Interview with Bradley LeConey by Paloma Alvarado

Bradley LeConey is a sign language interpreter and manager at the fourth-busiest Starbucks in the United States. Although he is originally from New Jersey, he moved to Houston to start a new life and go back to school. Sign language is a big part of his life, so he decided to hire Deaf employees with the help of Starbucks. He began as a barista but moved up quickly in the company with the help of supportive managers. Unfortunately, Bradley was terribly affected by Hurricane Harvey and suffered through stressful weeks before he was able to get back on his feet.

Paloma Alvarado: How did you feel when you first heard the news about the hurricane?

Bradley LeConey: When I first moved here two years go around May, we had a big rainstorm and the streets were flooded. I am from New Jersey—when it rains and snows, we drive through everything. I didn’t know the extent of how the roads flood in Houston. I actually got stuck on my way from Kingswood on 59 by Montrose Boulevard for two and a half hours with my car turned off. Then the police officer turned everyone around making us drive the wrong way and up the ramp taking me to downtown. I’ve never been to downtown and every road was blocked and flooded with empty cars everywhere…it was like a movie.When the hurricane was announced, [reporters] still didn’t know where it was going [to] go, so by the time they started evacuating the people from the south, there was really no chance of evacuating because all the roads were like parking lots. I didn’t know if we were going to flood or how big the hurricane was going to be, but it definitely scared me. I think the scariest part was Saturday night to Sunday. All those tornado warnings, TV warnings, my phone was going off, my roommate’s phone, it was just like, “Tornado! Tornado! Flash floods!” Constant alerts over and over, which really scared me.

PA: So you had a roommate, where were you living?

BL: Yes. I had two roommates, so it was three of us in a nice apartment right off the Brays Bayou. Brays Bayou overflowed and became part of us.

PA: Did you prepare ahead of time?

BL: We went to the store to buy water, canned goods, those kinds of things. By the time we got there, every place ran out of everything. I think we went to Walmart, Sam’s, and Costco before we finally found Gatorade. So we had Gatorades for days. We were also able to get [canned ravioli], those cans were like ten for $10. Those were pretty much the only things left, so we got a bunch of those.We did pack bags just in case we had to leave, but everything happened so fast. Within twenty minutes, it started to flood.

PA: How were you affected by the hurricane?

BL: I woke up in the morning at 4:30 and got coffee. Thank gosh I work with Starbucks so I get up really early. I went outside to find the whole parking lot was flooded, so I was like, “I don’t think I can go to work today.” Then a colleague of mine, who manages a [different] store but lives in the same building as me, texted me at 4:40 saying his apartment was flooded. So I ran inside and woke my roommates up. I opened up the door again to look outside, and the water was already halfway down the hallway. It started to come into the corner of our apartment and into the bedrooms. It happened so fast. I grabbed my backpack with my laptop, threw my birth certificate and social security card in there, grabbed a pillow and a blanket, and, by the time I did all of that, the water was already halfway up our legs and the power was out.

PA: Do you have any pets?

BL: We have two dogs, a big black lab/Doberman mix and a little Chihuahua. The Chihuahua hates water. If it rains or even if the grass is wet, he will not step outside. I literally need to drag him. The black lab was just wondering what was going on, but then I couldn’t find the Chihuahua. He was actually trying to climb the side of the couch trying to get out of the water, and that broke my heart.

PA: How did you get out of your apartment?

BL: I carried my Chihuahua up to the second and third floors since we lived on the first. When we went back to see what else we could get, the water was already over three feet [high]. The entire apartment flooded and everything was completely gone. It was a really big apartment, too. We had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a den. We lost everything: couches, tables, our beds, computers, TVs, all of our clothes and shoes. I had to wear flip-flops for those three days that we were stuck.My roommates Marcus and Junior work for a hair salon in the mall. The owner of the company, Johnny McCormack, actually picked us up and rescued us in his huge delivering truck.

PA: Where did you go after being rescued?

