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.

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.”