If Houston was a City on a Hill

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If Houston had a hill in the center of the city, I can think of many things that could be constructed on top. For instance, wouldn’t it be amazing if our football stadium were located there? Afterall, us Texans love our football. Or how about our medical center considering people from all over the world come to Houston to be treated. Perhaps a University like Rice or University of Houston should be placed on top since bright minds are the ones that will be shaping our future. Or maybe a theater where symphonies and operas can perform would be best. Any of these things would be wonderful choices to display on a hill, but if the goal is to display the best of what Houston has to offer, than that would entail witnessing the act of selfless giving, humility, kindness, and community that so many Houstonians willing do everyday.

It would be wrong for me to choose one organization and their volunteers over another to be placed on a hill since there are so many in Houston like the Covenant House, Star of Hope, or Casa Juan Diego. However, I would like to mention one place that is tucked away in the outskirts of the city. CampForAll is a place where children with special needs and challenging illnesses can not only go to heal, but also learn new skills and gain self-confidence.

With a special thanks to camp director Kurt Podeszwa whom I met at TedX Houston, I was given a tour of the camp and witness first-hand several of the fun and challenging activities that these campers participate in. Archery, zip lining, fishing, horse back riding, rock climbing, kayaking, painting, and even some dancing performing moves like the sprinkler and the ice cream. (These kids are much better dancers than me).

I am a bit jealous of these kids. I never went to a camp such as Camp For All where I could enjoy so many activities and interact with so many other kids. In addition to seeing these amazing kids perform these activities, I also met some great volunteers. College students who absolutely loved volunteering and encouraging these kids to discover life at camp. Below is a pic of four awesome volunteers I was able to meet during my visit – Keziah, Sarah, Omar, and Molleigh along with Kurt.

If you’d like to support Camp For All, help supply them with much-needed things that you can get at Target, Wal-Mart, or Amazon. Just search for ‘Camp For All’ at http://www.target.com/lists/find, www.walmart.com/wishlist, and http://www.amazon.com/. Gifts of any size will help the children with special needs and challenging illnesses to discover the wonderful life at camp.

If you have any questions and would like to volunteer, please contact Sterling Leija at sleija@campforall.org or call her at 979-289-3752. Please pass this post along to your friends!

IFI – Prison Reform that Works

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68% of prisoners in the US return to jail within three years…. 48% of prisoners in Texas return to prison in three years.

Only 10% of prisoners who participate in the IFI prison program return to prison in three years.

How is it possible that inmates who participate in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative have such a low rate of return? Why are the majority of these inmates not repeating crimes and not repeating undesirable behavior compared to other prisoners?

The IFI program is located in Richardson, Texas (45 minutes from downtown Houston), just down the road from the Carol Vance Texas prison. The program began in 2000 and although the unit itself is funded by the State, the program is a non-profit mostly relying on help from volunteers.

For an inmate to be allowed to enter the program, they must have 2 years or less on their prison sentence and must not be a sex offender. So about my visit to seeing the IFI first-hand, I was not allowed to take photos inside the unit, and although I cannot imagine this unit looking much different than other prison units, one thing that really stood out was the gardens within the unit that are planted and maintained by the inmates. Some of the gardens I saw would have given your ‘garden of the month’ homeowner a run for his money. Despite the high fences and barb wire, it was refreshing to see plants and flowers blooming within the unit.

Texas IFI Director Tommie Dorsett, led the tour. He has been involved with the IFI since the beginning of when the program was launched eleven years ago. When launched, 25 men entered the program. Now, every year there are about 300 men in the program.

1st stop – the computer lab. Did you know that the average inmate is in jail for 10 years? Many of the inmates are not familiar with using computers, creating resumes, and drafting business plans. Yes, you read that right – Business Plans.

70% of corporations do not hire felons which impede many released prisoners from finding work. With that said, IFI places a big emphasis on teaching the inmates to think about potential businesses they can create and putting these plans onto paper. Furthermore, several experienced business professionals in the community volunteer their time and provide coaching and instruction on how to create a business plan. To date, 33 participants have started their own businesses such as air condition repair, landscaping, plumbing, painting services, and car mechanic service. Just my first stop on the tour and I was already impressed.

Next stop, recording studio. As soon as I walked in I saw two inmates behind a desk that featured an Apple computer and sound equipment. Yes I was a bit jealous since I don’t even own an Apple laptop. Along the walls of the recording studio were dozens of kids’ books – some in Spanish as well as English. This was not your traditional recording studio. In this room, inmates who are fathers actually read children books and record their voice. The recordings are then mixed with background sound effects and recorded onto a CD that is then mailed to their families. Once the mom or family member pops in the CD, the kids, as you can imagine, are so excited to hear daddy’s voice and are thrilled to listen to the CDs over and over. Two times a year recordings are made – at Christmas and for birthdays. Such a wonderful idea that helps connects the fathers with their kids.

3rd stop – hear a Toastmasters speech. I was totally surprised when I found out that there is a Toastmasters group at IFI! If you are not aware of Toastmasters, it is a club that helps members improve their communication, public speaking and leadership skills. The club meets on a regular basis so that members can practice speaking in front of audiences, listening, and providing each other with feedback and evaluation.

Great, we on the tour were thrilled to be able to hear a speech from one of the inmates. The Toastmaster (who did a great job welcoming everyone and stating the course of the meeting) introduced one of the inmates – Derrill who gave a speech entitled “How your Weakness can become your Greatest Strength”. I have heard a good number of speeches. In fact, I was also in a Toastmaster group years ago and heard several people give talks. Derrill…. Derrill was awesome. He gave a speech so well that he had my complete attention and interest. Full of life, animation, and conviction, Derrill told one of the greatest stories I have ever heard. What a brilliant idea to teach leadership and speaking skills – implement a Toastmasters group in prison.

