Austin’s remarkable pet-food network

According to an AP story, more pet owners across the country are unable to afford pet food and, therefore, are lining up outside food pantries to feed their animals. This among other tough choices pet owners are having to make in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, looming recession, rising cost of fuel and other financial pressures.

The story reports that many pet owners are choosing to abandon their pets or dump them on a friend of relative because they can no longer afford to care for them.

In looking to find out if more people in Austin are turning to pet food banks, I learned a little about the web of individuals and groups that help keep Austin animals fed every day and – let me tell you – it’s complicated.

For example, my first thought was to contact Town Lake Animal Shelter. Turns out they do accept donations, but I learned from its Web site that they prefer only canned pet food and they don’t hand out pet food to individuals. (Why only canned? It stores better than dry.)

If you do give dry pet food, that gets picked up from a woman named Liz who operates a massive pet food bank out of her garage. She distributes mostly to animal rescue groups in Austin rather than individuals, though she has helped Katrina victims and their pets. She also operates a greyhound rescue group, by the way.

Liz picks up from the shelter but also receives donations from barrels placed around pet stores, Wal-marts and Targets around the city. Notice that broken 100-pound bag of dog food spilling into the aisle? That’s probably going to wind up in Liz’s garage.

Apparently if you’re an individual who needs help feeding your pet, you turn to Animal Trustees of Austin. I haven’t heard back from them yet to confirm this, but when I do I will update this site. I also hope to learn if more people are seeking free pet food.

How is it that we don’t know more about this huge network of groups helping Austin animals? Well, as Liz put it: “There are people out there who do some of these things… we don’t make a big deal out of it. Maybe it’s because, for one thing, we can’t do much more than we’re doing.”

In her 10 years of running this pet food bank out of her garage, Liz also adds, “I have met some people I never would have met and done some things I never would have done.” Does she have plans for slowing down? “Well, I have noticed that since I turned 70 a few years ago, I can’t lift those 50-pound bags like I used to.”



Austin young pros pitch, putt, play dress-up at Head Honcho event

YMBA members as Elvis at Austin Head Honcho Invitational

The Young Mens’ Business Alliance … it’s a long story.

Butler Pitch ‘n Putt was the site of the second annual Head Honcho Invitational yesterday, a golf tournament kind of thing among several Austin under-40 organizations. I was there for a little while, and I actually saw lots of people playing golf.

Why not? It was a gorgeous day, and the tournament kicked off at 3 p.m., which is a little earlier than happy hour but not so early you’d be cutting into your lunch time. Stephanie Fisher, president of Young Execs of Austin, kicked things off, thanking sponsors and explaining the rules of the tourney. I’m not sure how many of the attendees were golfers. A couple of teams from the United Way Young Leaders Society looked like yacht captains and skippers (Durel Bernard had an explanation for the costumes, but it seemed like a stretch), and the Young Men’s Business League showed up as Elvis… or rather, Elvi. Did Elvis golf?

Ahoy, young leaders!

Kim Jowers and Durel Bernard lead Young Leaders’ Society

Kim Jowers, executive chair of Young Leaders Society, was there to golf despite the fact she has a five-month-old baby at home. (Good for her! We new moms need our time on the green, too.) I also got to meet Traci Fisher of Young Women’s Alliance. They have a Member Appreciation Party this Tuesday night with a really cute theme: “Red Carpet.” This is a members-only, cocktail dress event… on a Tuesday night, no less. They do it right.

The fact that each of these groups makes philanthropy part of their mission demonstrates how important our community’s needs are to young Austin. It would be interesting to poll each group and quantify the financial impact they have on the community. In total, about a dozen young professionals groups were represented, including Catalyst 8, Habitat Young Professionals, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, Young Hispanic Professionals of Austin, and Helping Austin.

That last group, Helping Austin, is interesting. According to Amy Stanley, this new-ish group works through Austin Community Foundation to raise money for at-risk youth. Most of their donations have gone to Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and just about anyone can join – young or old, professional or … what’s the opposite of professional?

We’ll learn more about each of these groups in a series of Q&As coming soon to this blog/magazine.

In the meantime, heads up around Butler Pitch n Putt. The Elvi are pulling down broken tree limbs, and they’ve got a Bobcat.

Even working moms can do it…

Diane Kearns is a working mom with three children – Beck, four-months-old; and twins Dean and Vivian, both five years old. Diane is also an active volunteer at Sammy’s House, an Austin nonprofit child development center for children with special needs. I’ve always considered full-time working mothers who volunteer to be extraordinary people.  “I’ve been involved with Sammy’s House since the twins were about one, and volunteering for them is definitely a labor of love,” says Diane.

What makes Diane even more special, though, is her complete acceptance  of and peace with her son Dean’s condition. Dean was born with cerebral palsy, and Diane has had to be extra resourceful in finding support. “My son has a disability and that’s just the way it is,” she says. “It doesn’t define him. It’s just a challenge that we together have to help him overcome.”

