Our local CASA organization has an important mission, which is to have a safe, permanent, nurturing home for every child. Accordingly, every summer, CASA hosts Christmas in July, a fundraiser that we had the opportunity to attend and, in a small way, help positively impact children’s lives. Thanks to sponsorships by Wes and Karen Altom of Postcards Magazine and Professor Mike Yawn, we were able to attend–dressed in our Christmas and luau attire, we got ready to play (and hopefully win) bingo!
At my table, I had the honor to sit with TX Representative Kyle Kacal and his wife Marci Kacal, who were joined by Richard and Dorothy Yawn and Mac and Leanne Woodward.
Rob Hipp with KSAM was the bingo caller for the night, and he did a wonderful job of keeping the crowd involved and entertained. By the last round of bingo, with some practice and prompting, we were pros whenever Mr. Hipp shouted “lets play…” we all answered: “BINGO!”
We all enjoyed the food provided by the City Hall Café, and we were able to participate in the raffles, silent auctions, and biddings. Unfortunately, although I put all my tickets in the drawing for a free spa, I was not very lucky.
On the other hand, Mrs. Michelle Spencer was the luckiest of us all! Just before the final round of bingo, Mrs. Spencer won a game! The prize for the win was, a free Airbnb travel package and gas card. (Photographer’s note: for those of us at her table, it was a very suspenseful few calls until the winning combo was called. We were able to snap a few candids of the Spensers before and after they won!)
As the night went on, more games were played and more winners were announced. The room was buzzing with anticipation whenever someone stood up, signifying there were only one number away from a win. “BINGOs” were heard around the room and prizes were awarded by amazing sponsors.
What we all agreed to find more enjoyable, along with the bingo of course, was the live bidding. I have personally never seen one before. This bidding was very special since the auction items were paintings created by the children who are part of the CASA program. Each painting delivered a strong message. The one I fell in love with was the painting of a silhouette of a person speaking, and the words drawn outside of the shape were “I’m fine.” Within the profile were words of how the child actually felt not having a home and being mistreated.
As the bidding went higher, some even up to $5,000, our jaws dropped, and our hearts were filled gratitude for how kind and generous the citizens of Huntsville are.
As we wrapped up the last game of bingo, we were told by the end of the night how much money was raised from this event, and once they said over $106,000, the room was filled with joy, knowing that we all were able to give back to children in need.
Many thanks to our table mates, the wonderful community of Huntsville, and, of course, many congratulations to CASA for such a successful night.
Late afternoon on Friday, we loaded the car and embarked on our journey to the Midwest! Our destination for the first half of our week is Wichita, Kansas, for the 76th Annual Meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference. Leaving late afternoon, though, we only made a few hours on the road before our first stop.
On the museum grounds, we were introduced to a new (to us) artist, Richard Serra, known for his massive bronze sculptures. His abstract works develop a “patina” over time, meaning that the metal changes color. Since its creation in 2002, we could clearly see how the coloring of Vortex has changed over time.
We snapped a few shots and made our way to another nearby outside piece, Hina, by another new (to most of us) artist, Deborah Butterfield. Butterfield also works in bronze, but her horses look like they’re made of wood!
Chatting about the different techniques, we made our way inside to meander through the modern pieces, on the lookout for more new and inspiring artists and works.
The minimal and modern building blended perfectly with the landscape and the works inside. The interior layout is designed to display prominent exhibits, with soaring ceilings and a lot of glass, and it is an appropriate motif for minimalist works such as those by Donald Judd.
The east and north sides overlook a reflecting pool, across which stands a gleaming Roxy Paine with interweaving branches entitled Conjoined.
Yvette quickly identified the distinct squares and colors of Josef Albers and Jessica spotted her favorite part of the museum, a collection of Andy Warhol flowers, and we were pleased to see that we would be rewarded with other Warhol works as well.
