The deep, deep flood waters of Harvey brought to mind the Old Testament story of Noah and the ark for many Houstonians involved in the elaborate recovery process.
Another ancient account – this one from the New Testament – also emerged. Across a wide field Jesus Christ was speaking to 5,000 men but had no apparent resources to feed the masses.
“It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” one disciple said.
Undaunted, the leader turned to another disciple who found a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.
Today’s Loaves and Fishes
Fast forward to 2017 and ask the question: Who would feed HPD officers and other first responders who were working 24/7, most of them working on “an empty tank”?
Then, as if by fate, emerged a Houston businessman with a talent for locating the proverbial loaves and fishes (and meat) for first responders everywhere throughout the Bayou City.
He fed more than 5,000 – often that many in a single day in the form of three square meals a day for police officers, constables, firefighters, ambulance drivers, National Guardsmen, even numerous civilians and anyone involved in rescue and recovery operations.
The loaves and fishes man, as identified by HPOU President Ray Hunt, was (is) “a gentleman by the name of Gavin Torabi.
One might ask: Who is this resourceful individual and how, pray tell, did he do it?
Let’s address the latter question first.
Torabi survived the flood and, like many others who sustained little or no flood damage, sought to help out the less fortunate. He asked a Precinct 5 deputy constable Clinton Beasley what he could do and was told, “Use your connections and your brain and feed my brothers and sisters.”
He learned that Precinct 5 had 50 deputies surviving on potato chips and water. He went to Toulouse Bistro Westheimer and got 25 gourmet burgers, fries for comfort, some Brussel sprouts and broccoli (healthy choices), divided the burgers in half and fed the 50!
The next day word got out. Torabi prevailed upon other food-serving resources to feed 550 meals to an outpost at Westheimer and Wilcrest in West Houston to HPD officers, military service personnel and FBI SWAT – about 150 individuals.
The restaurants and teams that pitched in were Toulouse Bistro, Brennans’s, Del Frisco’s Gallieria, Operation BBQ Relief, BB’s Café Richmond Dr., El Tiempo on Richmond Dr., Fadi’s, Benjy’s Washington, Bernies Burger Bus, Cedar’s Bakery, Pappasitos Reliaant Stadium, Gelazzi Gelato Heights, Zach of Tiff’s Treats.
Torabi was on a roll!
Due to his efforts, 500 military were fed breakfast, lunch and dinner on a daily basis. Then, like the boy with the loaves and fishes might have deduced, how can he expand the effort.
Torabi said that what happened next amounted to a giant spark that opened many doors and fed thousands of first responders.
He called the Houston Police Officers Union and left a voice mail. No flood, mishap or hurdle prevented HPOU 3rd Vice President Tom Hayes from getting the message. However, Hayes admitted being puzzled when he heard Torabi say he could feed 10,000 individuals. Hayes figured it was a misunderstanding and that the caller meant 1,000. Torabi told Hayes he could bring over 500 to 1,000 meals that very day.
“When I first spoke to him on the phone,” Hayes recalled, “I was skeptical. Why not bring 300 meals to the Union. Come over yourself so I can meet you. When something appears to be too good, it usually never is.”
The man making the unbelievable offer showed up with “only” 500 hot meals.
It was the beginning of a productive relationship!
“I’ve been working with him every day since this whole thing started,” Sgt. Hayes explained. “He contacted a lot of stations on his own and we contacted a lot on his behalf. It was remarkable.”
Hayes soon learned what Ray Hunt and many others around the Union found out: Gavin Torabi doesn’t take NO for an answer!
No Disabled List
With Torabi frequently camped out at HPOU, Hayes heard his non-stop approach to potential contributors as Torabi used his personal cell phone. He started getting some Nos.
“We needed some tents, donated tents, but his volunteers were having a hard time. Most tents were in use or en route to Florida,” Hayes said. “He asked if he could come use my land line at the HPOU.”
“I heard him working that phone. The person at the other end could see he was calling from HPOU. When the person went negative, he used a different tactic. We ended up with two tents, one in front and one in the back from Any Occasion Party Rental and Richard Tents.”
Torabi has sources all over the place. He succeeded in getting high-end waders donated to HPD officers from Gordy & Son’s so they could work better in high water. The value of the donations was estimated to be close to $20,000.
Basically, he kept a constant track of HPD’s needs, meals and otherwise, and immediately sought the appropriate donations.
