Penn basketball star Michelle Nwokedi saw all the horrific pictures from Houston as Hurricane Harvey ravaged her hometown a month ago. The youngest of five children, she worried about her three sisters’ being there without their parents, who were headed back after getting her settled in for her senior year in West Philly and visiting family in the South.
Their parents would get stuck in Dallas for a week until it was safe for them to return home. All the while, Nwokedi saw familiar images that no longer looked as familiar. She contacted friends who had lost everything. The only thing she could do from afar was hope for the best.
“I mean, honestly, it was just so surreal,” said the 6-foot-3 forward, who averaged 15.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks last season to earn the Ivy League’s Player of the Year award. “I kept trying to get more information, but it wasn’t always easy. And some details, you didn’t really want to know. Everything on social media was crazy. The first thing I did was reach out to those who had been impacted the most. It makes you realize how fortunate we were.
“It gives you such a different perspective.”
She wrote a piece for the Ivy website, letting people know how much Houston meant to her and how much she wanted to try to make some kind of a difference.
“I am a proud Texan” is how Nwokedi began sharing the relationship to her roots with readers. “Houston is a part of my identity. It is where some of my best memories have occurred. The history and culture has helped mold me into who I am today …
“I had never experienced a horrible storm in my time in Houston. When I first heard [the Category 5 hurricane] was going to hit, I did not think much of it. The videos quickly put things into reality. It was unbelievable. I didn’t feel right being in Philly, going on with my everyday life as [others] were going through a devastating time. Seeing Houstonians and people all over the U.S. unite … puts a smile on my face.
“As a member of the Penn’s women’s basketball team, volunteering and helping others has become second nature. The coaches are constantly teaching us that along with being a player, it is also so important to be the best person you can be day and day out.”
To that end, she came up with a way to donate money on a GoFundMe page. Her goal was to raise $2,500. As of Tuesday afternoon, the total was approaching $4,000. And everything goes straight to the victims through the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund run by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“Seeing people who did not even know me selflessly joining [the effort] was truly astonishing,” Nwokedi said.
These have been stressful times, indeed. After Harvey, there was Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, both resulting in even more tragedies. And with each new disaster, Houston moves more and more into the past tense as television cameras move on to the next story. The focus shifts. That doesn’t mean many of the people where she grew up are going to be any better off anytime soon. There are still problems to solve, issues to address, lives to lift back up. For the most part, it takes money, in whatever increments.
“You see all these things happen, in all these places, and they’ve never happened before in our lifetime,” Nwokedi said. “Our neighborhood had to be evacuated. You’re trying not to freak out, but … I was kind of on edge. They kept telling me everything was going to be fine, but it’s always in the back of your mind. How can it not be?
“We have an upper level going into our house. And when the rain was constant, the water was like halfway up the stairs. And I think my dad said the neighbors had kind of dug like a hole midway through so the water would go down instead of rising. That’s unbelievable.
“There’s this Highway 59, which is the freeway we take. I saw where there was water at the level of the street signs. After that, what more do you have to see? You really can’t understand the scope of it, until you see the before-and-after images. It’s so hard to even think about stuff like that. But that’s what it was.”
When Nwokedi approached coach Mike McLaughlin with her fundraising idea, he instantly signed off on it. All they had to do was get the OK from the folks in NCAA compliance.
“I think where she struggled is, she didn’t know stuff,” McLaughlin said. “The news came in very slow. We talked about her old school [St. Agnes Academy], and what that looked like. On the outside, she handled it very well. Once she knew her family was safe, and her home was OK, it was better. Can you imagine having to watch those stories on the news, at her age?
“She didn’t know what to do, but she wanted to do something. I don’t think she did it to raise a ridiculous amount of money. You can tell from her eyes that Houston has given her so much of an opportunity. She just wanted to give back, when they needed it.
“I was proud to see the responsibility that she’s showing, the growth, the thinking past herself. I’m not sure four years ago she would have seen that clearly. She was inspired. And now maybe she’ll inspire someone else. If she can create that type of atmosphere, then she’s done a tremendous job.”
Houston Texans star J.J. Watt raised $37 million for the relief cause before contributions were closed in mid-September. Nwokedi gets that what she has done can’t help thousands. That doesn’t mean it’s any less meaningful. Her actions will mean a great deal to somebody who otherwise might not have made it through another desperate moment. And you can’t put a value on that.
“J.J. Watt is another reason to love Houston,” she said. “He’s more than just a football player. It doesn’t have to be big to show your support for a city. It can be anything. I just wanted to do my part.
“Sports don’t define a person. But so many people here reached out because I’m at Penn. I know [fellow Houston native] Kendall Covington on the volleyball team was raising money to get food and stuff to send down. We’re all united in this.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but I know it can help someone get to tomorrow. My mom [Fidelia] kept saying, ‘Imagine if we were on the other side of this?’ I’d be so grateful that someone cared. It’s not a ‘me’ thing. I just tried to put myself in that situation. It’s going to take time for a lot of people to get back to something approaching normal. We shouldn’t forget about them just because it happened last month.”
Here’s the link. Go ahead and make her smile.