True to the nature of modern art, the pieces were not limited to paint and canvas. Steel and fiberglass adorned the center of one gallery, while interesting messages displayed on LED signs followed a vertical and uniform pattern in another. Of particular interest were Nancy Graves’ Inside-Outside and Jenny Holzer’s Kind of Blue, which we spent a lot of time on, pondering and (trying to) photograph.
Ashlyn best liked a rather unique photograph that featured a simple middle-class home balanced upon a pair of legs, Laurie Simmons’ Walking House. She was drawn to the piece for how it “stood out” and could be interpreted on multiple levels.
We made our way (rather quickly because of the temperature) through the sculpture garden which, in addition to the Paine, featured a KAWS…
Professor Yawn’s favorite piece was one by Martin Puryear, titled “Ladder for Booker Washington.” While we didn’t understand the reference, Yawn discussed it and offered several interpretations for this intriguing piece.
The more dynamic pieces allowed us to practice creating interesting and unusual photographic compositions and ultimately resulting in some nice shots.
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was a good start to what soon will be a week worth of art, history and politics!
La Cena at Salsa Limón
With Oklahoma City in our sights, we chose somewhere quick (that turned out to be just right!) for dinner—Salsa Limón. We made our selections, while attempting to create a variety of options (which in my opinion, is becoming increasingly more difficult since our tastes sometimes converge). Jessica and Morgan chose similarly (boring burritos!) with pastor and chorizo, respectively, Ashlyn had a chicken molco bowl (“Just what I was expecting!”), and Yvette, Professor Yawn and Stephanie had an assortment of tacos, from barbacoa, to mushroom & cheese, to pastor, to black bean & avocado.
It was a good and light meal, energizing us for the final leg of our day’s travels.
As community members in Huntsville gathered at Kate Barr Ross Park to celebrate July Fourth, smiles glistened off children’s faces, and relaxation ran through the parents’ bodies, knowing their children would have a safe and fun July fourth. There was fun for the LEAP Ambassadors as well, but our primary job was to volunteer for the City’s annual Fourth of July festivities.
We were working under the supervision of our friend, Isabel Behm, who has a City internship, and who was, in turn, working under the supervision of Kristy Wheeler and Penny Joiner. And there was a lot of supervision to give–hundreds of people came out to join the fun–fun that included a selfie station, face-painting, a rock wall, a bouncy house, candle-making, food vendors, and a dunking booth.
In fact, we took advantage of some of the fun. Before we got sweaty–or, before we got too sweaty–we made use of the selfie station, taking photos with props…
….and without props.
Others also took advantage of this station throughout the day.
Another big crowd pleaser was the rock-climbing wall. Reaching the top was quite an accomplishment, providing a workout, a lot of fun, and the sense that you could touch the clouds!
If citizens wanted to take out some aggression, they could also try the dunking booth. Local celebrities such as Glenn Edwards (KSAM), Aron Kulhavy (City Manager), Greg Mathis (Fire Chief)…
…and Penny Joiner (Director of Parks and Recreation) sat in the water seat, and for a dollar, people could get three tosses of a softball for an attempted dunking. Few people besides Kristy Wheeler hit the target honestly…
…but a lot of people took the opportunity to run up and use their hands to dunk the celebrity.
It’s possible that we did that to Aron Kulhavy a couple of times….
Thankfully, however, Mr. Kulhavy does not hold grudges, and he even took a selfie with us afterward–photobombed by a police officer!
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the day was seeing the kids have fun at the event. Indeed, once they were cleared by us to go, they overflowed with excitement and headed straight to the fun activities. A fan favorite was the watermelon-eating contest…
…where one young person actually won twice!
Of course, the Ambassadors couldn’t sit out this event. Morgan and I were nervous and excited for this event, and it lived up to its billing. We dove into this event, doing our best to keep our hands behind our back, while not making too much of a mess. This was only partially successful.
Of course, it took me almost no time to recover from the loss and massive intake of watermelon; within seconds I was on my phone!
