Mark McDermott

Manhattan Beach, MBUSD on a mission to help a small town in Texas

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A road outside Cleveland, Texas, the hometown of Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale where the local ACT Campaign will deliver four trucks full of donated goods this week. Photo courtesy Ben Dale

by Mark McDermott

Ben Dale left Cleveland, Texas in 1985 with a truckload of memories.

He played football on both sides of the ball, as tight end and defensive end, under the Friday night lights of rural Texas for the Cleveland High School Indians. He worked in a BBQ joint, The Shack, owned by his dad’s fishing buddy, Ronnie Lewis, who paid him $2 an hour —  “Which even then was less than minimum wage,” Dale recalled —  and all the BBQ he could eat.

Which, it turned out, was a whole lot of BBQ.

“If you interview Ronnie today, 35 years later, he’ll still say it almost shut him down,” said Dale, who these days is employed as principal of Mira Costa High School. “He says it’s the worst business move he ever made.”

And so a week ago Monday, when he learned that Cleveland was almost entirely underwater, Dale’s impulse was to get a truck and head back home.

“If you are from Cleveland,” Dale said, “you are always from Cleveland.”

The entire area was utterly devastated by Hurricane Harvey. After Harvey hit, nearly all of Cleveland’s roughly 8,000 townsfolk were left sleeping on the floors of emergency shelters.

“They have nothing,” Dale said. “They are completely wiped out.”

Dale’s boss, Manhattan Beach Unified School District Superintendent Mike Matthews, signed off on the principal’s plan to go immediately to Texas. His next call was to his real boss, however —  his wife, Michelle. She asked him what exactly his plan was.

“Me and my buddy Chad are going to get a truck and a boat and just go,” he told her.

“Um. No,” she replied, gently suggesting that if they weren’t part of a larger, organized effort, Dale and his friend would likely be more in the way than an actual help.

“My wife is amazing,” Dale said. “When you marry, marry someone smarter than you. For me, it wasn’t hard.”

Dale called Cleveland to see what efforts were underway. He was shocked to learn that almost no relief effort had reached the town. “What I found out is that FEMA was only focused Houston,” Dale later wrote in an email to school district colleagues. The small towns were not receiving aid or assistance officially. In fact, no one could get to Cleveland. All the roads in were under 15 feet of water. They were completely cut off from everyone and everything.”

Dale called Matthews back. “Let’s do something,” Matthews said.

They reached out to Manhattan Beach Mayor David Lesser, who didn’t hesitate to join forces with the school district. A meeting with PTSA heads from all seven MBUSD campuses had much the same result: everybody was all in. A conference call was arranged with city and school district officials from Cleveland in order to determine what needs a local relief drive could meet.

Cleveland, which is bordered to the north by the Sam Houston National Forest and connected to Houston 45 miles south by Highway 59 (and more recently Interstate 69), is part of what is known locally as “the 59 Corridor” —  a string of even smaller towns such as Splendora, Shepard, and Humble (“Everyone calls it Umble,” Dale said. “Bear with me.”) . Kids from all those smaller towns attend school in Cleveland, which is the biggest town in the corridor.

As Houston was slammed by Harvey, the response effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in order to help the most people, focused on the metro area and not nearby rural communities. The folks along the 59 Corridor were stranded.

“They are on top of the roofs of their houses, and their houses are completely washed out on the inside,” Dale said. “It’s an awful situation. But when you think about the focus and mindset of FEMA —  the fourth largest city in the country is underwater, where are you going to go? You are going to go to Houston.”

Thus was born Aid to Cleveland, Texas, or ACT —  a joint effort with the city and school district in Manhattan Beach. Among the first to offer help was Skechers, which immediately donated 3,000 pairs of shoes and 10,000 pairs of socks to the relief mission.

The ACT Campaign drop off point at City Hall. Photo by David Lesser

Skechers president Michael Greenberg said the company has 45 stores in Texas and as soon as the hurricane hit he started receiving harrowing reports from friends and extended family impacted.

