Trial By Fire

Katherine Layton lost a parent and a home before her 20th birthday. But for every hurdle life deals her, she gives back tenfold.

On a hot September day in 2011, Katherine Layton, then a UT sophomore, took a break from a shift waiting tables at Cafe Express. She glanced at a TV news report: a wildfire was raging 30 miles outside Austin. Live footage showed a black plume of smoke rising above pine trees. Then she heard the word “Bastrop”—and to her horror, the scenes looked eerily familiar.

Layton is a Bastrop native whose family still lives in the sleepy town, nicknamed “the most historic small town in Texas.” She called her mother and had a frantic conversation she’ll never forget.

“My mom was screaming on the phone,” Layton remembers. “She was saying, ‘I only have five minutes to evacuate; I can see the fire over the trees.’”

The hardest part of the chaotic week that followed, Layton says, was the waiting. “It was like a war zone,” she says. “We felt helpless, waiting to find out the damage.”

“It was like a war zone. We felt helpless, waiting to find out the damage.”

Finally, from a friend rescuing wildlife inside the fire’s danger zone, came the verdict: While the bushes lining Layton’s mother’s house were burned, the house itself was untouched. Her grandmother’s house was fine, too, though the windowpanes had melted from the heat.

But the worst fire in Texas history did not spare the family entirely. Layton’s childhood home was gone—and with it, priceless mementos of her father, a truck driver who was murdered when Layton was 11. “We still have some photos,” Layton says, “and I am so grateful for that. But the home videos, his cowboy boots and saddles—all gone.”

Just one week later, still reeling from the loss, Layton did what few people in her situation would: she started her own nonprofit, Gifts From US, to help families like her own. She lit up her friends’ inboxes and Facebook pages with requests for help. Her apartment filled with secondhand clothes and necessities, which she then delivered to Bastrop.

If you ask Layton whether she was hesitant to found her own charity at age 19, during a disaster no less, she seems a little puzzled. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” she shrugs.

More than a year later, Gifts From US is still going strong. Layton has donated more than $2,000 and 500 items of clothing to families in crisis. She pitched in after wildfires in Colorado and Dallas. At presstime, she was arranging a garage sale to benefit an Austin woman whose house burned down.

When Layton isn’t working on her nonprofit, she’s volunteering at Dell Children’s Hospital, playing the cymbals in the Longhorn Band, and studying for a degree in human development and family sciences. Last year, she shaved her head to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer research. She’s planning a career in pediatric health care, but graduate school or Teach for America may also be on the horizon.

None of it, Layton says, would be possible without scholarships. She’s a recipient of the Terry Scholarship, founded by Howard Terry, BBA ’38, Distinguished Alumnus, plus two scholarships administered by the Texas Exes: the Rodeo Austin scholarship and the Margaret C. Berry Orange Jackets Scholarship. The scholarships are more than just financial help, she says.

“It’s such a huge honor, and there are so many people more deserving than me,” Layton says. “It lifts me up.”

Below, watch a Longhorn Network video about Layton’s story.

Photos from top: The sky outside Bastrop during the 2011 wildfires (Loudtiger/Flickr); Layton collecting donations for fire survivors in 2011; after shaving her head for cancer research in 2012 (both courtesy Katherine Layton).


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