Early on, Diane and her family found a lot of support through Sammy’s House. The organization seems to have found a place in Diane’s heart, and she somehow finds the time to give back to Sammy’s House, volunteering for the past four years and, most recently, chairing the annual fundraiser.

I was fascinated with Diane’s story because, despite the fact that she deals with much more than I can imagine, she seems extremely energetic and positive. She let me ask her a few questions. I think her story can inspire others to find the time to volunteer – especially when they find the right organization.

1. In 2002, you had twins, Dean and Vivian. Dean was born with cerebral palsy and a visual impairment but Vivian was not. At what point did you reach out for help? 

We were fortunate in that because the twins were born premature, and in the NICU, standard operating procedure was that babies get cranial ultrasounds before they’re discharged. The doctor noticed brain damage on his final ultrasound, so she referred us to a pediatric neurologist (who gave us the diagnosis of CP), and wrote a prescription for physical therapy, and referred us to Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), who sent out a case worker who evaluated Dean, which led to additional therapy services paid through Travis County (that’s since changed — now payment is based in income…on a sliding scale). That snowballed into Dean getting evaluated for vision services, which are paid through the school district (AISD). So, we were fortunate that the services came to us in the early years. 

2. What was your involvement in the beginning and how has it changed? 

We got involved with Sammy’s House when our nanny quit (the twins were about 11 months old) and I didn’t have childcare for the twins. I was referred by one of our therapists to Sammy’s House…one of their primary services is a childcare center for children with special needs. I called the center and spoke to their director, Isabel Huerta, who spent roughly an hour talking to me. There were no spots in the classes (at the time, they could only handle 12 children due to space limitations), but she put me on the waiting list.

A few months later, I called Isabel again when Dean needed a wheelchair and our insurance company refused to pay for one (it took 9 months to get approved). She loaned us the exact version of what we eventually got, and my husband and I were so grateful, we started volunteering at respite care, and then on the fundraisers. I joined the board in January of 2007, and am now the committee chair on fundraising. 

3. When you heard about Sammy’s House, what made you want to be a part of it beyond being one of their clients? 

There are so many reasons! First, it was because their executive director is such a dynamic, caring person. She reached out to me when I first met her, spent time with me (apparently she could see that I needed it!). Later on, it was because they were the underdogs. The school was in a tiny house in Hyde Park, and could only serve 12 kids. Several neighbors had an issue with special needs kids being “in their neighborhood”.

They operate on such a shoe string budget, I knew that I could generate exposure and raise funds. Now, I do it because I know I can make a difference in the community…for all the special needs kids & their families, and everyone else…to promote inclusion, acceptance, and diversity. 

4. What are some of the ways Sammy’s House has helped Dean more than if he were not enrolled? 

Sammy’s House operates a “reverse-inclusion” model. In the daycare and pre-K program, there are more special needs kids than there are typical kids. Dean got to spend his days with kids of varying abilities and I think it helps him see that there are a lot of other kids just like him. That he’s not so different.

Want to know more about Sammy’s House? Visit the site and let them know you support their work.

Who knew this was Austin?


Ignacio Cruz, Shannon Sandrea, and Kristin West at the MLK Day of Service

Who knew Austin looked like this? I’m specifically speaking about the attendees of this past weekend’s MLK Day of Service event, produced by the United Way. I’d heard about this event before, so I decided it was time to finally check it out. “This is actually one of our smallest events,” Mando Rayo told me. He’s the director of Hands on Central Texas… I’ve mentioned him before.

Small or not, this was a lively group of about 150 who showed up despite the cold, drizzly weather. They gathered in a big hall on the campus of Huston-Tillotson University – “Texas’ first institution of higher education, by the way,” said State Rep Dawna Dukes, a speaker at the event. I didn’t know that. In fact, I was surprised by a lot of things that day. Admittedly, I don’t get out as much as I should. But I’d never seen such a mix of people! White-haired white men, dreadlocked and Afro’d African-Americans, white women, Hispanic men, teenagers, small children, people of every color, gender, size, and age that I’ve ever seen in Austin, all in one big room.

I live on the West Side. Not west of Mopac, I mean west of I-35. We west-of-I-35’ers don’t get to see many different kinds of people. Now, I’m from San Antonio and have lived on the South Side of Chicago and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so I’m used to getting a mix. Can I just tell you how nice it was so see this mix again? And here in Austin? Oh, it was nice.

Other nice surprises:

1. I didn’t realize just how willing these people would be to participate. A group called Theater Action Project (yet another nonprofit I’d never heard of – and I’m looking for these NPOs, folks!) got the entire 100+ group to walk around, jump, yell out their names, touch each other, laugh, and work together. I know this sounds strange to point out, but the fact is that hardly any of these people knew each other. All strangers, making little houses over other strangers. Wow. You can’t get that level of participation at a wedding.

mlk-theater-action-project-3.jpg mlk-theater-action-project-1.jpg

2. I didn’t know anything about The Cipher. And you must check these young men and women out. They are all self-expression, hurt, and hopefulness: “Tell me what would you say if you had the whole world paying attention.” This group of about nine young people, led by a young man named Gator, perform original beats and rhymes one after the other, each reflecting on the message of “I have a dream.” These are Austinites, folks, and you should hear what they have t say.