BL: After Johnny picked us up, he took us to a hotel that allowed dogs, and he paid for a few nights’ stay. We were there for about a week. My store was still closed, and my roommates weren’t working. Thankfully Starbucks had a CUP fund [which stands for] “Caring Unites Partners.” Whenever you buy anything they ask if you would like to round it up to the next dollar to donate to the CUP fund. We also have an open fund that all the partners at every Starbucks donate to, and during any kind of emergency, they release the money to you. So [for] everyone [in Houston] affected by the hurricane, it was an instant $1,000 into your bank account. It was a fast and simple process. I called the number the night we got to the hotel, and the money was already in my account the next morning. The money went to everyone in the stores that were affected. Plus the stores were closed, and they were still paying their employees their normal pay during those days. After [we left the hotel], I went to my aunt’s house because she had an extra bedroom in her apartment that we shared for about a week.

PA: Did you have any valuables that you lost?

BL: Since I moved a lot of times in the past ten years, I didn’t have much stuff. Something I’ve always had with me were books. I love to read. I’m a big fan of literature and studied literature in school as my minor. I had a big book collection and [now it’s] all gone. Losing all my books was one of the biggest things that upset me, along with [losing] my guitar. I started music for depression and anxiety. I struggled with that a few years ago, and I don’t like taking medication, [so] I started playing piano and guitar, which helped me a lot. I had a few family pictures that were lost as well but nothing too crazily valuable. I’m kind of a minimalist. My bed, one dresser, my TV, my clothes, and books were the biggest things I lost.

PA: You made a crowdfunding account, was that your idea and how did it work out?

BL: Yeah, I was just kind of in panic mode and didn’t know what to do. I felt kind of weird making a GoFundMe, but I knew that I needed it. One thing that always makes me think and stay up all night is money situations. I knew I had nothing, no apartment, no furniture, no bed, no clothes, and I wasn’t prepared for it. I decided to make a GoFundMe and see how it would go. I’ve done so much in my life helping other people, so I totally believe in good karma and that kind of stuff. I know that people know I’m genuine, so I started my crowdfunding account. I put $5,000 as my goal and within the first two days I raised $2,100 from friends and family back home. And then [pop singer] Sia actually helped me by paying off my GoFundMe, just under $3,000 [to meet] my overall goal [of] $5,000 and I couldn’t believe that.

PA: How did Sia know about you and what made her help you?

BL: I have actually always been a fan of Sia. I started doing music as therapy and also [learned] sign language. [American] Sign Language is English words but with totally different grammar and context. People on YouTube translate music in sign language, but it’s usually word for word in English order. It’s great that people are learning sign language and promoting it, but I really wanted to translate the song and meaning by telling a story.

I started doing videos to help me learn American Sign Language and to show the emotions of songs. Those videos got a lot of people interested, and I got to do several collaborations with a lot of people. One day, my best friend was driving and Sia came on the radio where she was asked to sing the song “Diamonds.” I knew that [pop singer] Rihanna sang that song, but I had no idea that Sia wrote it and it blew my mind! I got chills, took out my phone, recorded myself signing the song, and posted it online. Sia saw it and reached out to me saying it was beautiful and asked if I would like to perform with her.

 

[The performance] started as a secret, and then it turned out to be Saturday Night Live. Nothing was announced until two weeks before the show and not being able to tell anyone [was] very hard to keep in. When I finally got to New York, I met Sia. She was the sweetest, nicest person ever. From the moment I met her, it was constant hugging and thanking me for being there. She said, “I would have flown you from anywhere around the world for you to be here. You are beautiful, and I think what you do is beautiful.” She would not stop thanking me. I should [have been] thanking her for letting me have [such a] big opportunity. I also got to meet Maddie [Ziegler], the other dancer, and Sia’s manager. They were all so welcoming and supportive and it was just a great environment to be in.

Being able to perform on Saturday Night Live blew my mind, not only [to appear] on the show [with] Sia, but being able to promote sign language on such a big network. It was such a great moment for the Deaf community to have someone promote sign language there. It was an amazing experience.I did not expect Sia to donate to my GoFundMe, and I am so thankful because she did not have to do it. Some people would ask why she didn’t donate more, and I think there was no need for it. She did me a big favor by completing my goal, and thanks to that I got to move to the new apartment and get a few necessary things.

PA: Is there anything you would like to add? A message to other people affected?

BL: Yeah. Everyone just needs to stay strong, stay positive. There are so many opportunities right now from department stores, furniture stores, to car lots. People are really putting in the effort for Harvey victims. The Red Cross and other [organizations] are [gathering] clothing and food donations, and it is awesome. Know that there are so many people out there that can and will help. Just be positive, and you will get through.