Although we lost the competition, we and the entire LEAP program got to see how different departments work together to build a better Huntsville community.
Of course, the watermelon contest wasn’t the only event. There was also face-painting by Lacy Wilkinson…
Another fan favorite was the bouncy-houses, which the kids loved (it’s possible some of us slid down the slide…).
And what do you think could top that entire afternoon? Fireworks, of course! The City put on a great show for the 1,000+ people who came out, and it was quite a show, building up to a grande finale.
It was a day to remember for us: the smell of fresh burgers, the fun of rock-climbing, the joy springing from each family that entered the park, and the beautiful fireworks helped bring a community spirit that is a part of living here.
Our evening–and my first LEAP Center event–began with a trip to the Glade Gallery, which hosts not only beautiful art, but also many of the events held by the World Affairs Council.
At the Glade Gallery we viewed an array of paintings and sculptures. As we were roaming the gallery, we noticed some art pieces that also happened to be for sale- some were priced up to $31,000!
And we even saw a Marc Chagall!
Our main objective of the evening, however, was to hear from Julián Cárdenas, who was speaking on Venezuela’s political and energy situation–and how these are being affected by the Russian-Ukraine War.
Considering Mr. Cardenas served in the Venezuela State Department, is an energy expert, and a law professor at the University of Houston Law, he was a good person to hear from on this topic!
Mr. Cardenas and WAC’s able moderator Ronan O’Malley discussed the challenges faced by Venezuela since the Chavez and Maduro regimes, of which there many. With economic policies that aren’t working, the country facing sanctions imposed by other countries, and widespread corruption among government officials, Venezuela is also facing soaring inflation–in fact, inflation has climbed to thousands of percent, making the US’s inflation rate of 10 percent seem tame.
Cardenas discussed numerous topics we needed to learn about: realism v. idealism in foreign policy, the G-7, NAFTA, and programs such as “food for oil.” We also learned the term “brain drain,” of which Cardenas was a part–he left when conditions became intolerable there.
Following the main discussion, we were able to chat a bit with Mr. Cardenas, pose for a photo, thank the wonderful WAC staff, and head out for dinner.
We drove down to Casa Medina just in time to grab a couple of seats before they closed the kitchen. The service was excellent, and the food was solid! I ordered the shrimp enchiladas, and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of shrimp and cheese on top. I am a bit of a shrimp enchilada connoisseur, and this dish is a guaranteed 10/10 on the Ashlyn Parker scale!
We’ve previously volunteered for the Senior Center, but only indirectly. For the past two years, we’ve assisted with “Empty Bowls,” hosted by the Wynne Home, and the proceeds from that fundraiser go to the Senior Center. But we’ve never helped directly with the good people there, and so helping the staff and board members thank the Center’s regular volunteers at their “Volunteer Appreciation Dinner” was a nice opportunity.
And while this may have been our first time to directly help the organization, the Senior Center has been helping others for the past 45 years! Help, indeed: in 2021, the organization provided more than 52,000 meals to those who are food insecure in Walker County!
Director Stacy Loll led the proceedings, we and the Junior Service League of Huntsville, and Board members Linda McKenzie, City Councilmember Jon Strong, Alice Ellisor, Robert Patteson, Ellen Willett, Karen Hewitt, Mary Douglas, Brad Davis, Bart Davis, Susan Retzlaff, Rosie Knight, and Dick Morton all assisted.
Their goal was to thank the many regular volunteers who assist the Senior Center, especially those that volunteer for the “Meals on Wheels” program.
For our part, we worked at greeting, drinks, and to a lesser extent, desserts. Our tasks were straightforward and pleasant; working with good people for a good cause is almost always pleasant!
Ms. Loll recognized various volunteers…
…and we also heard testimony to the hard work of JD Davis, who served as Board Chairman until his passing last year. His family was on hand, and the Board did a good job of honoring his service to the Senior Center, including providing a plaque to the family.
