New Class of All-Star Volunteers Takes Shape

It is no surprise that an organization that aims to make such a profound impact on our community requires many dedicated volunteers. Trained, consistent volunteer pools are required to fulfill our mission of never saying no to someone in need. As a result, Interfaith began a program called Interfaith All-Star Volunteers in 2011. The Interfaith All- Star Program is a year-long volunteer program for high school students in which they complete at least 40 hours of volunteer service with Interfaith Programs and Services. To date, 386 young adults have served as All-Star Volunteers.

“Being part of the work Interfaith does has been the best volunteer opportunity I have found. There are so many different areas in which to volunteer. By working with Interfaith, you know you are impacting the community and reaching so many lives. I have developed interests I didn’t know I had because of the many different opportunities offered from gardening in the community garden to stocking the food pantry to working with seniors at Bingo. I am so thankful to be part of an organization that touches so many lives.” Mary Claire Corell, past Interfaith All-Star Volunteer

The Interfaith of the Woodlands All-Star program is exclusively for teens 14-18 years old in high school or entering their freshman year. The program runs June-May and gives teen volunteers access to all Interfaith volunteer opportunities but has requirements and prerequisites to participate. Potential candidates for our All-Star program must sign up to attend the annual orientation in June and then volunteer in at least four different areas of service with the aim of completing 40 hours within the service year to receive a certificate. This is a student-led program which means it is completely up to the student to sign up for shifts, communicate with the coordinators, keep track of volunteer hours, etc.

 

Missy Herndon, President and CEO shared, “the All-Star Program was created to share volunteer opportunities for high school students to serve together within all areas of Interfaith’s community programs. For 45 years, Interfaith has used service as the common bridge to build community and bring people together. Our All-Star program encourages our local teens to give back and establishes that everyone can make an impact on our neighbors and community. “

For more information about the Interfaith All-Star Program, please contact Sarah Mundy at 832-615-8220 or smundy@woodlandsinterfaith.org

Woodlands Weather Dude

I enjoy weather forecasting and communicating weather risks to people and I have made a career out of it over the last 25 years. In late August 2015, almost on a whim, I started posting about local weather interests on Facebook and Woodlands Weather Dude was born. At that time, the closed group contained only a few dozen members. Now over three years later, the group has grown to over 9,000 followers spread out across The Woodlands and Montgomery County. Although I would like to take full credit for the popularity of the group, I believe there are some larger things at play here that are responsible for this growing popularity.

 

First off, whether we know it or not, the weather touches our lives on a daily basis.

According to a recent Power Research Center study, weather far outpaces other daily news topics on a local level. Over 70% of adults in the Houston area say that the topic of weather is “important for daily life”. In second place was the news topic involving Traffic & Transportation at 52%. Even Government and Politics were only at 26%. Let’s face it; people want to know if the weather is going to have an impact on their kid’s birthday party, commute to work or on their weekend camping trip. Having a cell phone with weather apps or social media, including Woodlands Weather Dude, makes it easier than ever to have access to current and future weather at your fingertips.

 

Secondly, the weather hasn’t exactly been boring around here. In my 27 years of living in Houston, I believe the most active stretch of significant weather occurred here recently over the last few years. Hurricane Harvey (2017) and the two 2016 Floods both had huge impacts on our community and has stirred even more personal interest in the weather, especially during the tropical season.

Finally, I believe the popularity of the WWD Facebook page may also be an unfortunate byproduct of storm anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Dr. Asim Shah, a Baylor College of Medicine mental health expert, “Close to a year after Harvey, we are still seeing [patients with] depression and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as well”.  Although I don’t interact directly with most of my followers, I have had many conversations with fellow co-workers who have been directly (or indirectly) impacted by Harvey or prior storms.  Some of them still suffer from insomnia and storm anxiety and have admitted to becoming obsessed with the weather, especially during thunderstorms.

