AUSTIN – As Texas Gov. Greg Abbott offered plates of food and encouraging words to about 200 evacuees from Hurricane Harvey at a shelter in Austin last weekend, scant attention was paid to the volunteer wearing blue jeans and an untucked white blouse helping nearby.
Sometimes she was caught in the frames of reporters’ news cameras and smartphones recording the alternating expressions of anguish and hope on the faces of the people who thanked the governor for coming. At other times, she was seen shuttling plates of spaghetti and chicken to people waiting on cots inside the sprawling community center, still numb from leaving behind their homes, their lives and even other members of their families to escape the worst storm to assault Texans in generations.
“This is what she does best. It is her calling in life,” Abbott later told the USA TODAY Network about the volunteer. “She is always there to help others — not for any public acclaim or to draw attention to herself."
The governor should know. He has been married to her for 36 years. Since becoming the first lady of Texas in January 2015, Cecilia Abbott has maintained a far lower profile than her immediate predecessors. Last year, she launched an initiative she calls “Texanthropy” to promote volunteerism, but mostly she goes out of her way to avoid media attention.
In fact, the night after more than a dozen reporters from across Texas huddled around the governor to record him and several other elected leaders serving food to the evacuees, Cecilia Abbott returned the next night with no heads-up to the media and without the entourage that would normally accompany her.
“I grew up in a community where everyone took care of one another,” Cecilia Abbott said in written responses to questions submitted by the USA TODAY Network. “Everybody wants to do something. They may not know what to do, but they want to do something.”
While at the center that normally hosts community and athletic events, Cecilia Abbott was moved by the story told by Shirelle Franklin, who piled her four kids — ages 1 to 14 — her teenage brother, her mother and the family dog into a 2000 Honda Civic and drove from Victoria near the coast to the shelter in Austin. Her father chose to ride out the storm at home.
On Saturday night, nearly 24 hours after Harvey crashed ashore, Franklin still had not heard from him.
Cecilia Abbott heard Franklin's story while the governor held the storm refugee in a tearful embrace feet away from her family’s temporary home, a tiny section of the community center’s floor. Abbott found out where Franklin’s father lives and called state emergency workers assisting the rescue efforts in Victoria and asked them to see if they could find him.
They did. His home was damaged and without power. But he was OK. The workers put him in touch with his daughter in Austin.
When Cecilia Abbott returned to shelter Sunday night, she checked in on Franklin to see how her father was doing.
“I never in my whole life ever expected that the governor and the first lady of Texas would come and help me personally,” said Franklin, who had recently moved to Victoria from Houston. Just days before, she had enrolled her children in school and was hoping to find a job. Now, she said, “I’m back to square one.”
In her written responses, Cecilia Abbott said her reactions to stories like the one Franklin told were in line to what any Texan’s would be: To find some way to help someone in need.
“People are literally donating their time, their talent and their treasure,” said Cecilia Abbott, a former school principal who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degrees in both education and theology. “Many times, the volunteers get more out of it than even the people being served because they are able to just help those folks and you see that when you go to the shelter.”
She said she hopes the devastation Harvey has inflicted on Texas and its people inspires others to find a way to help their less-fortunate neighbors — not only while the national media aims a laser focus at the disaster but in the hard days that follow.
“People need to figure out what is it that they can do. Some people can give money. Others can’t, but they may have a talent that they can give,” she said. “Everybody has a role to play. Some people can do certain things, and they might not be able to do other things.”
Follow John C. Moritz on Twitter: @JohnnieMo