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A.J. Kessinger and friends raise $20,000 for Harvey victims

By JESSICA WELSHANS, For The Express

PHOTO PROVIDED A.J. Kessinger, left, formerly of Mill Hall, and his husband Joel Bruff deliver items they purchased with donations for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

HOUSTON — After days and days of nothing but rain, the sun began to finally shine and Mother Nature was calm.

In the warm sun, the view of Houston had changed … dramactically.

That’s when former Mill Hall resident A.J. Kessinger and his husband Joel Bruff and friends Ashley Grundvig, Juan Valdez and Shonda Mason, decided they had to do something.

After witnessing the destruction, they had to help the people and pets of this disaster called Hurricane Harvey.

“Last Tuesday, the city of Houston’s Human Resources director sent employees an email asking for help to set up a new shelter for evacuees at the Toyota Center, where the NBA Houston Rockets play. We were asked to assist if we could get there, so the three of us –Joel, Juan and myself — headed there to help,” Kessinger said.

Kessinger works as the Senior Project Manager in the City of Houston’s Public Works Department in the Storm Water Maintenance Branch. He is a Clinton County native, part of the last graduating class of Bald Eagle-Nittany High School and graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2004. He has lived in Houston since 2009.

After being at the Toyota Center for for about two hours, they were sent home because the shelter had too many volunteers.

But that wasn’t to be the end for the trio’s volunteering efforts.

“We wanted to do more. On Wednesday morning when I woke up I was seeing stories of shelters and donation centers being in need of pet food, so I decided I wanted to do more now,” Kessinger said. “It wasn’t just pet food they needed either. They were in need of everything; diapers, formula, feminine products, socks, underwear, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, cleaning supplies etc, etc.”

Kessinger began to fundraise. He and his husband and friends were determined to put these much-needed everyday things into the hands of their fellow man and beast.

“I was texting with a good friend who lives outside D.C. about how things were going down here. I said I saw they needed more pet food and supplies so I was going to purchase some and donate them. I mentioned to her that if she would like to contribute some funds that I’d be able to get more,” Kessinger said.

His friend didn’t blink and funds were quickly deposited into his PayPal account.

“I think a light bulb went off then, like ok, maybe I can do what J.J. Watt is doing on a much smaller scale and be able to get more people to contribute and donate more goods. So, I sent out a few texts and within minutes I had about $1,500,” he said.

The ball was rolling.

People were more than willing to put donated funds into his hands to get the help Houston needed.

“An hour or two later when we headed out for our first run it was up to $5,000. So far at last check, it was nearing $20,000 with $15,000 worth of goods already purchased and taken to shelters and donation centers. We have locations lined up for the remaining funds and will be distributing this week,” he said.

Those donations were from around 250 people he said. From all over, including our Central PA area and they are still looking to help more.

“A large bulk of that has been from people directly donating through PayPal and Venmo. I have received gift cards as well. A few times, I was even approached by total strangers in Petco who asked if the pet supplies were being donated. When I said yes, they gave me cash to help the cause,” he said.

Kessinger is keeping everyone abreast of what is being purchased, where and how it’s being used.

Just recently on a trip to a Costco, the group ran into doctors from a local children’s hospital. The doctors told them about the needs at the hospital.

Minutes later a whole cart, overflowing with these basic items was purchased and designated to go to that children’s hospital, Kessinger said.

I had a tremendous amount of assistance in shopping and distributing goods from my husband Joel and friends Ashley, Juan and Shonda. Joel and Ashley were a great help on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when we were making our shopping trips and donation drop offs, with Juan helping us on Wednesday and Shonda pitching in on Friday,” he said.

“We haven’t been in the shelters to hand out the goods. They are all staffed with volunteers who are handling that, so we have just been making drop offs to various locations around the city of Houston,” he said.

Getting to the stores and getting needed items, Kessinger said, isn’t hard. It’s fitting them all in a cart and transport that proves complicated, he said.

“Other than they don’t make carts big enough sometimes. The employees at Petco now know who we are and just give us one of their flatbed carts when we walk in,” he said.

Kessinger and his husband were fortunate to make it through Harvey without the rising water getting to their home.

Landfall occurred Saturday night, and once the rain began, it didn’t stop until Tuesday, August 28, he said.

“I am fortunate that the house sits up on a high point. The closest high water got to us was to the end of the driveway. This happened Saturday and Sunday evening, but it never came higher than that,” he said. “Luckily we never lost power. The worst of the rain was Saturday night where some locations got close to 18 inches. Sunday night was much of the same, but close to the totals of Saturday night.”

Kessinger said Houstonians and Texans are pretty well-readied for the hurricane season.

“We got some water, gas for the generator, dog food, beer, filled the tubs with water and just planned to ride it out. I think we all had the same thought … that we are going to get a lot of rain… but we’ve gotten that before, so there was no real sense of panic going in. I don’t think any of us thought we would see the amount of rain that we did,” he said.

Many weren’t as fortunate as Kessigner, and it will years before some areas can recovery completely.

“There were high water rescues being done by everyday citizens with their fishing boats and canoes. I was not expecting this. The amount of rain that fell was insane and I have never seen water that high. We have had three pretty significant rain events since I have lived here. Those events required the same rescues, but the water levels from Harvey were maybe 10 to 15 feet higher along some bayous and creeks,” he said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, as the surveying of damage and rebuilding of lives began, Kessinger’s group continues to reach out and help.

“It’s been an emotional week of being a Houstonian. From the sorrow of so many devastated all across Southeast Texas to the heartwarming stories of all the outpouring of support from volunteers and donating of goods, strangers helping stranger and just seeing the best in humanity. I am very proud to call myself a Houstonian, even if I’m not a native one,” he said.

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