“All are doing okay, but we have heard first hand on the widespread need, including for shoes and socks,” Greenberg said.  “We have assembled a plan to donate tens of thousands of pairs of Skechers socks and shoes, as well as kids’ backpacks, to the people impacted by this disaster.”

Skechers, Greenberg said, had a three-phased response plan: immediate donations through its stories in the region; through the ACT Campaign and “our new sister city, Cleveland, Texas,”;  and donations for kids further down the road, when they are finally able to return to school.

“We know the need is deep, and we’re here to help as many people as we can,” Greenberg said.

“When word got out, the donations and support started pouring in,” Dale said. “What started as a simple ‘one truck’ solution has quadrupled.”

Four trucks with eight carefully selected drivers —  including three with backgrounds in business and construction management, two mechanics, a law enforcement officer, a first responder, and Dale, an educator —  will leave Wednesday night at 10:30 p.m. and drive non-stop, arriving in Cleveland by 12:30 p.m. In order to drain as few local resources as possible, they will bring their own sleeping bags and cots, which will be donated after the ACT mission leaves Cleveland.

“I am really just stunned by the concern from our community, and the interest in helping people, one-on-one,” Lesser said, as he helped load boxes of donated goods  on the sidewalk outside City Hall Tuesday morning.  “We all know there is a huge need in the overall area impacted by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, but we are grateful to Dr. Dale for bringing the story of one small community to our attention.”

Lesser noted that even prior to Harvey, the Cleveland area faced challenges —  85 percent of the 5,200 kids in the school district there are on meal assistance plans.

“It’s already a poor community,” Lesser said. “The need is so great in that region now, it’s just terrible. But it’s terrific that we can help this one community with their needs.”

Collection points were set up for all day Tuesday and Wednesday at all seven MBUSD campuses. Donors are asked to drop off hygiene kits at Manhattan Beach Middle School, clothing and cleaning supply kits at Mira Costa, school supply kits at Meadows, Grand View, and Pacific elementary schools, baby supply kits at Pennekamp Elementary, blankets, pillows, and towels at Pacific Elementary, scrubbing supplies at Robinson Elementary, and pet supplies at Grand View. City Hall serves as a drop off for all goods and will be set up to receive donation from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; School dropoffs run from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. both days.  

Those who wish to make cash donations are asked to donate to the ACT Campaign through the MBX foundation, a local MBUSD-based non-profit; The American Red Cross via the MBMS Red Cross Youth Club; or Good360, a non-profit serving the entire disaster area.

As of Tuesday midday, Dale said $35,000 had been donated. The plan, he said, is after the four trucks arrive and goods are distributed —  all in prepackaged kits, in order to be most efficient —  is to do a needs assessment, then drive two of the trucks up to Dallas and use the donated cash to buy more supplies for the outlying areas on the 59 Corridor.

“We’ve raised a good amount of money,” Dale said. “And we’ve just started.”

Lesser said that in times of disaster like these, it’s worth bearing in mind that Manhattan Beach could one day find itself in need of help, as well.

“We live in seismic country, where earthquakes are never far from mind,” the mayor said. “The shoe could absolutely be on the other foot.”

When Dale saddles up late Wednesday and charts his course for Cleveland, it will be for a homecoming the likes of which he never imagined. He’ll arrive with a truckload of goods.

His  father passed away in 2010 and he rarely visits his old stomping grounds. But in the last week, he’s felt closer to his hometown than he has in three decades. 

“It was a great place to grow up, a really tight-knit community,” he said. “The people there are very friendly…As I got back in touch, the guy who is former mayor was a classmate. So was the chief of police. And the community organizer for all this, Teresa Coats, was from the same year as me. It’s been a little strange, because I left in 1985 and yet this week, communicating with them, it’s like I never left. The love I have for that community is still strong.”

“Ronnie Lewis still owns the Shack. And yes, I will be going there.”

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