About Karen Carroll

After a career in the Nashville office of the William Morris Talent Agency, Karen Carroll settled in The Woodlands, Texas with husband Bill and children, Grace Elizabeth and Brian. Her kids now poised for college, Carroll has returned to her first love - writing fiction, and feature articles on personalities, lifestyles, design and the arts. Long-active in several local charities, schools, and community events, Carroll now brings her keen perspective to Interfaith's The Book The Woodlands.

The Woodlands Fire Department

One interesting benefit of living in a community like The Woodlands, where land use and infrastructure are designed for optimal effectiveness and aesthetic appeal, is that generally things run so smoothly we are seldom aware of its working parts. Foundational services for public welfare, for example, are often taken for granted. Until we need them.   

The Woodlands Fire Department (TWFD) is one such entity. Born humbly in the early ‘70s with a handful of volunteer firefighters working from a trailer on Grogan’s Mill Road, the organization has continually risen to the many challenges of a changing industry and flourishing population. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it. 

Today’s TWFD is a model emergency response task force, highly regaled and fully prepared for any need in the community. In fact, on the ISO (Insurance Services Office) scale of 1-10, which is the recognized measure of how well protected a community is by its fire department, TWFD has held the highest rating of ISO 1 since 2013. A feat less than one percent of all fire departments in the U.S. can claim. Less than one percent!  This level of achievement requires excellence in staffing, training, communications, community outreach, as well as strong, continued support from civic leaders.  

The Woodlands Township has long understood the importance of providing residents with the best possible emergency response services. “With an ISO 1 rating, The Woodlands Fire Department continues to be one of the elite departments in the United States,” says The Woodlands Township Chairman, Gordy Bunch. “Achieving this goal has not only kept pace with our growth, it helps hold our residential and commercial property insurance premiums at a manageable level. This is just one of many reasons The Woodlands is so special,” said Bunch. 

Line personnel at TWFD number well over one hundred these days, and they are no longer just firefighters.  They are career men and women of the highest caliber, cross-trained as EMTs, paramedics, and fully equipped with Advanced Life Saving technology and gear. They are on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Additional department teams specialize and train for response to hazardous materials calls, collapse, heavy, and high-angle rescue, swift water and trench rescue. Bolstered with a gleaming fleet of specialized engines, trucks, ambulances and rescue boats, TWFD is prepared for any fire, medical or rescue emergency. And with eight fire stations now in The Woodlands, typical response time is a reassuring 4.71 minutes.     

Station One on Grogan’s Mill Road is the communications hub for TWFD, as well as Montgomery County 911. Twelve round-the-clock dispatchers field emergency calls. During large community events like The Woodlands Marathon, or natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Station One’s large Fire Com room becomes command central. Numerous computers and large, elevated television screens with live feed from multiple locations allow emergency managers to work alongside one another, monitoring and directing conditions in real time. 

A 20,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Emergency Training Center near I-45 and Highway 242 facilitates the continually honed expertise of our firefighters. It is also the location for public education. Because safety begins with citizens, TWFD offers regular CPR, first aid, and fire prevention instruction to the community.   

Strong leadership by a succession of five fire chiefs has been key to the department’s success. After fourteen years of stellar management and direction, Chief Alan Benson retired earlier this year. A nationwide search for his replacement is underway, however Deputy Chief Doug Adams currently serves as Interim Fire Chief. 

Just as life these days is not as simple as it used to be, neither are our emergencies. TWFD Battalion Chief Jason Washington says, “We don’t get cats out of trees anymore, but if your house is on fire, if you think you’re having a heart attack or whenever there is a life at risk, The Woodlands Fire Department is fully prepared to respond.”

Photography Courtesy Derrick Bryant

Crew in The Woodlands

Long known as the domain of male Ivy Leaguers, the sport of rowing has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years as training programs and facilities have become more widely accessible. You’ve probably seen the boats gliding across Lake Woodlands: long, skinny things with two, four, sometimes eight rowers pulling lengthy oars in unison so gracefully, it looks easy.

It is not easy. Rowing at the competitive level is described as a footrace that begins with a 500-meter sprint, settles into running as fast as you possibly can for 1,500 meters, and finishes with another 500-meter sprint.

Enthusiasts praise rowing for the full-body benefits. Back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, biceps, lungs—they all get a workout. Balance, core stability, body strength and cardio endurance are the much-desired benefits. Not to mention the camaraderie of a team, Saturday regattas, and the possibility of a lifelong pursuit.