Weather in Texas can be very scary for many in our area. What I attempt to do on my Facebook site is to provide my own unfiltered view on how a certain weather event is going to pan out.  And I always try to do it without any needless hype, although I have to admit some of our recent weather events over the last couple of years warranted some more serious weather language. During quieter times, I sometimes like to have forecasting contests. So if you have a good idea on when we will see our first 100-degree day or when we encounter our first freeze of the year, give me a follow! If you are a successful forecaster, you could even win a small prize. -WWD

Jeff Royed graduated from the University of Oklahoma where he received his B.S. in Meteorology. Jeff has lived in The Woodlands with his wife and two boys for over eight years. In his spare time, he enjoys running and biking on the local trails. He also likes taking his boys on short camping trips.

 

 

 

 

Inspiring Mom- Jo Anne Johnson

What has been your most challenging part of motherhood?

Especially as your kids grow older, I would say it’s teaching them virtues in failure – allowing them to accept and own consequences for their decisions/actions, yes, but also encouraging them to rise up to their God-given potential, and you only get there by trying.  “The only true failure is when you stop trying,” as my parents would say.  Allowing them to fail is one part of this, but leading by example is the flip side of that coin… They’re always watching, so how do I accept life challenges as an incredible opportunity?  Ultimately, we’re teaching our children to stand on their own two feet with strength and confidence in knowing God made them with special intention and purpose, so “rise up” and make the world a better place.

 

What inspires you as a mom?

I’m inspired by Holiness in others, and am inspired by the reality that, by a divine plan, we were chosen to be mothers for our children… What an awesome responsibility as both Nurturer and Teacher!  I am blessed by great friendships and believe me, I take notes from friends with older kids… They’ve encountered life situations and instilled values where I can see their kids flourishing, and it’s super inspirational.  And not just great testimonies for hard work paying off with college or career opportunities, but awesome examples in volunteerism, stewardship.  If I open my eyes, there are ordinary people doing extraordinary things every day.

 

How do you find time for yourself/spouse/children?

I heard this years ago, and have never forgotten it:  “How do you spell Love?  T-I-M-E.”  A professional business coach also made this sobering point, “Your family deserves what’s best of you, not what’s left of you” when you walk in the door.  That awakened my senses, and inspired me to structure my business so that I am present… I love to escape with my son and do things he wants to do – just mother/son time.  Admittedly, a gun range or video game challenge is not always my cup of tea, but there’s a lot of sharing!  With my daughter, she likes foodie outings, and have done quick overnight trips together – very special.  And hubs… We try to find simple moments like coffee on the back patio before the house wakes up, or a quiet dinner together.  We even took a dance lesson in the last year. 😉  Lastly, self-care… I think many mothers would admit self-care often times comes last, and am reminded of the airplane analogy of putting an oxygen mask over our face first so we can help others around us.  We’re not effective serving others unless we’re taking care of ourselves.  It’s a work in progress.

 

What are your favorite things to do/places to spend time with your children in our community?

I would say one of our favorite things to do as a family is going out to eat together!  What does that say about us?! HA!  We live in a resort-like community, so we’ve enjoyed a lot of fun outings through the years… July Fourth parade is an annual tradition, picnics or concert-going in the park, being a spectator at professional golf tournaments, church socials… Window-shopping around Market Street… Volunteering as a family… So many wonderful venues and memories to create!

 

What advice would you give new moms?

Oh my… I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, but would simply say to “be present.”  I look back in the early years of my current career when my kids were young, and it’s a blur. I was inspired to get into a coaching program, which allowed me to implement better systems and structure.  One of the core principles I was coached on included creating a Perfect Calendar.  So, that would be my advice… Make sure your top priorities are on your calendar – time for yourself and time for your family.  Other activities, work commitments, etc, will fall in place around the latter.

 

Jo Anne grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, and attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on a full-ride music scholarship while simultaneously pursuing a professional career as a violinist with The Lincoln Symphony Orchestra among other solo & ensemble outlets. Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance, Jo Anne continued a professional music career while exploring a “daytime” career in Corporate America with a Fortune 500 Company. Within a short period, her tenure in insurance claims included: National Catastrophe claims, Fire/Auto claims, Special Investigation, Attorney Negotiations, and Management. Since 1996 Jo Anne has worked, lived, and played in The Woodlands.  She began her real estate career in 2008 which she has grown into a top-producing team – Jo Anne Johnson Real Estate Group.  Married for over 20 years to Troy, a native Houstonian, whom she met in Denver, CO, on business in the early ‘90s, Jo Anne is also the proud mother of two amazing kids! Between band practices and sports fields, she considers herself the luckiest woman in the world!

