This content was originally published on Open Book.
When Kelley Kurtz signed up for the carpentry diploma program last July, she had no idea how it would impact her life.
At the time, Kelley didn’t know the program would lead to a new job and a promising career. She also didn’t know that demolition would become a favorite form of stress relief. And most importantly, Kelley didn’t know that the skills she learned would help her rebuild her home after Hurricane Harvey struck less than a month later.
On August 26, 2018, Kelley Kurtz experienced something truly terrifying. It was fight night, and despite the heavy rainfall and building winds, much of Galveston County was more concerned with the outcome of the match than the local news.
Being situated on the Texas coast, tropical storms were fairly run of the mill — and this particular storm wasn’t expected to be anything special. The mild weather forecast along with Mayweather’s big win were just a few of the reasons the bars were full that Saturday night.
Though friends had invited her out to join the festivities, and her daughter, Haley, was at her father’s for the night, Kelly opted to stay in. Between her parents, sister, two nieces, and grandmother, it was a full house — and the rain was still picking up.
Kelley awoke later that night to the uncharacteristic barking of the neighbor’s dog. It wasn’t until she stepped out of the bed — and into a foot of water — that she realized the house had started to flood. After waking her father and checking on the dog, they unplugged all of the cords in the house, watching as the water crept closer and closer to the outlets.
“It was gushing between the walls, coming up from the floor, and everything that was by our front door had shoved to the other side of our house,” Kelley said. “The water was just rising and rising and rising.”
This was just the beginning of what turned into one of the longest nights of Kelley’s life. Over the course of the next few hours, conditions worsened. After a failed evacuation attempt, the family found themselves huddled atop a mattress and a pile of soggy objects.
The streets were flooded. The couch was under water. The rain had just picked up. And Kelley had no way to contact her daughter.
It wasn’t until nearly 11 am the following morning that the fire department arrived driving a dump truck. The family climbed from the ruins of their house into the back of the vehicle and were finally taken to safety.
“That moment the next day, when I got to see my daughter, and just hold her and hug her and kiss her — nothing mattered.” Kelley shared. “My mom has a saying. She says, ‘we’re going to get through it no matter what.’ And she has said that my entire life. And when this happened, I finally understood what it meant.”
Though she was immensely grateful that her family escaped unharmed, she struggled with the loss of the house. While the frame still stood, much of the interior would need to be gutted.
“You feel like, hey, I remember bringing my daughter home, or I remember when we first moved into this house when I was in the eighth grade.” She said. “Now it’s like, ‘Where did that wall go.’ It’s the memories… At the end of the day, you just look at your kid and are like okay. Tomorrow is a new day. Whatever we face we’re going to face together and get through it.”
It was likely this mindset that allowed Kelley to take matters into her own hands. As a Lowe’s employee and carpentry program student, Kelley was no stranger to the “do it yourself” mindset. Sure, she’d only just started her program, but she’d gained some experience while working in the doors and windows department and had met others who planned to rebuild their homes themselves. So when the contractors became too much to deal with, she put her education to work and took over the rebuild.
“Whenever you go through something so tragic… you want your mind to focus elsewhere.” Kelley said. For her, this meant focusing on her studies by burying her head in her books and working through the program in just two months.
As she worked through the carpentry program, Kelley tested out the methods described in her textbook at home. “We ended up texturing our walls with plastic bags,” Kelly said, “and it was actually in the book! So it was really neat — really fun.”
Since then, Kelley has also installed sheetrock, doors, and more — pushing her home even closer to completion. While power tools and toys still fight for space on the floor, the family no longer has to wash their dishes in the tub, and the privacy curtain in front of the bathroom has been replaced with a door.
To be clear, Kelley originally enrolled in the carpentry program to improve her knowledge of her department at work. She didn’t necessarily go in with the intention of becoming an installer — or rebuilding a house.
So when she received a call from a Lowe’s installer back in October, she was more than a little surprised. Between caring for her daughter and working on the house, Kelly had limited flexibility in terms of time and pay — which is one of the many reasons she’d struggled to find an apprenticeship earlier.
However, thanks to a little behind the scenes work on the part of her Field Service Manager and a lot of talent on Kelley’s part, she was able to accept a job that meets all of her needs.
Now, Kelley works as a project manager. She calls customers, schedules appointments, and makes sure everyone is happy with the company’s work. While she isn’t currently working as an installer herself, she’s got plenty of projects back home to keep her busy. “At the end of the day, when you’re able to put a smile on your face and take care of your kid — I would do this program sooner if I had the ability,” Kelley said.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, signing up to learn a trade opened many doors that likely otherwise would have stayed closed. Kelley was able to transition to a flexible job with plenty of upward mobility, discover a new creative outlet, and start rebuilding her home. “If you have no time, guess what? Do a test, read a book, and go do it in like three weeks,” Kelley advises, “To me, it was just a class. But it’s so life-changing for anyone who’s able to do it.”