He worked incessantly and – as Hayes explained – “at one point midway through him supplying us, he threw his back out. His girlfriend Olga ended up driving him around. He literally could not get out of the car and when he walked he was hunched over like an old man.
“He just continued through, never missing a point to meet our needs.”
For instance: Red Bull energy drink. “It was like gold,” Hayes said. Alas, there was little to be found on any grocery or convenience store shelf.
Torabi uncovered Houston’s supply of Red Bull and got it donated and delivered!
The 38-year-old businessman/entrepreneur (he runs a design/build firm and electric sign mfg. company) seems to be quiet and unassuming but with an obviously strong, undaunted determination to produce. With him all the way and serving in support capacities were Olga Panchenko, an attorney, and his sister Tonya, also an attorney.
His record for success is undeniable. By Sept. 15, he had worked to see that a total of 101,200 meals were served to HPD officers and first responders throughout Houston.
“You may call it a miracle,” he said of the feeding effort he masterminded. “You have to have faith in others and be able to execute as one team and make great things happen. It was a community coming together and forming a chain with links directed at the Department.”
As he spoke to the Badge & Gun, Torabi said he was in the process of forming and promoting a non-profit aimed at instilling improved communications between citizens and their first responders. He wants to put the technique he put into practice in the Harvey aftermath into a practice that operates 365 days a year and not just in a crisis. His company is called 10 T.K.L. Its symbol, he said, will be an octopus that symbolizes “one body with many arms.”
“Our organization is basically going to be a long-term foundation with direct outreach to first responders and the community,” he explained. “What we are trying to do is eliminate the barriers between the assets you’re donating and you truly know where your donations specifically go. That’s how you make a difference.”
He explained further:
Let’s say a potential donor – a restaurant with meals or a supplier with waders, for instance – wants to contribute but wants to make sure the goods are going to the proper beneficiaries. Torabi makes the arrangements and delivers, taking a picture of the delivery. There is no checks or cash involved, for he doesn’t want marketing, publicity or tax deductions to be a primary focus. That’s why he writes Thank You notes on the pictures so that they can’t be easily reproduced.
From Past to Present
“This is all an act of directed guided altruism,” Torabi explained. “It’s igniting the spark. It’s so easy to ignite a spark, and earn trust when you don’t have a fiscal gain involved. Serving makes a person rich in spiritual gratification.
“An officer came up to me in the grocery store and said, ‘Thank you for taking care of us like a family.’
“I personally don’t need a monetary gain for this. It is the community that gave us an outlet to make an impact amongst those we rely on to lay down their lives daily and nightly.
“I want to make that consistent going forward. I want to capture that essence of oneness and bottle that spirit Houstonians and Texans showed.”
Torabi is a native of Iran. His father’s brother was a general under the Shah of Iran before the Shah was ousted and the country taken over by the regime currently ruling the country. Before the Shah’s reign ended, Torabi’s parents had come to the United States seeking advanced college degrees that would have enabled them to earn additional income.
“Our lives would have been threatened if we went back to Iran. A Southern Baptist church took my father in and prevented him from being deported. Because of that and what this country did for me and my sister, I appreciate a country that has freedom and has the opportunity for your role to count.
“You can work alongside law enforcement. That is true freedom. I value it more than a person that’s been born into it. I was gifted it. We will not take it for granted for the rest of our lives.”
He said he grew up as a latch-key kid who spent lots of time watching cooking shows on television. He developed a philosophy that has carried over to his leadership in the loaves-and-fishes effort: “I have a love for the culinary world, and the hospitality industry. Sharing one’s time and food. There is nothing better than sharing the best thing in your pantry or kitchen with somebody.
“That has always been a belief of mine. You go over to some people’s places and they give you the scraps. Others – they let you eat first. It’s not just the act of consuming the food; it’s the love of preparing the food.”
He seemed to relish talking about the sparks that lit the fire under a care and feeding effort that resulted in an untold number of thousands of meals from hot gourmet servings to Subways.
“The Union used the spark of Steve’s passing,” he said referring to the line-of-duty death of Sgt. Steve Perez, “It sparked me to do something – not just me but a lot of people that believed.”
Torabi believes his undying efforts to help HPD officers succeed will result in a brighter future, rain or shine, flood or sun.
“There are great cities in this country, but we are more than that,” he said. “We are now one. One that has bobbed and weaved through rising waters, and gained something through loss and pain. One that did not go under but rose together. The public perception of Houston and HPD will never be the same.”
And, knowing his work is only beginning, he smiled.