 

 

Veggie Village Part 3 – Bob Dailey

Master Gardener Spotlight- Bob Dailey

Bob Dailey grew up on a rice and cattle farm in Louisiana. When he was ten years old, Bob told his father that he would never go in the garden when he became an adult. Not surprisingly, Bob grew up to love gardening and shared his affinity for gardening with his six children. Bob became a master gardener in 2005 and subsequently retired and moved to The Woodlands in 2006 with his wife. Mr. Dailey was awarded the 2014 Outstanding Master Gardener in Texas. He has been instrumental in the development and operations of Veggie Village and also serves on the board of the Special Angels.

What does becoming a master gardener entail?

The master gardener course consists of 90 hours of instruction by professors from Texas A&M and other universities as well as other experts in their field, followed by a one-year internship and a minimum of 30 hrs. of community service each subsequent year. I usually do about 200 hours of community service per year including talks and writing about gardening.

What have you enjoyed most about being a master gardener?

I have enjoyed working with others and teaching individuals how to grow safe, healthy food, as well as to take care of the earth and be good stewards of the environment.

What have you enjoyed most about your involvement with the Veggie Village Gardens?

Working in the Veggie Village adds a profound layer to the equation. It is actionable by the community involved in the gardens – adding another layer of caring, giving to provide for people in the community. The people who work in Veggie Village are inspirational and unparalleled.

How do you see Veggie Village evolving?

I hope that as the population grows, that Veggie Village will also expand its footprint to keep up with the demand to serve the community.

Bob shares his passion for lawn and garden information online here.  You can view his interview of Interfaith of The Woodlands Volunteer Manager, Sarah Mundy here recently on all that the Veggie Village does locally. For more about Bob and his account of the many deatils of lawn and

Veggie Village Part 2 – Volunteers

Veggie Volunteers

How does the Veggie Village produce such an abundant harvest of crops? Volunteers have played a crucial part in the development of the Veggie Village since its inception. The operation of the Veggie Village gardens is led by Lori Schinsing of Interfaith. However, as Lori says, “the Veggie Village volunteers are like no other- they are a second family.” Not only were volunteers instrumental in securing the funding and development of the gardens, they continue to be the primary source of operational labor. Veggie Village relies heavily on a consistent base of committed, knowledgeable, caring volunteers. Three times per year (January, June and September) Veggie Village holds an All Hands Day where they enlist not only the help of their regular 30+ volunteers, but also the help of local National Charity League (NCL) and National Charity Roundtable (NCR) member volunteers to help remove and chop up remaining crops for compost, clear out the gardens and spread the compost.

In addition, a mutually beneficial relationship has developed between the Veggie Village gardens and local Girl and Boy Scout Troops. The Wendtwoods Learning Garden regularly hosts scout troops and exposes them to the sights, tastes, and sounds of the garden as well as the concept of food insecurity and giving back. As scouts grow, they have also become important sources of volunteers. Eagle scouts created and installed rainwater harvesting systems at both gardens in The Woodlands. A girl scout working on her gold award created a living teepee in the Wendtwoods Learning Garden complete with sensory areas where children can climb inside, read and be surrounded by nature. Additionally, scout troops have helped build raised beds to make both gardens mobility accessible.

Many of the recurring volunteers are garden advisors, including master gardeners, individuals who have been through an extensive certification process and are required to complete a minimum of 30 hours of gardening-related community service each year. The master gardeners and garden advisors have been invaluable in imparting design expertise, instruction, irrigation and composting knowledge to the operations of the gardens. The garden advising team meets monthly to address issues related to the garden and also helps Veggie Village gardeners by hosting workshops and assisting with their harvest. All of the volunteers, regardless of their role seem to have one thing in common, passion. Lori Shinsing, Veggie Village Director stated,

“We are passionate about what we do, what we are growing, and what happens at Veggie Village.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Veggie Village gardens is that in addition to the wonderful benefit of producing healthy, organic food for our neighbors in need, the gardens provide an opportunity for many who would not otherwise be able to be of service to the community. It is truly remarkable to find a program that does so much good on so many levels. Veggie Village harvests more than just produce, it offers hope for a harvest of a better tomorrow for us all.

