“The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross, and which to burn.”
State 27: Texas - January 28, 2018
We woke up at a Walmart in Sugar Land, TX well rested and ready for a brand new day. Yesterday, we met Joel Osteen; 7 time New York Times best-selling Author, and Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church; the largest congregation in America, and we could wait not to see what adventures lie head today! The first item on the agenda is a 22 mile drive Northeast back to Houston to visit the Cross Country Couple's “Made in the USA Tour” for Texas; The Houston Food Bank.
Their vision is to provide food for all in need, and their mission is to lead the fight against hunger. Since their founding in 1982, that is exactly what the Houston Food Bank has done! Today, they are a distribution hub to a network of 600 hunger relief charities throughout 18 Texas counties, and their 308,000 square foot warehouse makes it the largest food bank in America! Each year, the food bank provides 83 million nutritious meals to food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers and schools, and has a goal to distribute 100 million meals in 2018! Even more impressive, 40% of each meal consists of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables! Additional community services offered by the food bank includes nutrition education, assistance with food stamp applications, and even hands-on job training.
The Houston Food Bank is extremely frugal, and makes sure donors money goes to good use. Only $0.05 of every dollar is used for administrative costs. In addition, they are continually exploring new and innovative ways to reduce their costs enabling them to feed even more people. For example, 440 solar panels were installed on the roof to lower the food banks utility bills. The savings from the solar energy equates to the ability to provide more 3 meals every hour to hungry seniors and children in the community! For their ongoing commitment to offer creative, efficient and successful programs exemplifying the highest standards of operations, The Houston Food Bank was awarded Feeding America’s 2015 Food Bank of the Year!
The moment we entered the Houston Food Bank we were shocked by what we saw! The foyer was a brightly colored, clean and uncluttered space. Upbeat music played from overhead speakers, and a modern café with healthy food options in the center of the room served as the focal point. On the walls were words of encouragement and statistics about the difference volunteers of the food bank are making! Around the perimeter of the foyer were larger windows providing opportunities to view the different operations of the food bank in progress. I made my way to the front desk to announce my arrival, and our tour guide Rozio joined us soon thereafter.
In the main space of Houston Food Bank, dozens of long metal tables were filled with all types of school supplies, and volunteers were gingerly stuffing them into children’s backpacks. Rozio took the opportunity to explain the Food Bank's Teacher's Aid Program. Many families can’t afford basic school supplies such as pencils, crayons and notebooks, and even more disturbing, many teachers pay out of their own pocket for the supplies their students need. The Teacher's Aid program seeks to help alleviate this burden by providing school supplies to teachers to distribute to needy students who meet specific criteria. I never imagined a food bank would be involved in distributing school supplies to children! I admire the fact the Houston Food Bank does not pigeon hole themselves, but rather if a need in the community exists, they find a way to meet it!
Next, I was led to large windows in the building's center room, which looked into Keegan's Kitchen. Keegan’s Kitchen was named after Mary Barden Keegan; Community Activist and founder of the End Hunger Network, which merged with Houston Food Bank in 2008. Keegan's Kitchen is a 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art industrial kitchen producing 20,000 hot meals everyday, which are distributed throughout the Greater Houston Area. In the morning, 30 Keegan's Kitchen volunteers assist with meal prep and packaging of hot meals for daily distribution to community locations where children gather after school. Afternoon volunteers help clean and sanitize the kitchen and prepare for the next day. Since food prep was currently in progress, we were unable to enter for sanitary reasons. One of my biggest pet peeves when I go into a restaurant is if I cannot see the kitchen where my food is being prepared. At the Houston Food Bank, their kitchen is on display through very large windows as soon as you enter the building. This was clearly a clean, efficient and impressive operation! Please see the pictures below.
Rizio next led us to another window in the main area featuring what I can only describe as an automated motorized hanging assembly line. All of the food donated by individual people are loaded onto a motorized tram, and as the boxes pass by, dozens of volunteers sort each item into groups such as breakfast, beauty care, and paper products, ect. The volunteers also check the expiration dates, and clean the donated items. The Houston Food Bank is the only food bank to use an assembly line to sort their donated food, and it was built by the same company who constructed the assembly line at the Ford Factory. I always wondered how food banks processed such a large volume of donated food, and now I know! Please see the pictures below.
