Texas and Louisiana are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. An estimated 27 trillion gallons of rain fell over a 6-day period, took the lives of 75 people and will cost as much as much as $75 billion.

The word catastrophic does not appropriately describe the mayhem. As with each weather event ripping through towns, and lives, the world has come together to offer support to those hit hardest by unspeakable tragedy.

Photo c/o Leslie LaMacchia

“The morning after Harvey hit,” explains Leslie LaMacchia, “I was watching people on the local news evacuating the area by boat and helicopter and being dropped off at shelters with only the soaking wet clothes on their backs.”

One of the key shelter spots in the hours following Harvey, the George R. Brown Convention Center housed over 9,000 evacuees. The convention center is about four miles from LaMacchia’s living room. Even with unnavigable roads and barricades at every turn, the former NCAA Division 1 college basketball player turned professional tri-athlete was determined to get down to George R. Brown convention center to help in any way she could.

The scene was chaotic, crazier than any blockbuster movie depicting the moments before the world is doomed to meet its end.

The number of evacuees heavily outweighed the number of volunteers. Along with a close friend who also made it to the convention center to volunteer, LaMacchia went straight to work in the section of the shelter where donations were being dropped off.

“We just ripped through bags and bags of donated items, sorting and organizing, finding the right sizes, finding the gear each family needed upon check-in. We just wanted to be sure every person had a dry set of clothes to put on and a blanket to keep them warm.”

Photo c/o Leslie LaMacchia

As family after family poured into the shelter, LaMaccia and the other volunteers did whatever it took to make people comfortable, including handing out hugs to go with the rations.

LaMaccia attended Monmouth University on a full basketball scholarship and ran track & field in the offseason. After graduating in 2001, she attended law school and currently works as a plaintiff’s attorney, specializing in product liability and pharmaceutical litigation. Sports took a backseat to her career until 2010 when she discovered her love of triathlons.

LaMaccia earned her pro card in 2011, racing mostly half Ironman and Ironman distances. Even in her time on the court, and in court, didn’t prepare the New York native for the uphill climb to recovery that’s still going on months later.

“I am not sure if the national coverage depicted the thousands of water rescues happening in every neighborhood, or how quickly the bayous were filling up, but the devastation was insane. I’ve lived in Houston for 15 years and been through several hurricanes, tropical storms and floods but this was different. I could only keep thinking ‘how is this much water possible?'”

In the wake of Harvey, LaMaccia’s focus turned to making a direct impact on a family’s life if only to lessen the burden and make an already emotionally stressful and overwhelming situation a bit more comforting.

Her volunteer service in the shelter enabled her to get to know a few families personally, families who lost everything in the storm. She decided to “adopt” two of the families.

LaMaccia introduced those families on her personal Facebook page, live from the shelter, and friends gravitated towards them. She received cash donations, gift cards, clothing, household items, and cleaning supplies from friends, family, friends of friends, and people she lost direct contact with years earlier. She converted her garage into a temporary donation center. Even complete strangers sent in donations.

LaMaccia continues to share updates from these family’s current homes and neighborhoods while they rebuild.

“These families are now my family,” she explained.

The word continues to spread, and the generosity keeps growing. Her hometown of Ogdensburg, New York rallied around their native daughter in support of her sponsored families. The town held a carwash and local businesses put out jars. Businesses donated supplies. A triathlon team collected items, and two of her friends drove a 26-foot U-Haul truck down to Houston, 28 hours straight, to deliver those supplies to the families and shelters.

Photo c/o Leslie LaMacchia

Friends have reached out to LaMaccia to sponsor other families she met at the shelter and sponsor local schools damaged in the storm. It has become a domino effect.

To say Harvey was a life-altering event for LaMaccia’s is a gross understatement. The historic event changed the way she sees the mere act of being there and the embrace of a stranger in need.

“I think I have always been a generous and compassionate person, but this situation heightened my awareness and sensitivity a bit more. I look at people more differently now than before. Everyone has a story, a need for something, and sometimes it’s as simple as a hug. Everyone can make a difference in someone’s life.”