I couldn’t be more impressed with Karen Walrond. Karen is a life coach, a podcaster, a photographer, a corporate trainer, a lawyer, and an author. As I scrolled through her podcast episodes I downloaded at least eight that I knew I needed to listen to immediately.
But it’s not just her work that’s impressive, it’s also Karen’s compelling story, including this major plotline: her family’s home was completely destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey. It was horribly devastating and they lost almost everything. Yet Karen’s life is full of joy and hope and light.
I think you’ll love getting to know her as much as I did and taking a peek at her amazing home — the one they built after Harvey. Welcome, Karen!
I’m Karen Walrond, an author, executive coach and (non-practicing) attorney. I live here in Houston with my husband of 17 years, Marcus, who is in data management. We have a 15-year-old daughter, Alexis (we call her “Alex.”) I’m originally from Trinidad & Tobago, but have lived all over, including London, England, which is where I met Marcus (we used to work together — as a friend of mine says, I “dipped my pen in company ink”!). We got engaged 18 days after our first date, and married 6 months later. (For the record, although this worked out beautifully for us, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend people get engaged that quickly!).
Soon after we married, we moved back to the United States, and a year later, we became parents via open adoption — Marcus cut the cord at our daughter’s birth! She’s our token American, so we’re a mini-United Nations in our little family.
Rounding out our home is Soca, a rescue dog who we think is a cockapoo, but are sure is 100% spoiled. (There are lots of photos of our family on my blog if you’re curious.)
We live in the Memorial area of Houston, Texas, on the west side of downtown. We’ve lived in this neighbourhood for 12 years, on the same piece of land (although, not in the same house). There are many things we love about our neighbourhood — it’s close to downtown, but far enough away that there are parks and lots of greenery.
One of the best things about Houston is that as the fourth largest city in the country, it has absolutely everything you would want in a city: major sports teams, more theatre seating than any other city in the United States except for New York City, great music, fantastic museums, the largest medical centre in the world (literally!) and oh my goodness, amazing food (thanks to being one of the most diverse cities in America!). But housing prices are still relatively inexpensive, compared to the rest of the country.
That said, people are figuring out how cool Houston is, and prices are rapidly increasing — when we bought our house 13 years ago, it was at the top of our price range, and we often marvel that if we were moving into our neighbourhood today, we couldn’t afford to buy!
When we bought our house 12 years ago, it was a 1950s bungalow: 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, about 2700 square feet, one storey, built in 1959. When we bought it, our daughter was 3 years old, and it was the perfect size for our little family. As Alex grew older, we sometimes fantasized about moving further out of town and buying something a bit bigger (with a separate game room for her sleepovers, maybe a pool for pool parties, that kind of thing), but we loved our neighbourhood so much, with its proximity to favourite restaurants and other amenities, we never followed through with buying anything else.
Also, because our property value was increasing so rapidly, we didn’t think we’d be able to buy in any other part of the city where our money would work as hard as it did in our neighbourhood.
Then, in 2017, Hurricane Harvey came. The hurricane actually made landfall 200 miles south of us, near Corpus Christi, Texas, and while the forecast did call for flooding, most of us in Houston weren’t that concerned. Street flooding is common in Houston, and we’re built for it; also, since the hurricane was so far away from us, we weren’t worried about wind damage.
So like most people, we simply bought food and other supplies in case the streets were impassible for a couple of days, and planned to stay in. In fact, I had let our flood insurance lapse a few years earlier, because in the over 50-year history of our neighbourhood, it had never once flooded, not even street flooding. We were relatively calm as the storm approached Houston and made landfall.
And then, the storm turned toward Houston, and that’s when everything went pear-shaped. In 72 hours, we received over 50 inches of rain — more than our annual rainfall average, and shattering continental US records for rainfall from a single storm. Worried that the dams around the city would fail, the US Army Corps of Engineers decided to do a controlled release of water from the reservoirs, since a catastrophic failure would have meant thousands of deaths for the city.
Unfortunately, because we live blocks away from a bayou into which the reservoirs were emptied, our home flooded — about 2 feet of water, for about 2 weeks. As a result, we lost about 95% of everything we owned: we manage to save a few pieces of furniture, and all of our art on the walls, but all our clothes, our beds, many books, and other items were ruined beyond repair.
Once we were able to get back into our house after the water receded and remove the drywall from the house, we discovered that many of the studs on the home had rotted away; also, our floors had begun to sink, pulling away from the walls. So we knew that the house would have to be torn down.
Thing is, we still loved our neighbourhood, and we knew that the flooding was somewhat of a fluke — so we decided to look into whether building a new home on the land was an option. Because we’d lived on the land for so long, we had equity in the home, so we qualified for a construction loan.
It took about 15 months, but we’re now back in a new house — this time two storeys, and built 2 feet higher than our old house! It’s bigger than our old house — about 700 square feet more — but still not as big as some of the huge new houses that surround us (although, almost two years later, there are still many homes that flooded around us that remain empty and untouched, as the owners still consider what their next move is). And it’s completely different from the old house — higher ceilings, more light, and thank-you-Sweet-Mary-Margaret, walk-in closets. We know that at some point we’re going to have to sell and downsize, but for now, we’re really loving living here.
One of the gifts of Hurricane Harvey and having to rebuild from scratch is that we were able to be really intentional about how we wanted our house to look, but even more importantly, how we wanted our house to feel. A
s we thought about it, we asked ourselves, what values do we want our house to reflect? How do we want people to feel when they walk in? As a multi-racial, multi-national family, diversity and inclusion are huge values of ours; also, while I’ve never been a person who is into brand names or high-end items, I will admit to splurging on travel as much as possible. So I decided that I wanted our home to reflect all of our cultures and all of our travels, so that no matter who walked into our home, they would find something in it that feels familiar, or reminds them of their own home.
