Feeding and Dining with the Homeless

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Have you ever seen a group of homeless gathering to hear Mass? Well they do and the group of people from Ecclesia Church have an outreach program called ‘Simple Feast’. The idea is to not only feed those in society that are often cast aside, but to also share a meal with them.

In the words of Jacky Bui, “The man on the street is not just a addict or a lazy man who won’t work, but a husband and father who has been given up on or a man who made a mistake and, though no longer in prison, finds himself still in one. There is a blending of those serving and those being served; circles of folks sitting on the grass talking and playing with pets; kids throwing a football around with grown men; and volleyball games that reveal the competitive nature of men regardless of financial status. “Us” and “them” have become sisters and brothers. This is a simple feast.”

If you’d like to see and experience this celebration for yourself, Simple Feast would love for you to join them for a Sunday (or two). Just contact Jacky Bui at jaxbui (at) gmail (dot) com.


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.

BJM – a great service to help your Job Search in Houston

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If you are a job seeker, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t ever give up on your last two weapons: Perseverance and Hope. If you have never seen the movie Pursuit of Happyness, it’s a true story about the realities of life and what some people go through just to survive. See the wonderful last scene below.

If you are in Houston, you should also check out Between Jobs Ministry. They are a group dedicated to encouraging and supporting Men and Women while they are between jobs. The group has been around for at least ten years and hundreds meet every Wednesday morning for Spiritual Support, Job Search Skills Training, Career Counseling, Networking and Job Leads, Resume Review and Assistance, and more. The best part is the dance. (Go and see what I am talking about).

If NorthWest Bible Church is too far of a drive, here is a list of other Job Ministries located in Houston.

A fun Texas Summer Camp for kids with special needs

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A wonderful summer camp for children and adults with challenging illnesses and special needs…

Camp for All is a great way for campers of all ages and abilities to gain self-confidence and independence while having fun, learning new skills and bonding with others who share their challenges in a safe and understanding environment. Campers at Camp for All are surrounded by others with the same challenges and immersed in fun activities and a positive environment.

More than 7,000 campers attend Camp for All throughout the year and it has been around since 1998.

I first learned about the camp after hearing Camp Director Kurt Podeszwa speak at TedxHouston in June 2011. I, and everyone else in the audience, could easily tell how passionate Kurt was not only working with children and adults with special needs, but also seeing how much he enjoyed putting his heart and soul into helping children do things they didn’t think was possible.

Some of the fun activities that Camp for All offers are: aquatics, archery, arts & crafts, camper kitchen, biking, challenge course, equestrian program, small animal farm, wheelchair sports, kickball, paint ball, disc golf, gold panning, and a nature program. Hek, I want to go! Read about these activities here.

For directions and other information, please visit www.campforall.org.

Meet Mendoza and Richards, recognized for Special Olympic Work

Way to Go Shirley Mendoza and Kim Richards! Shirley is a tennis pro who was recently named a national coach for the 2011 Special Olympics World Games, to be held in Greece. Kim has been named to the Special Olympics North America Tennis Committee. Kim and her husband founded a nonprofit organization creating opportunities for persons with intellectual disabilities.

The Kim and Don Richards Family Foundation provides educational enrichment through student sponsorship and social outings with trips to sporting events, theater, and restaurants to improve interaction within the setting.

For more information on the foundation, feel free to contact Kim at kardcr (at) aol.com or by visiting the foundation’s Facebook page: The Kim and Don Richards Family Foundation.

To find out more about Shirley Mendoza, visit her website at www.kclawsport.com