Linda McKenzie and Alice Ellisor also bought two tickets to the Isaacs, who are appearing at the Old Town Theatre. A lucky volunteer came away with a fun night of entertainment!
One unexpected delight was that we were also offered the opportunity to eat. Humphreys did a fine job with the catering, and the food, some gift bags…
…and the genuine appreciation of the Board, reflected the deep gratitude we all feel for the regular volunteers who help make the community a stronger–and better–place.
Judge Hatchett was very enthusiastic as she shared her stories and words of wisdom to inspire all the attendees. Unlike other speeches, Judge Hatchett meandered around the room and asked questions of attendees. She encouraged everyone to establish professional and private goals and to stick to them!
For us, the breakout session was an opportunity to learn from senior managers at the conference.
After the breakout session, she left us all pondering her powerful message: “on the other side of fear is your freedom!” Reminding us to not be afraid to act upon our dreams and do what we are meant to do.
Receiving a standing ovation from the audience, Judge Hatchett walked off the stage to converse on a more personal level with a few of the attendees. It was then that we realized what a small world we live in when we “bumped” into Scott Wayman, who, as it turned out, is married to Diane Gottsman! For those wondering who Mrs. Gottsman is, she comes to Sam Houston State University (brought in by Career Success) every semester to teach us about etiquette, and we very much enjoy her annual visits, where we pose with her in annual selfie.
So, we did that with Mr. Wayman!
As we got ready to leave, we said our goodbyes to Ms. Breland, Mr. Wayman, Mr. Stokes, and Judge Hatchett.
We are looking forward to attending the 2023 TCMA Conference in Allen, Texas!
As we sprinted to the last day of our conference trip, we prepared for our busiest and most fulfilling day. We headed to the Lost Pines resort for a delightful breakfast and one of our last opportunities to network and learn from other city employees. Our conversations soon came to an end when the World-Renowned ER Physician and Iraq War Veteran, Dr. Sudip Bose took the stage.
Dr. Bose spoke on how to be the best leader, even when while under A LOT of pressure, which is something that various city managers have dealt with through COVID-19 and its effects. Utilizing his military background as an analogy to various situations, Dr. Bose was able to relate with the many city managers in attendance.
Dr. Bose reminded us that “challenges without support are discouraging,” stressed the importance of knowing when to let go of a situation and move on, and highlighted the importance of knowing when a window of opportunity is presenting itself.
Perhaps most important was his message emphasizing preparation, a lesson he learned in the military: “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you will bleed in war.”
Dr. Bose’s closer was perfect lead-in to the different sessions that we would hear, involving: (1) cybersecurity and (2) how and why it is important to address mental health needs.
The cybersecurity session focused on the importance of addressing and having a multi-layered defense and an Incident Response Plan.
Ryan Burns with Texas Municipal League (TML), who is a former SHSU graduate, led this session addressing all the concerns of its attendees as well as covering what he thought was most important.
Without saying too much, Burns advised everyone on how “it takes everyone to combat a cybersecurity threat and each city must plan, prepare, and test their plans, revising as necessary.” As city managers and employees, they must be PERFECT all the time compared to a hacker who only needs to get it right once.
Morgan and Isabel reported that the session covering mental health was comforting to see so many cities focused on the mental health of their employees.
TCMA has partnered with Deer Oaks Employee Assistance Program to provide mental health support for its members. Rep. Kristina Herrera, explained the various services that will be available for TCMA members and their families and the importance of utilizing them. The concept, as with all proactive health efforts, is that providing mental health services is not only the right thing to do, but will ultimately lead to a happier, more productive work force.
The City of Austin awaited us, so we left the conference early after enjoying a quick lunch!
We had the pleasure of meeting (and, for some of us, re-meeting) a passionate artist, Daniel Arredondo, whose work entranced us for almost two hours. One of most prevalent themes in his work is “what lies beneath,” the idea that what is beneath the surface is often more important than what is on the surface.
