SAN DIEGO – Earlier this week, Justin Gilbert took his first airplane ride, which was a tad bit scary at first but ended up being tons of fun for the rambunctious 6-year-old. He got up-close-and-personal with sea lions, too.
But what he really wanted to do was see his buddy, Rickie Fowler, who had made a surprise visit to Justin’s Houston home last year to help his parents rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And on Tuesday at Torrey Pines, Fowler rolled out the red carpet for his young friend at the Farmers Insurance Open.
Fowler, who is a Farmers ambassador, first met Justin and his parents, Daniel and Yessica, last March. He was part of a team from the global insurance company and SBP Americorps deployed that day to help with the on-going project to resurrect the Gilbert’s home from damage caused by floodwaters when Harvey hit.
Not only did he pick up a paintbrush and get to work that day, Fowler came equipped with golf clubs to give Justin, who got an impromptu lesson from the golfer ranked No. 11 in the world outside the house. And he gained a lifelong fan in the process.
“He’s my favorite character,” Justin says simply. His parents agree, although they had never heard of Fowler before that encounter at their home.
“With the way he was and the way he approached us, we definitely looked into him and how he really does help,” Yessica says. “He’s really big with kids and that’s lovely about him.”
“It really gave us hope back in how he humbled down to come and help us,” says Daniel, who has played golf once in his life. “Ever since then, you can see my son, Justin, he enjoys it.
“That one day of support that he showed us, he’s got fans for life.”
Fowler and Farmers decided to bring the Gilberts to San Diego for a reunion. He was given his own locker near Fowler’s that was full of Puma gear and also got a behind-the-scenes tour of Cobra truck. He was among about 50 kids at the youth clinic Tuesday afternoon where he met Ben Crane, Billy Horschel and Braden Thornberry.Rickie Fowler with the Gilbert family at the 2019 Farmers Insurance Open. (Kent Horner)
“I was doing golf with Rickie,” the breathless 6-year-old says.
Wednesday saw Justin inside the ropes with Fowler during the pro-am. And he’ll undoubtedly be in his gallery the rest of the week.
“It's great to reconnect here,” Fowler says after signing every hat and towel thrust his way when the clinic was over. “I've had contact with Daniel off and on since when I spent time with them at their house and they've been super appreciative of us going over there. We were only there for half a day or so, but we were just going over there to show that we cared and wanted to help out.”
Like many Houstonians, the Gilberts certainly needed that help after the destructive Category 4 storm dumped more than 3 feet of water over parts of Texas in four days, a year’s worth of rain in Houston alone.
Daniel, Yessica and Justin were out to dinner when the rains began. Instead of going home during the onslaught, they headed to Daniel’s mother’s home. It would be days before they could return to their house to survey the damage.
“You still needed like a jet ski to go into the neighborhood,” Yessica recalls.
“The current was real bad,” Daniel says. “The streets looked like rivers. The freeways looked like boat ramps. I'll never forget it.”
Their home, which the Gilberts had bought six years ago shortly after they got married, was flooded. It smelled, too. Their furniture was soaked and had to be thrown out.
But the full extent of the damage wasn’t evident until the soggy drywall and sheetrock was torn down. The electrical wiring needed to be replaced, and there was extensive termite damage and mold inside the walls.
“If we wouldn't have seen (the mold) how long would that have been there,” Daniel wonders aloud. “It would have slowly creeped without us knowing it. We would have just been breathing it in. The mold hides. It was an eye-opening.”
The biggest concern, though, was Justin, who has a congenital heart defect and had already undergone four surgeries. Yessica says there was a 50-50 chance of a fifth on the horizon and having a safe home was definitely a priority.
“You can’t tell from his energy, from his past,” Daniel says of his cousin and adoptive son. “But he’s a strong little kid.”
“It was big for us because … we were committed to Justin and giving him a better life and a better environment because of his heart condition,” Yessica says. “We adopted him and with that environment not safe, we felt, not that we'd failed but it was more like, okay, now you have to work twice as hard because this is for him and this is what he needs to be in for a better environment.”
Fortunately, that summer the couple found out that Justin wouldn’t need another operation. The family, who was living with Daniel’s mother, turned its attention to trying to figure out how to make the repairs necessary to return home.
Daniel saw on social media that the JJ Watt Foundation had given $8 million to SBP Americorps to help families like his, who had no flood insurance. So, he made the call and volunteers from SBP and Farmers responded, working on his home for two months to get it livable again.
The workers came from all over the country; in fact, all over the world – Puerto Rico, Australia, even China. College students. Families. Businessmen. Just people called to help.
“It meant a lot,” Daniel says.
Daniel, who was there working every day as well, says the couple even has a map with pins noting where the volunteers came from – “places we didn’t even know the name of,” he says. They have been safely in their home since last May, and couldn’t be more appreciative of the help they received.
“It was just so much pressure lifted,” Daniel says. “How can I say, just something real heavy, it just felt like a relief. A real big relief. Where, I guess, you're able to breathe better. You're happy.
“It just took a big load off of us. It's unexplainable.”Justin Gilbert received the VIP treatment from Fowler during his trip to Torrey Pines. (Kent Horner)