Veggie Village- Part I – Hopeful Harvest

Is there anything better than fresh, organic, home-grown, local produce? Okay, maybe chocolate! There is just something amazing though about the flavor and satisfaction of growing and harvesting delicious, fresh food. Now imagine, how much more meaningful and rewarding that feeling would be if you were growing it to feed the 1 in 4 children in our community that is food insecure. That is the driving force behind the gardeners at the Veggie Village, where gardeners agree to donate a minimum of 75% of the crops grown back to the Interfaith Food Pantry. In actuality, about 90% of the food harvested is donated each year, which translates to nearly 4000 lbs. of fresh, organic produce for the Interfaith Food Pantry and the local senior living complexes.

The planning for the original Veggie Village community donation garden began nearly ten years ago. Sylvia Campbell, Becky Carlson, Nancy Hathaway, Peggy Hendricks, Linda Evens, andBob Dailey secured funding from grants, altruistic citizens and local civic organizations and went to the township with the concept. The township agreed, and after countless volunteer hours of planning and design, Veggie Village emerged. The goal was to not only provide organic, fresh produce using sustainable gardening practices, but to do so in a garden that would bring together young and old, able-bodied and physically challenged, and introduce a whole new generation to the joys of gardening.

Photo Courtesy Nebular Films

George’s Coffee Club

It was just a couple of years ago, over coffee, that a unique local organization began. Roger Galatas, Tom Cox, and Jeff Harris—who all worked closely with founder of The Woodlands, George Mitchell—agreed that the history of The Woodlands and the vision of George Mitchell’s master plan for it should be respected and continued. So that day in 2016, enjoying conversation and a cup of joe, George’s Coffee Club was formed with the intention of sustaining the core values of the town through education.

“We shared the view that there was not a source of information [for Mitchell’s vision that] anyone could easily access and rely on. And there needed to be,” says Galatas, President of George’s Coffee Club. The 501(c)(6) nonprofit entity seeks to share factual information about George Mitchell’s significant leadership and contribution in developing The Woodlands.

They would know—each of the founders of the organization, as well as many of their members, personally worked alongside Mitchell, and they understand exactly how he was motivated and what his specific vision was for the new town. With a desire to keep the community informed and to encourage the next generation to uphold the values of The Woodlands, George’s Coffee Club has grown from the three founding members to fifty-five active members. “We recognize as time goes by, we need young people to carry this on,” Galatas says.

An original member of George’s Coffee Club and current Steering Committee member, Karen West also enjoyed the privilege of working for Mitchell, beginning in 1984 in the legal department of his company. “This community has been my primary focus as a professional and as a resident for over 30 years, so it is important to me for us to continue to honor the man who founded this outstanding community and to communicate his vision accurately,” she says. “We thought it was important to keep his legacy alive and to educate newcomers to the area about him and his contributions to this community.”

Galatas met Mitchell early in 1979 and went to work for him later that year as the Senior Vice President of The Woodlands Development Corporation, becoming the President in 1986. “In my judgment, the single most important factor in the success of The Woodlands is its founding developer, George Mitchell. His vision, tenacity, compassion, charitable nature and willingness to take financial risk all combined in this successful community,” Galatas says. He explains that Mitchell wanted to address “regional sprawl” and build a community with quality-based initiatives where residents could live, work, play and learn.

Not only was Mitchell a well-respected oil-and-gas businessman and real estate developer, but he was also a generous man. “His charitable nature was one of the things that made him stand out from other businesses,” says Galatas. He remained active, sometimes fussing at businessmen for chopping down trees, even after he sold The Woodlands in 1997 because it was a project he embraced wholeheartedly. One of the most significant gifts Mitchell imparted was the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, in honor of his wife and her passion for the arts.