It may be appropriate, then, that his work often depicts trees. But he also showed us his landscapes and, in a new twist for him, his recent, more abstract pieces.
Arredondo’s passion was apparent throughout our visit. We asked him how he knew when a painting was done, and he simply described it as a gut feeling.
Morgan seemed to gravitate toward the pieces that were more southwesterly in appearance, a bit reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes. Jessica was fond of his signature style paintings of “what lies below,” landscapes of trees and their roots growing underneath–so much so that she bought one of them!
We also got to see him in action! Arredondo demonstrated how he starts an abstract painting and described why he chooses the media that he does. He mentioned multiple times that he has never done a demonstration in front of others; it was such a treat! I loved how passionate Arredondo was, how detailed he was in his descriptions of his process, and the hospitality with which he welcomed us. Today was filled with so much laughter, great conversations, and fellowship. It was a great day to start the end of our trip!
At the end of our stay, Arredondo gifted us with pieces that will serve as reminders. Some of his earliest works adorned the front of the cigar boxes, and he was kind enough to let us choose ones that spoke to us.
Many, many thanks to Daniel Arredondo for showing us was art is from the other side of the canvas.
We switched gears from the roaming hills of West Austin and headed for the heart of Austin, the Texas State Capitol.
We began our capitol tour much like we do others, by commenting on the interesting or unique architectural features and designs. Professor Yawn walked us around the groups and explained that the extensions to the structure were fundamental in accommodating our Texas-sized legislature and staff. While the extensions and supporting features are new, they did not distract from the aesthetic of the Capitol established in 1885.
The red limestone exterior of the Capitol seemed to glitter in the setting sunlight, and we made our way into the north entrance. Upon opening the front doors, we of course stopped to look at the 7-pound door hinges, detailed with the Texas Seal.
We posed with Elizabet Ney’s rendering of a young Sam Houston…
…and pondered on the surrender of Santa Anna.
But, of course, from the rotunda, the most interesting piece is the interior of the dome, which is beautiful.
And we also followed toured the floors viewing the different governors throughout history, settling on our favorite.
As we were leaving the sun was just setting under the tree line and we snapped our final photos.
After a lovely tour of the capital and a relaxing drive around Austin, we were ready to kayak and spend some time on the peaceful water of the Colorado River.
And while Jessica and Izabella accomplished a peaceful journey, that certainly was not the case for Morgan and me.
I knew it might be a bit rocky when Morgan began our ride by saying, “Isabel…I’ll do my best not to yell at you.” Part of our problem is that we thought I, sitting in front, should be steering, when, in fact, that was Morgan’s job. (Editor’s note: both parties lacked any semblance of navigational skills, exacerbated by the fact that Morgan is often flummoxed by even simple directions.)
Our meandering, inefficient paddling, however, did not prevent us from seeing a beaver casually swimming along the shoreline!
While we worked just to paddle forward, Jessica and Izabella enjoyed a leisurely tour along the river, using what Jessica referred to as the “slow-and-steady approach.” Although we aren’t ones to judge, it did appear that Bella was allowing Jessica to do much of the work….
Around 8:30 pm we began to paddle to the dock. The trip back was where Morgan and I experienced the most action. We attempted to convince Jessica and Bella to tow us into the dock, but they selfishly refused to play along. This left us to our own devices which, at one point, rendered us fighting limbs and the shoreline, running aground (and encountering a spider–eek!) as we ineffectually tried to return to the dock.
Despite these misadventures–or perhaps because of them–we very much enjoyed our time on the water, and it was a fitting and madcap ending to a wonderful day.
…who introduced our keynote speaker for the general session, Nora McInerny, whose talk, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” played on themes she discusses in her podcast and books.
She displayed her dry, witty sense of humor while also touching on loss, grief, change, and new beginnings. Most importantly, she addressed the ability to genuinely answer the question, “How are you?” I think we often answer with the word “fine,” which is okay, but sometimes, it’s okay not to be okay.