This means that our home looks somewhat INSANE. I call my decor style “global bazaar insanity,” and it shows. We have items in our house from Trinidad and England and America, of course, but also that represent our racial backgrounds as well: I’m black, but my racial makeup includes Chinese and Indian (grandparents and great-grandparents), in addition to West African. My husband is English and Irish. And our daughter is Mexican-American and Afro-Colombian.
You will find elements of all of these cultures in our home, and more. (In fact, our old house was previously owned by a Jewish family, and they had left a mezuzah affixed to the back door. Before we tore down the old house, we saved it, and it’s now affixed to our back door, even though we’re not Jewish. Our plan is to leave it there for the next family when we sell the home.)
Also, because we travel a lot, my husband and I have amassed a pretty diverse art collection — it’s what we buy for souvenirs. Sometimes we go to galleries to buy art, but more often we simply buy work from street artists, and have it framed when we return. We just buy what we love, so there’s really no decorating rhyme or reason to our collection.
Finally, we were able to replace our furnishings through what we could salvage, supplemented with some strategic sourcing from IKEA (so. much. IKEA!), Target, Pier 1 Imports, Etsy, and buying second-hand from friends and family who happened to be downsizing. As a result, nothing matches, but everything somehow goes together. It feels like us, and we love it.
My background is in law — I was a corporate attorney for many years, and still am an active member of the State Bar of Texas. Nowadays, however, I have my own executive coaching practice, where I work with entrepreneurs and executives from all walks of life — from priests to doctors to lawyers to geophysicists and more — helping them to infuse their careers with meaning and purpose, and maximise their gifts so that they’re able to really shine in their work.
This, of course, requires a healthy dose of courage and resilience, both of which are practices; through my certification in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead program, as well as training in positive psychology, I help my clients practice these traits. It’s so much fun, because I get to have a front row seat while amazing people delve into their strengths and quite literally change the world. I truly believe I have the best job in the world.
As far as feeling pressure to have it all together — honestly, I don’t feel that pressure, because if Hurricane Harvey taught me anything, life rarely has it all together! Hard, difficult, heartbreaking things happen all the time. What I think is more important is showing up fully, developing resiliency, standing in your values, and practicing gratitude, connection and self-compassion — what I call “making light” — and I think once you begin practicing these, it’s hard to do anything else. In fact, when life starts to go sideways, it becomes even more important to do these things.
If I can help people develop these practices — either through my coaching, public speaking, or even my podcast, The Make Light Show — then I’ve done my job.
Alex has an incredibly keen wit — she always has, even as a toddler — and no one makes me laugh more than she does. She’s wickedly clever. She’s about to be a sophomore in high school, which means we’re already looking at colleges and what she might be doing after graduation, and I know I’m going to miss her sense of humour terribly. (I’ve already told her she has to send me a funny text daily when she goes off to university!).
I hope that Alex remembers — both from this home and from Marcus and me — that we can all do difficult things. What we endured from Harvey was devastating, but I’m really proud to say that we’ve come out on the other side more connected than ever. Marcus and I were very intentional about taking care of our family every single step of the way, checking in with each other, and reminding ourselves that while loss stings, what’s even more meaningful is what survived.
I think that I speak for Marcus and Alex when I say that when we think back to the hurricane, our overwhelming emotion isn’t anger or grief (although obviously there were moments when we felt those emotions), but gratitude. We had friends who took us into their homes, and kept us safe and warm during the storm and has we began rebuilding. So many people sent us gifts in the aftermath — everything from dehumidifiers to help us dry out the house to guitar picks for our musician daughter. The generosity from friends and strangers alike seemed limitless. People in our city didn’t seem to think twice before offering to help. There was so much love and compassion in those moments.
I hope Alex remembers that when times get tough, she can make it through one day at a time, and that even during those times, there’s so much to be grateful for.
I wish someone had told me, and I had listened, how enormous people’s capacity for kindness really is. So many days it feels like we live in horrible, horrible times, where people abuse their power and take advantage and oppress those who do not share that power. It is very easy for me to forget that people can be kind when I read the headlines these days.
I am lucky (I know, it’s weird to say this) that I had Hurricane Harvey to remind me that people can be really, really good, and still, I forget. But when I think back to that time, it gives me some hope — and a kick in the pants to figure out how I can stand with those who don’t have people to stand with them. I wish someone had told me — and honestly, would keep telling me, until I know from my guts and bones that it’s true — that love always wins.
Thank you, Karen! I love Karen’s commitment to ensuring their home not only reflecting their travels, but their values as well. The collection of art and accessories and pieces from all over the world totally work together and seem curated, cohesive and beautiful. And I really love Karen’s idea of buying art as a souvenir from a local artist or a street vendor. What a great way to get beautiful, unique pieces.
Karen’s positive energy also completely shines throughout this entire essay. I can imagine few things more devastating than losing everything you own in an unexpected flood (with no insurance!) and having to completely rebuild. But the fact that what Karen took from that experience is the knowledge that the world is full of kind people, and it’s our responsibility to show up for each other, is really remarkable.
Karen is right: the world can feel pretty dark and twisty right now. I think focusing on how we can help each other is wonderful advice. And I think we can all stand a little reminder that love always wins in the end.
Karen’s website is Chookooloonks.com. You can listen to her podcast, Making Light, here and follow her on Instagram as well. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.
Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]