There are several other programs at the IFI such as Financial Management, courses on work ethic, anger management, Embracing the Father, and Purpose Driven Life. Unfortunately our tour did not permit enough time to visit all the different classes.

As to why do I think the InnerChange Freedom Initiative is so successful, although the wealth of classes and learning opportunities available for the inmates help, I believe the success is attributed to the volunteers and mentors who dedicate their time to helping prepare these inmates for reentry to society, employment, religious and community service, and family and social relationships. It is because of the volunteers that the program is largely successful.

Roy Garcia, who has been volunteering for 2 ½ years, said it best, “I continue to be amazed at the wonderful transformation that occurs in the men that go through the IFI program. When these men come to my office (the Aftercare Office, where I work, where the men visit after they are released from the Carol Vance Unit) and visit me I am amazed at the profound change that has occurred. The man sitting in front of me is not the man of whom I read about in his file. The man who in his early 20’s was a drug user and seller is now a productive member of society. It’s such a privilege and joy for me to be part of this wonderful ministry.”

To learn more and see how you can help, please visit www.ifiprison.org.

Help Spread the Word about Htown Bingo!

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Help spread the word about HtownBingo!

Now demonstrate the power of the community and tell others about it. Here’s what you can do to help out:

  • Like us on Facebook and Tweet about #HtownBingo
  • Email your friends, family and co-workers and tell them to play HtownBingo!
  • Report, vote, and comment on an issue on SeeClickFix
  • Print out flyers and bingo boards and distribute them to friends and organizations you are a part of
  • Allow me to give a talk about SeeClickFix to associations you are a part of (Church, clubs, groups, civic and neighborhood communities)
  • Download a SeeClickFix widget and post it on your blog or Facebook page
  • Email local media (radio stations, TV, newspaper) and tell them about HtownBingo
Learn how to play and download the bingo board here.
See how other communities are using SeeClickFix here.

SeeClickFix Testimonials

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People everywhere are using SeeClickFix to do amazing things in their communities. Here are a few examples of how real people are improving their neighborhoods and making civic life richer with SeeClickFix.

  • Residents in New Haven used SeeClickFix to transform neglected public spaces into valuable neighborhood resources.
  • Bike riders in Tucson got road hazards fixed and are now riding free ‘n easy.
  • To help improve air quality and public health, lower energy bills, reduce stormwater runoff, and save their city millions of dollars, residents in Elm City began a campaign to protect and enhance their tree canopy.
  • In Richmond, local government is using SeeClickFix to connect volunteers with resources needed to fix community problems. The City is providing refuse trucks and workers to assist with volunteer cleanup events.
  • People in Huntsville shared their ideas for the future of economic development and planning in their community. They used SeeClickFix to discuss ideas, vote for each other’s suggestions and provide city planners with a wealth of data.
  • I’ve been risking life and limb for years crossing Whitney Ave. The intersection needs a crosswalk at minimum.” See how pedestrians reported concerns about a dangerous intersection.
  • This organization is partnering with SeeClickFix in the war against  neglected and overgrown public spaces.
  • The Meriden Department of Public Works encourages residents to report potholes using the SeeClickFix website or mobile app.
  • Residents have actually aided local police units and challenged crime in their communities.

But there are many more reasons to use SeeClickFix. See a list of the types of issues you can report here. Stop waiting and start using SeeClickFix now!

Learn the Htown Bingo rules and download the bingo board here.

Htown Bingo Rules and Prizes

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How to play Htown Bingo

You’ll need a digital camera or smartphone, a Facebook account or Twitter account with the free Twitpic application, and access to the Htown Bingo board (download it here).

Look at the revealed squares on the bingo board. When you find something around your community that matches one of the squares (like graffiti or a pothole), take a picture of it and upload the information to SeeClickFix.com. You can use either the mobile app or SeeClickFix.com to make the report.

After you’ve reported your finding to SeeClickFix, tweet the information and picture using the hashtags #htownbingo – or post it directly to Htown Bingo’s Facebook wall. Mark that square off your Bingo board.

When you’ve marked off any five squares in a row, tweet “Bingo!” using the hashtag #htownbingo. Or, post your win to Htown Bingo’s Facebook wall.

New squares will be revealed about every two weeks by a blogger, community center or media outlet. Squares will be revealed at the same time for everybody, regardless of how long you’ve been playing. Get clues about upcoming Bingo squares here.

Once you get five squares in a row on the Htown Bingo board, you will get a prize!

Prizes and Rules

  • You can only win once per month.
  • Prize for the months of April through October 2012 is a $20 Amazon gift card.
  • The issues you report must be within any city in the USA. For even more information, follow us on Twitter and Facebook. If you have any feedback, please share so you can help shape this project going forward.
  • Maximum of 5 Amazon gift cards will be given each month

Thanks!

Eric Melchor




Types of Issues to Report on SeeClickFix

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A few examples of improvements you can report, suggest and track on SeeClickFix.

Clean up Public Area

  • Graffiti
  • Debris, fallen trees/branches
  • Trash/garbage/litter pickup
  • Overgrown, unkempt, and neglected areas (Suggest transforming these into guerilla gardening spaces!)
  • Organize a neighborhood cleanup day

In need of repair

  • Potholes
  • Damaged traffic signs/signals
  • Water leaks
  • Blocked/destroyed sidewalks/curbs
  • Faulty crosswalk/pedestrian signals
  • Blocked drains
  • Dangerous bike trail pavements

Environmental Hazards

  • Cars idling

Criminal activity

  • Noise complaints
  • Suspicious activity
  • Speeding/traffic violations

Create more bike-friendly neighborhoods

  • Call for local bike lanes to be repainted
  • Ask for additional bicycle racks