Following McInerny’s inspirational words, we had a chance to meet her and discuss her talk.
She was very generous.
Today was a unique day with their awards luncheon! Once the doors opened, we scurried off to get a table and save Huntsville’s City Manager, Aaron Kulhavy, a seat next to us. For most of the luncheon, we were conversing with Aaron to get to know him and learn more about city management.
Our entrée for lunch consisted of Ham with Barbeque sauce, and grits, accompanied by a variety of vegetables such as corn and some delicious carrots. Once we finished our main dish, we started on our dessert which was a delicious fruit tart with oranges and strawberries. Countless city officials were recognized for their outstanding work and accomplishments throughout the years. It was truly an amazing and rewarding experience.
Once the luncheon was over, Aaron Kulhavy took us around and introduced us to multiple people from the surrounding areas before we split off to the breakout sessions.
Isabel enjoyed the economic development conference presented by Imelda Speck, the Economic Developer in Irving, Texas, which is Isabel’s hometown! Speck along with the other panelists talked about the effects the Covid-19 pandemic had on their cities and small businesses. Isabel found it interesting to hear about the programs the City of Irving implemented to try and soften the blow. Jessica found this session particularly easy to understand and follow thanks to her Finance Internship with the City of Huntsville.
In ways, her internship with the Finance Department helped her understand things in different sessions such as previously mentioned and the strategic plans session. However, this can also be said of Morgan after interning with the City Secretary.
Morgan’s favorite conference, All Disasters are Local, Your Emergency Program Should Be, Too, by Nim Kidd. Kidd talked about three new technologies that they are putting in place to cover more bases regarding emergency management. It was also intriguing to know how they are also starting the first academy in the nation for emergency management and will be placing 100 new agents in 100 new counties.
Despite many good sessions today, my all-time favorite was the opening session with Nora Mclnerny.
Dinner in Downtown Bastrop
Once the conference wrapped up for the day, we were beyond excited to explore downtown Bastrop and eat at a local place. On our way to Piney Creek Chophouse, we took a moment to admire the various bookstores, coffee shops, and beautiful homes in their downtown. Piney Creek Chophouse is a nice neat little local restaurant that has a unique architectural design and interior that adds to the character of the place.
Often Professor Yawn forgets to feed us, but makes up for it when he treats us to a fancy steakhouse. Never failing to get us appetizers to hold us over until our entrees arrive, we ordered Crab Cakes, Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms, and Bruschetta.
We were also provided with a delicious, crafted artisan bread accompanied by butter. The crab cakes were bursting with flavor, and we even convinced Jessica, who isn’t a fan of crab or seafood, to try a bite! We couldn’t get her to try a mushroom, but maybe we’ll have some better luck next time.
As we waited for our main entrees, Professor Yawn gave us a quick crash course about dining etiquette. Soon enough, our main entrees were brought out to us, Morgan and Izabella shared a Filet Mignon served with Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts. Jessica and I both shared a New York Strip accompanied by Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts as well.
Professor Yawn enjoyed a Strawberry Salad and a side of fried Brussel Sprouts which we all absolutely loved.
Each dish had its own quality that made it special, and each dish was full of different flavors. We all had our own unique experiences. After our main dish, I was sure I was full and had no room for dessert…. I was wrong.
Dessert included an exquisite Bread Pudding, A Molten Lava Cake, and Banana Foster. I found the Banana Foster the most interesting since our waitress brought the dish out covered in flames which certainly made for a cool and unique presentation. The Banana Foster had a very strong cinnamon taste and a slight hint of coconut, it was one of the favorites and there was not a single piece left on the dish. The Bread Pudding had more of a sweet, rich taste and the Molten lava cake was very neatly presented, and the brownie was super rich and paired with the ice cream, it made for a wonderful combination.
We all had a great time at dinner, and it was the perfect way to end a long eventful day.