3. As a child, Pastor Joe Parker knew Dr. Martin Luther King. His father was a pastor and a friend of MLK. And MLK has had a profound effect on Pastor Parker’s life. Joe Parker was an attorney – and a successful one at that – but he left it all for the Baptist ministry. He was called to service and, more importantly, he answered that call. Pastor Parker spoke at the MLK event on Saturday, and he was captivating. Who knew one of Austin’s best leaders had been directly inspired by one of the world’s greatest leaders?

For more about the event, visit the UWCA blog.

Turns out data-entry volunteers are cool after all

Last week I blogged about a volunteer opportunity with Special Olympics Texas that I thought … well, that I thought would be hard to find volunteers for. To prepare for the Winter Games in San Antonio next month, Special Olympics Texas is enlisting volunteers to perform … yawn … data entry.

Erika Corbell, the director of volunteer services for Special Olympics Texas, wrote me back and let me know that, ahem!, actually lots of people like to turn up and enter data. See our little Q&A below:

1. Okay, so you DO get people who volunteer to do data entry. Is is hard to enlist them?

We do a data entry project three times a year – prior to each of our three state-wide competitions. The summer and fall  data entry opportunities are not as hard to recruit for as the winter one, since it begins right after the holidays.

2. What kind of people are they? Corporate teams? Retired? First-timers?

Yes, all of the above – Dell teams, retired, college students, high school students.  We have a crew from Whole Foods that volunteers for at least two of the evening shifts for all three data entry projects each year.

3. Do you think they feel the same satisfaction as they would in other volunteer opportunities? What do they get out of it?

Absolutely – it is definitely not an “edge-of-your-seat” opportunity, but volunteers quickly see that they are contributing to an important and necessary part of the process.  Overall, we usually get varied reactions – lots of amazement about seeing behind-the-scenes at what it takes to put on one of our events.

So there you go!

This makes me think I’m going to have to get a hold of these volunteer coordinators at these Austin corporations to find out how they choose where to invest their employees’ time. What a rewarding job! Is there any downside to coordinating tons of man power and applying it toward a good cause? I’ll find out,

1000 bags of Thanksgiving groceries

One of the stories we have planned for the first issue of GoodCause is about Thanksgiving volunteering. Thanksgiving kicks off the season of giving, after all, and there are lots of opportunities around town to serve and feed needy folks on Turkey Day.

But we wanted to highlight other opportunities to give back around Thanksgiving, and we wanted to tell the story from the volunteer’s point of view.

So Torquil had the great idea of arming volunteers from a few events with disposable cameras, which would let them document their day. This past weekend, we gave cameras to three volunteers with El Buen Samaritano’s Thanksgiving Baskets event, which gives away Thanksgiving dinner to 1000 families, most of them non-native, Hispanic Americans.

El Buen’s event is different from most in that they give away the groceries – including the frozen turkey – rather than the cooked meal. Ivan Davila, community relations coordinator, told me this is to give the mother of the family the opportunity to fulfill her role as nurturer and caregiver. It also introduces these families to the uniquely Amercian holiday, complete with the traditional meal.

Bags and bags of Thankgiving groceries

HEB provides the turkeys, the groceries are donated or purchased with monetary donations, and Univision radio promotes and covers the event. This thing is huge. Don’t think for one minute that 1000 people show up to pick up their groceries. Most people bring the whole family, so now you’re talking about 3000+ folks, most between 9 and 11 am.

I gave cameras to two volunteers from State Farm, which came as a group, and another who had previous connections with El Buen. State Farm employee, Ed Rodriguez is married to a woman who works at El Buen, and he brought his baby daughter along. Dolores Foust from State Farm brought her husband Gary. And Tom Ball, who works with El Buen, brought his teenage son.

I can’t wait to get the photos back and talk to them about what it was like volunteering that day. I stayed and took some photos, too.

Ed Rodriguez and Victoria

We’re also working with CARITAS and a few Turkey Trot volunteers. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to set-up and work a fundraising 5K, and Turkey Trot’s one of the best-known races.

I’ll post some of their photos here, but the complete story will run in our first issue next quarter.

I know why you volunteer

Actually, I don’t know why you, in particular, volunteer. But I can guess. What do you think? Be honest. What’s the real reason why you volunteer?

I’m going to do something crazy and offer up three major reasons. Now, I know I don’t have but three readers out there (if that many), but I’m hoping to get some feedback on this one.

Am I missing one? Are these reasons too simple? Which one do you fall under? If a little of each, what’s the ranking?

Okay, here are my three guesses as to why people volunteer.

1. To do good
2. To feel good
3. To look good

And, just to be fair, I’m going to throw myself under reason #2. There, I said it.