The Woodlands Rowing Club was first on the scene in 1989. Jim and Dee Hotop took over as directors after moving to The Woodlands in 2011. Dee suggests the only true requirement for potential rowers is the ability to swim. Though rowers are trained to stay in the boat, on occasion swimming is necessitated.

“We’re proud of our all-ages, all-levels program. There’s a place for everyone at The Woodlands Rowing Club,” Dee Hotop says. They should be proud! The club is 29-years-strong and still growing its recreational, competitive, and masters programs. Rosters for TWRC off-campus PE programs for CISD students and summer camps are also increasing. For rowers wanting to compete, Hotop stresses, “We don’t turn anyone away. We’re always looking for new talent. Always looking to grow our teams.”

It’s a commitment, for sure. Junior teams practice year-round, five days a week, with regattas some Saturdays. The results, however, cannot be ignored. TWRC has produced collegiate rowers for the likes of University of Texas, University of Massachusetts and West Point.

“Still, we’re very careful with our athletes. We want them happy and healthy,” she stresses. “It’s how we help them reach their goals. That’s our purpose. If we win races and acquire scholarships in the process, that’s great, but we help our members and students in so many other ways, too.” Ways like tenacity, confidence, teamwork—and fun.

Parati Competitive Rowing is the newest rowing club in The Woodlands. Mike and Jan Rosman established Parati in 2012 as a highly competitive, juniors-only club. In just six years, this club has qualified a staggering 39 boats to compete at the US Rowing Youth National Championship, including two bronze medal wins in 2018. After all, their motto is “paratus enin vitae,” which is Greek for ‘prepared for life.”

Students (grades 8–12) interested in rowing may take advantage of a free learn to row session at Parati. If hooked and ready to excel, they are invited to join a first-year novice team. JV and Varsity teams follow.

Jan doesn’t sugarcoat the commitment. “The training is rigorous: six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year; but that’s what it takes to develop world-class athletes.” Balance, however, is also key. “We’re together a lot, so we make it fun with lots of social activities and community service. Hard work is easier when you’re in the company of friends,” Jan stresses. “The whole development of our kids is our passion, our calling, our heart.”

That dedication is the bedrock on which collegiate rowers are built. Parati athletes have gone on to crew for the University of Texas, Duke, MIT, Boston University, Dartmouth, Villanova, Berkley and the Naval Academy, to name a few.

Both clubs gush over the contribution Woodforest Bank has made to their success. In 2017, Woodforest funded a boathouse at Northshore Park to be shared by The Woodlands Township, The Woodlands Rowing Club and Parati to store their equipment inside.

Rowing is a fulfilling sport that offers a full-body workout. Whether you’re looking to join a team or just do it on your own time, The Woodlands is a great place to discover a new passion.

Annette Palmer

Some of artist Annette Palmer’s earliest memories are from the days just after her baby sister was born. Since children were prevented from visiting hospital floors back then, Annette and her older sister would stand on the lawn underneath their mother’s second floor room and catch the love notes she dropped down to them from the window.

Communication. Emotion. Distance and separation. Letters written between friends, family, lovers—even these she finds in flea markets, written by strangers whose stirring words having outlived them. Those are the subtleties that have always been the source of her creativity.

Born in Falkirk, Scotland, Annette found inspiration at every turn: the architectural drawings of her father, the subdued hues of coastal Scotland, and the letters, of course—from her mother, her friends, her teen-age pen pals— dozens of them, all over the world.

Annette studied art through high school and attended the Edinburgh College of Art. Figural and fashion drawing had become her focus, as well a young Englishman named Bob Palmer, who’d come to Edinburgh as an offshore worker for BP. After graduation she began working as a children’s clothing designer. She and Bob Palmer married. The expressive exchange in the letters they sent back and forth over the North Sea further shaped Annette’s muse.

While living in Singapore on a BP assignment, Annette began designing her own line of women’s clothing and successfully operated her company, Cancan, for years. After a brief assignment in Dubai, the Palmers were sent to Houston and settled in The Woodlands twelve years ago. With son, Ross, and daughter, Faith, approaching high school, Annette began working as an art teacher at The Woodlands Prep and Esprit International School. For several years she even taught an adult painting class in her studio. She coordinated art exhibits for Hubbell and Hudson Kitchen and St. Luke’s The Woodlands Hospital, showcasing dozens of local artists.

In recent years, with her children grown, Annette has slowed her pace outside the studio. Inside the studio, however, she’s been hard at work on a multi-media series of acrylic landscapes and seascapes with textured and reflective surfaces.