Next, our guide Rozio led us through a pair of doors, past 18 pallets of corn flakes, past massive 2000-pound bags of rice and into their main warehouse, where the perishable and non-perishable food is stored. The main storage area consisted of pallets and pallets of food stacked on racks 6 high, which went on for isle after isle after isle! It took over 30 minutes to walk the entire length of this portion of their warehouse! Next, we were brought to their gigantic coolers where their frozen food, produce, meat and dairy are stored, which makes up 40% of all food distributed! Never before had I seen so much food in my life, and everything was clean and well organized! In case you were wondering, the number one item they distribute and always are in need of is peanut butter! Please see the pictures below!
Please see additional pictures below of our visit to the Houston Food Bank.
I had never been to a food bank before, and to be perfectly honest, I had some serious misconceptions. I was expecting to see stacks of sugary cereal and mountains of cans being passed out by people performing court mandated community service to eagerly awaiting homeless lined up along the city sidewalk! Boy was I embarrassingly mistaken! What I discovered at the Houston Food Bank was a clean, organized and professional operation staffed by hundreds of dedicated and cheerful volunteers actively engaged in a never ending battle to feed millions of meals to seniors, children, and the working poor! While it may be easy to assume if Houston has the largest food bank in the US, the city must have extreme poverty. However, this would be a false assumption! Hunger is not a Houston problem. Hunger plagues all humanity! Hunger does not only occur in 3rd world countries in far off lands, hunger exists in every community across America! What separates the Houston Food Bank from all others is they have positioned themselves on the front lines in the fight against hunger, and are helping thousands of people every day!
Our time in Texas had come to an end. We had spent almost 3 weeks exploring the state, and one of which was in Houston! However, we had one last stop to make! We drove 74 miles Northeast to Livingston, TX to the Escapees World Headquarters. Founded in 1978 by Kay and Joe Peterson, Escapees RV Club is a support community for RV’ers. From the original 82 members, the club has exponentially grown to over 10,000 members today! In 2001, Joe and Kay were inducted into the RV Hall of Fame, and in 2010, they were named among the 100 “Most Influential People” in the RV Industry. There are two offerings of the club setting it apart from all others: Mail Forwarding Service, and the CARE Independent Living Center.
The Cross Country Couple uses Escapees Mail Forwarding Services, which you can read about in one of our previous posts by clicking here. While at Escapees, we decided to learn how they receive, sort, and forward the mail of over 10,000 full time RV’ers, but unfortunately, pictures were not allowed on the tour. We took the opportunity to see our mailbox, which actually was a simple green folder, and saved a few bucks on shipping by picking up our mail in person. It has been 7 months since I retrieved my mail from a mailbox, and It felt quite strange to do so. Since our home is where ever we park Rosie, the day we spent at Escapees marks the only time on our year long cross country trip our physical location actually matches our mailing address!
Founded in 1992 by Kay Peterson, Escapees CARE Center is a nonprofit providing independent living at affordable prices for members whose RV travels are impacted because of age or temporarily interrupted because of health problems. CARE is an acronym for (Continuing Assistance for Retired Escapees), and answers the question, "What happens to full-time RV’ers when they cannot take care of themselves or their spouse's following an illness, injury, surgery, or the progression of a long-term health situation?" CARE is not a nursing home, or assisted living facility. Those living at the CARE Center live in their own RV’s, and maintain connections to a community of like-minded people. Some of the many services CARE offers include: three meals and a snack seven days a week with over 40,000 meals served annually, cleaning and linen service, and scheduling of and transportation to medical appointments. In addition, CARE offers an Adult Daycare Program providing: a nurse on duty eight hours during the business day, and trained staff to provide monitoring, games, exercise and much more!
