The Keys to a Journey Home

By Jennifer Hansen, American Red Cross

Lekeshia Nichols is tired. Tired and under the weather.

From underneath a pile of blankets on her Red Cross shelter cot at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas Friday morning, she is doing her level best to stay rested and avoid an oncoming cold. But a stressful evacuation from Houston floodwaters courtesy of Harvey, followed by a week spent in the Dallas shelter with thousands of other south Texas evacuees, has left her tired, sniffly, and anxious for some good news.

For much of the past week, it’s been nothing but bad news for Lekeshia: bad news that came in the frustrating form of lost car keys. What would ordinarily be a common nuisance for many was essentially a road block for the Houston family. Losing her keys while hundreds of miles from home meant that she was parked in Dallas until she found them. And to date, the keys were still MIA.

She first noticed they were missing after taking her kids to the Perot Museum, one of several Dallas attractions that offered free admission to Harvey evacuees. Her family took advantage of the free visit and enjoyed a welcome respite from worry over Harvey’s floodwaters. After the Uber ride back to the shelter (Uber has provided free transportation around Dallas for evacuees), Lekeshia noticed something was missing.

“I was like ‘Has anybody seen my keys?’” she recalled. “We called the museum, we called Uber, we checked in the Lost and Found at the shelter, we called and checked every day. As of today, still no keys.”

Knowing that her stay in Dallas would be extended indefinitely without a way to drive home, she started making calls to dealerships for a replacement key. Added to the equation was the welcome news that while her street in Houston had flooded, her home remained dry. It was now safe to return. The missing keys were literally the only thing preventing the Nichols family from going home.

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“I started calling family and friends to see if someone could send me money,” she said, adding that the cheapest replacement quote she’d found was upwards of $300. Most quotes topped $500. “My mom’s on a fixed income, so she wasn’t able to help me, and everybody else had their own things going on.”

After phone calls to dealerships and family got her essentially nowhere, Lekeshia turned to Red Cross shelter manager Anngie Johnson for help.  Anngie, in turn, fielded the request to community partnerships volunteer Steve Wise from Chicago, who made it his mission to find a solution.

“Mr. Steve was very adamant about getting me assistance,” she said. “He said he would make some calls and follow-up with some of the dealers, and he was very helpful with keeping me updated.”

“I contacted the nearest Hyundai dealership and spoke to their Service Manager, Larry Friday,” Steve said, recounting what was a multi-day process to get Lekeshia new keys. “In order to replace her keys, she needed to have her car towed to the dealership so they could replace her FOB, Key and program it accordingly.”

Towing her car 11 miles from the convention center to Freeman Hyundai, plus the replacement keys put the total price tag at nearly $700. But Steve didn’t give up.

“I explained Lekeshia’s situation to Larry, and he was on board. He was instrumental in setting up this effort,” he said. “We were able to contact Hyundai Roadside Assistance to arrange both a tow and a ride over to the dealership for Lekeshia. And Larry agreed to waive all the fees.”

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Welcome news for a Houston family that was eager to get back home.

“I was so relieved, I was ecstatic,” Lekeshia said, smiling as she recalled the moment of relief. “I was so excited that Mr. Larry was going to help us get back home.”

Sitting in the waiting area of Freeman Hyundai’s service department, she still smiles, knowing she will be on her way to Houston soon.

“I want to be home and get back to a routine,” she said, adding that her son, Aidan, starts school on Monday. Her new keys will be ready in about an hour; from there, she’ll return to the shelter, pack up, and hit the road.

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For Steve, Lekeshia’s story is one of many he’s seen since the shelter opened shortly after Harvey made landfall late last month. The time spent addressing situations such as Lekeshia’s – the phone calls, the research, the time away from other shelter needs – are part of his calling and mission as a Red Cross volunteer.

That afternoon, as the Nichols drove south on I-45 toward Houston, Steve was back in the shelter command center. With a happy ending for Lekeshia under his belt, he awaited a new opportunity to help … one person, one story, one car key at a time.

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