“I paint with sponges, scrappers, pallet knives, paint brushes, shoe brushes, household cleaning brushes,” she chuckles at her unconventional techniques. “I love reflective surfaces: silver and gold leafing, foil, flecks of mica, paper. I sometimes use pieces of fabric I have left from Cancan—reflective in a different way.”

And somewhere on each piece in this brilliant, bountiful collection is the written communication that so moves her. Snippets of old love letters, for example, shape stars in the sky, or waves in the ocean, or birds in flight.

“I’ve always been inspired by written communication; because it never goes away. These days we text, then delete the messages. I believe something significant is lost in that process,” she says. “There’s something about taking the time to sit and write a letter that frees our consciousness, our feelings, and we express ourselves with much greater warmth and honesty.”

Since 2017, The Glade Gallery in The Woodlands has exhibited four collections of Annette’s work: “Between the Lines,” “Between the Lines 1.5,” “Home from Home” and “Love Letters.” Her “Across the Miles” collection was showcased at The Jung Center in Houston earlier this year.

With clients the world over, Annette Palmer’s creative life is thriving. Rows of completed canvases line the floor of her sunlit studio. Paintings in various stages of completion rest on easels. As we sit together, a re-homed cat saunters across our table, a rescue dog lies at my feet.

“My studio is where I’m happiest,” she says. “It’s all about love here, about eternal hope, and bridging that uncertain distance between us.” And I totally get it.

Annette’s newest collection, “Pause, Rewind, Play,” opens November 1, 2018 at Glade Gallery.

“This collection explores lost means of communication through mixtapes from the Gen-X era.” She says this with excitement that is at once proud, humble and enchanting, the manner of an artist fully realized.

Follow Annette Palmer’s art and inspiration at annettepalmerart.com and on Instagram at annettepalmerart
Photo credit: Derrick Bryant

Animal Rescue

For years, the Montgomery County and Conroe Area Animal Shelters have been frontline soldiers in the battle to save local animals. However, county-wide indifference, inconsistent management and a perpetual deluge of homeless animals kept those facilities pushed well beyond their physical and financial means, and their live release rates hovered at a paltry 50%.

Consequently, local animal lovers became activists and formed additional rescue organizations in and around The Woodlands. Working both independently and in partnership with MCAS and CAAS, these warriors have transformed the community mindset and powered Montgomery County toward a no-kill designation—the shelter gold-standard, stipulating that at least 90% of animals taken into a shelter must either be released or find new homes.

After years as a shelter volunteer, The Woodlands resident Marcia Piotter was frustrated. “In that role, I could only make program and policy suggestions,” Marcia said. “I wanted to form a nonprofit that could bring about real change for homeless animals by implementing proven, life-saving programs.”

In 2011, she did. Marcia began Operation Pets Alive hoping to receive twenty animals into its foster and adoption program. Seven years later, OPA has more than five hundred dogs, cats, puppies and kittens mercifully tucked away in foster families and available for adoption at one of the several OPA-staged events every weekend.

OPA’s objective is to lessen the number of animals entering animal shelters like MCAS and CAAS. “We work with the shelters to determine their needs, and we stretch our comfort zone to tackle some of their at-risk animals: those injured, with contagious diseases, pregnant and nursing mothers or neo-natal babies,” Marcia said.

In a short period of time, OPA has become a force for change. How? “With a lot of help from my friends! And our thirteen hundred volunteers,” Marcia laughs. “Every one of us is passionate about doing this work honestly and responsibly, while keeping the focus always on the animals. We’ve also been truly blessed with undying community and corporate support. That has kept us going and helped us launch pivotal programs. That support has, literally, saved thousands of lives.”

OPA’s initiative, Trap, Neuter, Return, is one of those pivotal programs. By neutering, vaccinating and returning feral cats to their colonies, OPA has been instrumental in reducing local shelter intake numbers. OPA’s transport programs, Flight for Life and Pups on Trucks, have opened new and significant channels to rehoming homeless animals.

A quick computation shows that over ten thousand animal lives have been saved by OPA programs. However, other local animal programs have contributed greatly to The Woodlands’ progress toward becoming a no-kill town.

Lone Star Animal Welfare League (LSAWL) is a significant crusader in the movement to save animal lives. Over the years, with the generous help of local veterinarians and stalwart corporate support, LSAWL has been able to spay and neuter over 4,500 dogs and cats. In addition, LSAWL runs a labrador rescue operation that has proudly saved over 3,000 labs.

