Shirts Across America’s mission since the beginning has been “Building homes to build leaders.” But how did SAA build itself up to what it is today? Take 3 minutes to learn about how we started. The story is pretty cool!
How it started
It started when Pastor Pat Wright had an idea.
Wright is the founder and director of the Seattle-based Total Experience Gospel Choir. She moved to Seattle in 1964 after being born and raised in Carthage, Texas, in the Gulf Coast region of the southern United States.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the surrounding area in 2005 Wright felt the damage in a personal way. She had friends and relatives still living there and she knew they needed help, so she reached out to her friend, Randy Novak.
Wright and Novak began their friendship while Novak worked for the NBA team Seattle Supersonics and Wright’s choir regularly sang the national anthem before Sonics games. When Novak left the Supersonics team he and Wright continued to work together to stage a program featuring the choir and a message of unity, hope and inspiration. The King Classic utilized high school basketball and music to bring diverse communities together to celebrate and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In early 2006, Wright came to Novak with an idea to fill a freight train cargo container full of goods that could be sent to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Her plan was to try to engage Seattle area high school students to help in the effort.
“Pat came to me because we had worked on several events together,” said Novak. “She knew what drives me and that I worked with high school students – she said ‘we need to get this thing done and you’re going to help me.’”
“I approached the high school community called ‘The Voice’ at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. They were excited to help. It was going to be a one-time deal to supply clothes, hygiene items, kitchen goods, and basic necessities,” Novak explained.
Then, Novak had an idea.
In planning the 2007 version of the King Classic, Novak and his fellow organizers decided to give six Seattle area students $500 apiece. Each student had two months to grow the initial investment. The resulting funds would be given to relief organizations in the Gulf.
The six students selected turned the initial $3,000 into $19,000. One student ran a basketball camp for kids. Another wrote a letter to his community paper asking for help. Two students, Laura Snowden and Patrick Goodwin, combined forces and designed t-shirts, which they sold to fellow students. Snowden created a t-shirt that had a duck on the front with the phrase ‘Hope Floats’ and Goodwin created a shirt with a logo that read 4TF which stood for ‘4 the Flood’.
Goodwin and Snowden called their successful effort “Shirts Across America.” Wright and Novak took the $19,000 raised to the Gulf Coast and distributed it to organizations that were doing good work.
Then, the students had an idea.
They wanted to personally help in the rebuilding effort, so in 2008 forty-three Seattle area students and adults made the commitment to fly to the Gulf Coast during spring break to build a house.
“This storm took out families that were working,” Novak said. “Families lost their homes, but that wasn’t all. They lost their community because all their friends were gone. They lost their jobs because all the jobs were gone. All the bad things that can happen to people, happened all at once to entire communities. So we thought we’d make one trip and help one family get back into their home.”
The family selected was the Bryant family of Gulfport, Mississippi. They were flown to Seattle so they could meet the students who were going to help them out. “He was a truck driver and his wife worked at a hospital,” Novak said. “The storm wiped them out. Their entire family had been living in the kitchen of their home because it was the only room not overcome by mold.”
The students spent a week working on the home and a few months later got the word that the Bryant family had been able to move back in thanks in part to their effort. Spending a week in the area allowed the group to see the immense level of devastation and how many people were still struggling.
On the flight home, everyone had the same idea: Let’s keep going!
“We all realized the enormity of the problem,” said Novak. “We saw families without the means to get basic necessities for their children. It was horrible. It became very personal to all of us. We knew we couldn’t fix it all, but if we kept doing our piece and if others stepped up and did their piece – we would accomplish a lot.”
It’s been over a decade since Pat Wright first enlisted Randy Novak’s help and longer than that since Katrina. In that time SAA has sent over 3,400 volunteers on Gulf Coast trips that now number five per year. Since that first trip in 2008 SAA has worked on 200 different homes in the Gulf Coast region, positively impacting the lives of thousands of people.
The organization continues to grow in the same grass roots style in which it began.
“Every year I get nervous,” Novak said while laughing. “At the end of the school year we erase the white board in our office and we’re down to zero kids again. We don’t exist. OK, can we do a good job of educating students about the challenges that remain?”
Every year the list of students who want to participate in SAA’s program grows. The students who have already traveled down to New Orleans talk to their peers about how meaningful the trip is and continue to inspire new students to want to take action.
“They all see it, students want to be a part of the solution and they jump in,” Novak said. “Young adults today are really good about service. They really want to give back and know they’re making a difference. Something like this is tangible. ‘I put up that wall, I painted that house, I put in that floor.’ They walk away knowing they’ve helped someone in a tangible way. It’s a big deal.”