Monthly meetings of George’s Coffee Club focus on foundational values from The Woodlands’ origin, including education, health, transportation, and the arts. Speakers discuss Mitchell’s initial involvement, contribution and vision, and they associate the specific amenity with how The Woodlands has evolved through the years as well as how it relates to future plans for the community. Speakers have included Congressman Kevin Brady, Conroe ISD Superintendent Don Stockton, Debra Sukin, Josh Urban, the general manager of the San Jacinto River Authority, CEOs of Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital and Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center as well as other leaders in the community. “One speaker we enjoyed this year was Mr. Mitchell’s son, Todd Mitchell, who spoke about how important The Woodlands was to his father and what he envisioned for this community,” West says.

The Woodlands opened in 1974 as a new hometown community and brought a solution for regional growth outside a large metropolitan city. Many who live and work here may not realize that the amenities, beauty, and organization they enjoy today were strategically planned for them in its inception. Nurturing the past and sustaining the community’s values for our future embraces George Mitchell’s distinct outlook: creating a quality suburban town with a unique concentration on human appeal, not just development.

George’s Coffee Club is honoring the man and the origin of this town by teaching the community about our history and aligning its future through education, thereby inspiring continuity in realizing the dreams George Mitchell had for The Woodlands.

For more information, please visit the George’s Coffee Club website at georgescoffeeclub.org

Legacy of Caring

In 1975, Don Gebert and his family arrived in Texas, sight unseen, to help an oil and gas businessman build a new town. This businessman was George Mitchell, founder of The Woodlands, who 45 years ago made a commitment to create a community, not only with master plans for neighborhoods, schools and a city center, but with heart and soul. He wanted to include the spiritual side of life. He had dreams to build a more loving and caring community.

“Mr. Mitchell was visionary enough to see that building a new town physically was not enough. You have to have people who care, people who believe, people who know how to dream, people who want to build a more loving and caring community,” Gebert says. Including religious life was a significant piece within the original design of The Woodlands, and Mitchell needed someone to carry it out.

As a Lutheran minister, Gebert had been working in inner city Philadelphia, collaborating across racial and socioeconomic divides in the 1960s. When Mitchell approached him for The Woodlands position, Gebert was Associate Director for The Philadelphia Foundation, the largest philanthropic body in the area, which was dedicated to helping the needy and improving lives. He was both a pastor and a missionary along with his wife, Barbara. His life was devoted to others, and that wasn’t going to stop when he moved to Texas.

The Woodlands, in its infancy stage, only had around 100 families residing in the small suburban area. Gebert had been carefully recruited to be the connection for religious communities within The Woodlands, to incorporate the spiritual aspect into the community. In preparation for this, Mitchell and his team had created the nonprofit, The Woodlands Religious Community, Inc., in 1973, which Gebert later renamed Interfaith of The Woodlands.

“Interfaith has been one of the key points of The Woodlands in my opinion,” George Mitchell has remarked.

Gebert decided he needed to get know people. He hopped on his moped and visited residents one by one, sometimes following moving vans to find and greet the newcomers. With those conversations, he recorded ages, special needs and religious preferences for everyone who lived in the community. The residents were a key component of getting programs started. “So many people wanted to help. I don’t deserve all of the credit. The pioneers who lived here believed we could do something that had never been done before—they deserve the credit,” Gebert says.

In his 10 years of service to Interfaith, Gebert helped 16 churches start their congregations and attain sites for their worship services. Religious faiths of all kinds became members of Interfaith, and giving back to help others was something they all could do together. Because Mitchell helped fund his new town with Housing of Urban Development (HUD) resources, there were plenty of opportunities for neighbors to help neighbors. Many of the programs he founded with the help of steady volunteers are still in existence today, with a much larger reach due to expansion: The Villager, Interfaith of The Woodlands Directory, Interfaith Child Development Center, the Interfaith Employment Project now operating as Workforce Solutions, assistance for seniors adults and so many more.

Revered Gebert often shares, “Everything that started on the human side in The Woodlands in the early days was started by Interfaith.”