Friends of Montgomery County Animal Shelter is another workhorse 501(c)(3). Like the others, it saves, fosters and finds forever homes for animals in its care and provides substantial support to our shelters.

Pure Mutts Animal Sanctuary began when area residents Priyanka Johri and Rovi Grover realized the need for a different kind of shelter. The couple cares for dogs that are injured, elderly, have special needs or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, rehoming when they can and ensuring that the other dogs’ last days are comfortable and filled with love.

S.A.F.E. House, Woodlands Animal Rescue, Montgomery County SPCA and breed-specific rescue groups like Greyhound Pets of America, All Border Collie Rescue of The Woodlands and Poodle Rescue of Houston are just a few others in the list of many organizations committed to preserving animals’ lives.

Montgomery County commissioners and city councils have honored citizen demand for no-kill sheltering and improved shelter operations. Because of the increase in funding and support, and the sound management team of Director Aaron Johnson and Assistant Director Mark Wysocki, MCAS has more and better medical equipment and treatment partnerships; an improved air-exchange system to control disease; transport capability, new kennels and new, more effective programs for adoption. Dogs Playing for Life, for example, gets dogs out of their kennels to de-stress and learn social skills, making them more adoptable. And, more significantly, Montgomery County now supports a Community Cat program.

Tremendous progress has been made in The Woodlands. At the end of 2017, MCAS had a live-release rate of over 92%. CAAS followed close at just under 89%. Even so, litters of six, seven, eight puppies and kittens are brought to shelters in our community on a regular basis. The MCAS website keeps a current tally of animals housed, and on the day this article was written, that number was a staggering 901: a blunt, bewildering reminder that neglect and abuse are enemies that the community cannot stop fighting.

If you’re considering adding a pet to your household, contact any of the organizations listed. Adoption fees vary, but these animals have been fully vetted for heartworms and FIV; they’ve been de-wormed, vaccinated, spayed and neutered; and some have even been microchipped.

What you get in return will be priceless.

Races in The Woodlands

Fifty years ago, when George Mitchell was developing his concept of The Woodlands, amenities that promote healthy living were integral to his plan. Hence, over one hundred and sixty miles of paths and trails wind through our community. What Mitchell may not have seen coming was a decades-long crusade that would interlace the pursuit of individual, family and community fitness into our national culture.

This community took that first step in 1990 when The Woodlands YMCA invited residents to participate in the first Thanksgiving morning Run Through the Woods. 250 people participated in that event designed to support local nonprofits.

Nowadays, running, swimming and biking are hallmark activities in the American citizen’s mass quest for achieving a personal best. Races today are run like businesses designed to support community service. The Woodlands is now home to five premier race events. The Woodlands Township produces three signature, multi-purpose races.

Held every April, the Muddy Trails Bash is a true family event, featuring the spirited Muddy Bowl Crawfish Cook-Off. Both 10K and 5K courses trail through the George Mitchell Nature Preserve, as well as a one-mile kids’ fun run and a 2K 9 fun run for residents and their dogs. Post-race festivities include a celebratory zydeco party and judged cook-off.

Memorial Hermann’s 10 for Texas event, held in October, is another family favorite. The event features two chip-timed events: a USA Track and Field–sanctioned-and-certified 10-mile racecourse, and the Armadillo 5k. There is also an untimed one-mile fun run for kids promotes fun with fitness, and to congratulate yourself for racing, hang around for the Texas-sized after-party.

The CB&I Tri is the township’s third event—a premier multi-sport race that regularly attracts over thirteen hundred participants. Triathletes must complete three continuous endurance courses in the sequence of a 500-meter swim, a thirteen-mile cycle course, and a 5k run. The competition here is serious, but beginners also participate. A festive party with food and drink awaits finishers, along with the pride of having braved the start line.

The Woodlands Marathon is a significant draw for The Woodlands, pulling endurance athletes from all over in pursuit of an elite prize purse. Directed by The Woodlands Marathon Management, LLC, this is a full marathon event—26.2 miles. If you prefer shorter distances, however, this event also features a half-marathon, a 5K, and a 2K you can run with your kids. TWMM is serious about supporting the community. Their Charity Challenge is an opportunity for race participants to raise funds for a benefactor of their choosing. Their Cheer Challenge draws themed fan groups—the wackier, the better—along the race route to compete for cash prizes that benefit charity.

