I know the damage and devastation that can occur. I definitely wanted to be a part of whatever WeWork was doing.”
Kley Sippel, WeWork’s Community Director in Washington, D.C., said the effort is one way to show the company’s commitment to giving back to the community.
“For me it’s just a matter of being part of Team Human and something much bigger than myself for my company,” he said.
The call to action came from WeWork Founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, who announced that they company was donating $150,000 to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund set up by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“Texas is showing us what it truly means when a community comes together to help others,” they wrote in an email to all the company’s employees and members. “But they cannot do this alone.” They urge the community to help out, pledging to match up to $100,000 in additional donations.
That’s when WeWork staffers began brainstorming about what else they could do. Glennis Meagher, a director on WeWork’s Social Impact team, was in Italy when she got the email from Neumann and McKelvey.
“It reinforced our company’s philosophy that actions speak louder than words,” says Meagher. “As soon as I got back, I said: “All right, let’s get this done.”
Meagher says the volunteers, which included individuals from all over the company, focused on making sure they could accomplish as much as possible.
“We were going to be there on the ground for 48 hours,” says Meagher. “And we wanted to make the most impact in those 48 hours.”
WeWork partnered with All Hands Volunteers, a nonprofit that matches volunteers with the jobs that are most needed. In Houston, what was needed was “mucking and gutting” homes damaged by flood waters from the storm. That included ripping out floors that were warped and walls that were covered with mold.
In all, 26 WeWork staffers from all different parts of the company headed to Houston. They worked for several days in temperature that regularly reached over 80 degrees.
“I’ve done this sort of work before, so I knew what we were probably going to encounter,” says McCuen. “But I don’t think I’ve ever done it someplace so hot and humid. But you don’t notice it while you’re working, because you’re so focused on accomplishing a very specific goal.”
Nathan Lenahan, WeWork’s Head of Operations for the South, says working with homeowners was heart wrenching because they were often dealing with family photos and other precious mementos.
“That was the most touching time, taking a moment to stop and listen,” says Lenahan, who remembers talking with a woman who had injured her hip trying to clean out her home. “Their whole life was on the curb.”
Lenahan is uniquely qualified to anchor a disaster relief team, as he served for more than a decade in the Army and for the last seven has been in the Texas Army National Guard. Before he was leading WeWork volunteers in the cleanup effort, he was working on rescue teams during the worst of the storm.
Besides assisting homeowners, the WeWork team also removed about two to three tons of sand and silt from the Houston Police Memorial in Buffalo Bayou Park. In the blazing sun, they lifted out the debris bucket by bucket.
“We got a call that there were about 30 volunteers down here cleaning up our memorial site, where 114 officers’ names are that have been killed in the line of duty,” said Ray Hunt, President of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. “We came down here and were incredibly moved by everyone who was out here working so hard.”
And WeWork helped out Jim McIngval, the owner of Gallery Furniture, who had opened up his 80,000-square-foot space as an emergency shelter for hundreds of people during the storm. They assisted the local hero – better known as Mattress Mack – in getting his warehouse up and running so he could continue to distribute free mattresses to people who had lost everything.
“Y’all worked so hard you made me tired,” McIngval said to WeWork staffers. “Y’all are amazing.”
Over the next few months, Lenahan says that WeWork will continue to send waves of volunteers to help in the ongoing recovery efforts.
“You’re going to continue to see the same work for the next few months,” says Lenahan. “Some houses still aren’t safe to return to. We’ve still got months and months to go.”