Ann Snyder, Executive Director of Generosity and Schools at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, devoted over 12 years as President and CEO of Interfaith beginning in 2003, but her work with the nonprofit began many years prior as a volunteer, followed by serving as a board member. When she became President, her goal was to ensure that Interfaith stood with a solid foundation. During the first part of her leadership, she had two important goals: to visit every member congregation and to have a conversation with every staff member. “People gave a lifetime to the organization, and it was important they know how valuable they were,” Snyder says.

As The Woodlands grew in the business arena, the nonprofit began connecting with corporate entities and creating a board of directors with expertise, knowledge and heart. It was during this time that Interfaith gained a significant amount of support among corporations and leadership in the town. “I think we helped open the windows for all that was good about this organization. It was not me, it was a team,” Snyder says. When she reflects on Interfaith’s 45th anniversary, she says, “It’s the foundation of The Woodlands. Mr. Mitchell wanted a community that embraced diversity. It’s for everyone.” During Snyder’s tenure, many important programs were initiated, such as childcare at Lonestar College, expansion of the Interfaith Child Development Center, job training and the management of the Interfaith Community Clinic.

Missy Herndon, current President and CEO of Interfaith, began volunteering with the organization before beginning her career at Interfaith in 2013. When she was named President in 2016, she had prior experience with the organization, both as a volunteer and on staff as Director of Programs and Services, which brings important perspective for leadership. Hurricane Harvey became one of Herndon’s first and most significant challenges when Interfaith was tasked with organizing Montgomery County’s massive relief efforts, which provided aid and support for more than 28,000 people. “There was no better example of how the community steps up to help each other,” she says. Led by a rock-solid group of staff from Interfaith, more than 12,000 volunteers stepped forward with confidence and dedication to Interfaith’s colossal goal, demonstrating its strong support system. “The number of people serving last year during Hurricane Harvey was staggering,” says Gordy Bunch, Chairman of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors. “Interfaith is a full-time, engaged community partner.”

Member congregations continue to be heavily involved in the success and longevity of Interfaith, with their volunteer assistance as well as financial support. 63 religious institutions work together as member congregations in the name of service to create unity amid diversity, which was one of the original mottos in the early years. “My dream was to wipe the slate clean. We could have a religious community where everyone who was different, was precious,” Gebert recalls. That value has remained and been strengthened over the years, with a focus on helping others a major tenant of religions of all kinds.

Today, under Herndon’s leadership, Interfaith continues its dedication to impacting lives through compassion and service. Nearly 35,227 individuals were served in 2017 through the nonprofit’s crisis assistance program, and Interfaith helped 1,000 seniors remain in their homes by providing assistance in all areas of life. “Our hometown is better off for having Interfaith. It has been an integral part of our community for over 40 years,” says Bunch.

From helping a few neighbors to helping hundreds of thousands, Interfaith has continually created services that meet the needs of the people in The Woodlands. Everything seemed to begin by helping just one parent, one senior citizen, one struggling family. The programs arose out of real necessities, and its staff and volunteers brought those programs to fruition. As the support from the community grew, Interfaith was able to provide more assistance to more people.

Don Gebert remains in awe of how far it has come since the first day he arrived in Texas. Knowing all the obstacles they faced in the beginning, he still calls it a miracle 45 years later.

Interfaith’s hope for the future is the same as it was 45 years ago. “Our priority will always be serving people. Our goal is to never say no. We are the connection where people of all faiths, from all economic and educational backgrounds, from the spiritual, corporate and civic communities, neighbors and individuals, are able to come together in the name of service,” says Herndon.

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.

Texas Autism Academy: Helping Students Succeed

By Janelle Romano

Nestled into a quaint little office park in The Woodlands is a spectacular private school that offers hope and educational alternatives for children with autism. Texas Autism Academy (TAA) opened last year with a vision to help the 1 in 59 students diagnosed with autism each year. Before this, special education teachers Jane Walls, Cary Mollinedo and Shelinta Perez worked in the public school system and saw these special children, trying their best to succeed in a system that was missing key components to help them.  That was when Walls, Mollinedo and Perez knew that they could make a difference.

In the Beginning

Jane Walls, President of the TAA, grew up with a brother who was autistic. She knew that with the right support and resources, children could not only assimilate into the public education system, but also flourish. Jane’s brother, Armando, had done just that. Although Armando initially floundered in school and was not given much hope to succeed in a traditional environment, he has gone on to receive his degree from Texas A&M, become a teacher and now is working on his master’s degree.