Brad Finger

Like most kids, Interfaith’s Family Services Program Coordinator Brad Finger enjoyed swimming, but he was a baseball player at heart, attending Washington University on scholarship. Fast forward to January 1, 2014. With six knee surgeries behind him, married with children and approaching forty, Brad felt it time to shed a few pounds. Running seemed the easiest way. He set a goal. “I told myself that no matter how much it hurt, I was going to run a 5k by March.” By March he’d lost the weight (60lbs) and completed the 5k run. He liked the way it felt—the way he felt.

The CB&I Tri was approaching. Can I do it, he wondered. He bought a used bike, began training, and in May completed the race (man enough to admit) in tears. Hooked on the physical and mental challenge, the community of like minds and the thrill of race day, Brad invested in a real bike and continued to race. Since then, Brad has completed dozens of marathons and triathlon races, including the ultimate challenge, The Woodlands IRONMAN 2018. He admits he couldn’t continue to train and race without the support of his wife, Gabrielle, and children, Sophia, Whitney, and Lyndon. With both their careers and a household to run, Brad’s pursuit really is part of their family lifestyle.

“We find a way,” he says. “I like that my kids see what it takes to set a goal and work hard to achieve it.” Spoken like a true Ironman!

In 2016, The Woodlands hosted the definitive endurance race event, the mother of all, the Holy Grail—The IRONMAN. It wasn’t an easy get; the IRONMAN is a national brand representing the ultimate in racing, and dozens of cities compete to host. Race locations are selected based on geography, community support, routes and weather. Participants are tasked with a course so strenuous it hurts to write about it: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile cycle and a 26.2-mile run. The Woodlands 2018 Ironman had more than 2,500 intrepid participants.

Even the YMCA’s Run Through the Woods has grown up. Now presented by Entergy, the event features a one-mile children’s race, a three-mile walk, as well as three-mile and five-mile runs. Sponsors include Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands, CHI St. Luke’s Hospital The Woodlands, Houston Methodist Hospital The Woodlands, Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine and a complimentary pancake breakfast provided by The Egg and I restaurant. Participants number over 4,200. It remains, however, the same warm and fuzzy Thanksgiving morning tradition for thousands of The Woodlands families, who enjoy the togetherness of the morning’s fitness as much as the afternoon’s feast.

Perhaps this is exactly what George Mitchell envisioned.

Ashley Byers

Ashley Byers, employee of The Woodlands Economic Development office and resident of The Woodlands, didn’t set out to be an endurance athlete. She was content as a cheerleader for when her husband, Ryan, ran marathons. However, inspired by Ryan’s passion, she began running with his triathlon training group in 2013. In 2014, she successfully completed her first triathlon in Austin, but it was a struggle; Ashley was terrified of open water. While training for and completing The Woodlands Marathon and Half-Marathon, she also worked with swim coach Tim Floyd. With Tim’s help, she attempted the CBI Tri in 2016 and completed all three courses, strong and confident enough to give the Ironman a shot that fall. She finished like a boss and has now completed ten triathlons, four half- and two full-IRONMAN events, completing the last in 2018.

Training and competing have become a lifestyle for Ashley and Ryan. They train together five days a week, utilize a wellness and nutrition coach, and get plenty of sleep. Their friends are fellow athletes. More recently, the two have ventured into ultra runs (anything over 26.2 miles), with Ryan recently completing his first 100-mile run. As a result, Ryan has co-founded Renegade Endurance, an international online organization designed to help athletes achieve their endurance goals.

What keeps Ashley running? “It’s the people I meet on the race course,” she says. “Everyone is equal there. No discrimination, no pretense. We’re all bonded by the challenge ahead, by the drive to finish, and the inevitable fear that stands between us and the finish line.”


Amerigo’s Grille and the owner-operator Kosh family are a study in culinary excellence and longevity. With a keen knack for the business and a penchant for Italian cuisine, Casey and Nancy Kosh recognized a need for true fine dining in The Woodlands. In 1989, with a newborn daughter, the Kosh family opened Amerigo’s.

Bullard Basketball Camp

One look at The Woodlands’ skyline and anyone who has lived here is reminded of the remarkable change our community has seen in recent years. To the delight of thousands of Woodlands area boys and girls and their parents, however, one thing has remained the same for a very long time – Matt Bullard’s Basketball Camp.

International Dining

As the population of The Woodlands has become more international, so, too, have our dining choices. While surrounded with the best of American fare, The Woodlands now hosts enough ethnic restaurants to satiate even the hungriest international gourmand.

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Shopping with a Purpose


When Houston natives Jackie and Christine Battle returned home following Jackie’s impressive eight-year career as a NFL running back, their career goals were two-fold. They wanted to operate a business of their own and, guided by their faith, they wanted to serve others.

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