Escapees CARE Center is the only place in the entire world offering such services to former full time RV’ers! As a nurse who has worked in long term care, I can attest the rates at CARE are extremely reasonable compared to 55+ communities, assisted living, and nursing homes. The affordable rates are due to the generosity of Escapees RV Club members through their donations of time and money. It is a shame this business model has not be duplicated elsewhere as an affordable independent living option for America's seniors!
Joe Peterson passed away in 2010, but his wife Kay still remained active in the RV Club into her 90’s. I was greatly looking forward to meeting Kay, but upon my arrival at Escapees, I learned it was not meant to be. Kay Peterson passed away in June of 2017; the same month we departed on our year long cross country trip. Just as our journey was beginning, Kay’s journey was coming to an end. Kay has now joined her husband Joe in that peaceful place with forever sunny skies, endless open road, and where breakdowns never occur! However, the RV club, mail forwarding service, and Independent living center the Peterson’s established lives on, and will continue to touch the lives of future RVer’s for many years to come.
Nate & Lori
A few of the qualities we are looking for in a new home state include: a clean environment, low population, and minimal risk for natural disasters. The Greater Houston area is the largest gas and oil producing city on the US, has a population of over 6 million, and has a long history of hurricanes. Nevertheless, there was something about Houston that spoke to us, and we spent an entire week in the area searching for what that something was. Here is what we discovered.
When exploring a new town on our cross country trip, one of the first places we go is the library. Aside from offering free Wi-Fi, it is also the usual hang out for the areas homeless, and we get to witness first-hand how they are treated. While Houston has homeless, they were clearly in better condition compared to most other cities we have visited. Even driving through the streets of Houston, there was little evidence of Hurricane Harvey's destruction, which had devastated the city just 4 months prior to our arrival. The aforementioned is due to organizations such as the Houston Food Bank, and countless others whose daily mission is to make the world around them a better place. The best way to judge a community is by how it cares for it's weakest and most vulnerable citizens, and we are noticing a reoccurring pattern all throughout this state. Texans take care of their own! Nowhere in the state was this more evident than in Houston!
Houston is home to the Texas Medical Center (TMC), which is the largest medical complex in the world! People travel from all across the globe to get their health care here. Last year TMC had; 750,000 ER visits, 10 million patient encounters, 180,000 annual surgeries averaging one every 3 seconds, 25,000 babies are delivered each year averaging one every 20 minutes, and home to both the world’s largest cancer and children’s hospitals. TMC has; 106,000 employees, 2 schools of medicine, and 4 schools of nursing. Since Lori and I both work in healthcare, we would never have to worry about being unemployed if Houston was our new home, and there are endless opportunities to further our education. Wherever we drove in Houston, healthcare was everywhere!
Texas has the strongest pride of any state we have visited thus far, and examples exist all throughout the state. You would be hard pressed to drive down any road in Texas, and not find the state flag flying high and proud. From signs to shirts and everything else in between, the shape of the state's likeness is literally everywhere! In the absence of the aforementioned, there are subtler references in the form of the Texas Lone Star, which is even embedded onto the highway overpasses! With state pride comes a sense of ownership, which results in people taking care of their state! Texans don’t litter! Texans don’t graffiti their cities! Texans treat each other with genuine respect and courtesy! (They do in person, but behind the wheel is a whole other story) Who knows, maybe we too will one day; integrate ya’ll into our vocabulary, fly the state’s flag in our own front yard, proudly wear a t-shirt that reads, “Don’t Mess With Texas”, and our next tattoo may just be the Texas Lone Star! LOL!
In all seriousness, there is a lot to both like and dislike about Texas! We hated the poor water quality, the pollution from gas and oil production, cattle ranching, over population, aggressive drivers and history of hurricanes. However, we loved: the state pride, Texans genuine friendliness, low cost of living, strong economy, 0% income tax, temperate year round weather, great churches, and cleanliness throughout the state. Complicating matters further, the sheer size of Texas makes it extremely difficult to make a generalization of the state as a whole. Our experiences in Western Texas, were drastically different from Central Texas, which were also drastically different from our time spent in Eastern Texas. This is going to be the Cross Country Couples toughest state to vote on!
We spent our last night in Texas dry camping at Escapees, and tomorrow we depart at dawn for Louisiana!