The challenge presented to Jane Walls was to develop a model that could be applied to other children with autism—to bridge the gap and give them a chance for academic and personal success. Hoping to help as many children as possible, the founders of the Texas Autism Academy originally aimed to open a charter school. However, after a trip to San Antonio to visit the only state-funded school for children with disabilities in Texas, they were disappointed. They learned that, as remarkable and wonderful as it was, the state-funded charter school stopped at second grade, and there were no funds available for any additional schools in Texas.

Walls, Mollinedo and Perez knew that tuition for a private school would be cost prohibitive for many parents of children with autism; insurance rarely covers the full expenses of therapy, and applied behavior therapy alone can cost up to $8,000 per year—out of pocket. As a result, the three of them created a nonprofit (ASD Hope, Inc.) and formed the Texas Autism Academy to serve children four to twelve years of age. They hoped that by forming a nonprofit umbrella organization, they could not only raise awareness for autism education but also raise money that would fund scholarships and provide access to education for more children.

In 2017, they began with two children and ended the school year with five. All three teachers worked for free that first year. This year, TAA has twelve children (all of the five children from the previous year have returned), the teachers are receiving a modest salary (less than what they were making in the public school) and they have hired a board-certified behavior analyst to work with the students full-time.

Philosophy and Method

Many parents do not know where to turn when they find their child, with or without a diagnosis, struggling in school, as educational options for children with autism are very limited. To receive additional support in a public school classroom, a child needs both a medical and an educational diagnosis, which can take up to a year to document. Even upon receiving a diagnosis, assistance and an Individual Education Plan (IEP), many of these students continue to struggle due to the size of the classes and quickly fall behind their peers.

Texas Autism Academy addresses and corrects behavior and social challenges through applied behavior analysis. Many of the parents and students are familiar with these techniques from autism therapy; however, TAA integrates the applied behavior principals into the curriculum through a methodical, data-driven process. The ratio of 7 students to 2 teachers allows TAA to not only customize the speed and level of learning but also to address social and behavioral needs as they occur, allowing the children to focus on learning.

Additionally, TAA removes the pressure of standardized testing and creates a new IEP every nine weeks, for each student, utilizing the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) to track progress. Students learn, advance and get back on track to reintegrate, ideally on grade level, into an inclusion environment. These kids who have become accustomed to exclusion are thriving with a peer group and friends who celebrate each other’s achievements, allowing these children the opportunity and the feeling, sometimes for the first time, of success.

Cindy Baylor, a TAA parent, has this to say about the school: “We were so thrilled to find TAA last year. We tried private school, but they lacked the resources; public school had the resources, but was too overwhelming for our son. TAA has been an incredible blessing for our family. I am a mental health professional, and I am amazed at how the TAA staff encourages our child and can handle any situation that may arise. TAA gave our son the confidence and social skills he needed to be comfortable and thrive with his peers. We started a PTO (parent teacher organization) this year to raise funds for the school. . . . Our goal is to make this amazing option accessible to more families.”

Results

Success looks different for each individual, and every child with autism is unique. However, every parent wants their child to reach their potential—academically and socially. The innovative program at TAA results in children mastering skills, overcoming obstacles and conquering fears. Parents primarily come to Texas Autism Academy to boost their child’s confidence and to bridge the gap, allowing reentry into a traditional school setting. However, parents ultimately find that what begins as a short-term solution is irreplaceable when they see the progress, both personally and academically, that their children have made in this unique learning environment.

“There is no judgment here. The kids are truly supportive of each other and celebrate all of their accomplishments together. When we started creating, planning, and preparing to open Texas Autism Academy, we recognized the importance of educating and developing the whole child with autism.  Our students are thriving academically and behaviorally, but what warms my heart the most is watching them develop lasting friendships,” says Cary Mollinedo, Director of Texas Autism Academy.

To learn more about how you can help volunteer, donate or collaborate with TAA please, go to texasautismacademy.org or call 281-771-5348.
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