2020 was a year that tested communities across the country. Organizations in Westchase District were thrust into a crisis facing unforeseen consequences caused by a devastating pandemic. Rita Flores, John Barton, and West Houston Assistance Ministries were recognized with Community Impact Awards by Westchase District’s Advisory Board for providing essential services and taking innovative approaches in responding to the crisis.
“It’s one thing to see people do extraordinary things when everyday life is normal,” said Don McKinney, Westchase District’s vice president of public safety who leads the program. “Out of adversity you see the best in people and organizations. You see them rise above to meet tough challenges. That’s what this year’s recipients do and represent.”
Quillian Recreation Center Executive Director Tom Gaden, chair of the Westchase District Advisory Board, presented the awards at a luncheon. Honorees and audience members joined in person and via Zoom. Judges selected the Community Impact Award recipients after going through numerous nominations.
Rita Aracely Flores
Quillian Recreation Center is home to dozens of children and youth during Camp Quillian summer camps. Quillian faced the need to assure parents that it could provide a sanitized environment for camp. As a custodian employed by 1 Stone Solutions, Rita Flores was assigned to Quillian. She cleaned and disinfected the center every day, all day this past summer. She understood that her efforts were essential to the center’s safety and was observed in her willingness to go above and beyond. She kept the environment clean and sanitary and even sang songs to children getting to know each child by name. “We could not have met summer camp needs and operated as safe as we did without Rita,” said Gaden. Speaking through a Spanish translator, Flores said that she loves kids and the staff at Quillian were wonderful which made her job easy.
John Barton has been a volunteer English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher with Memorial Assistance Ministries’ (MAM) Literacy Advance program since 2017. Retired from BP for more than 16 years, he sought out organizations in which to volunteer and found a fit for his skills at MAM, logging 600 volunteer hours since joining. According to MAM, Barton is one of the organization’s best ESL teachers. When MAM closed its in-person classes in March 2020 and shifted to online courses, Barton led the transition. He trained other ESL teachers not familiar with the latest online technology and took on more students when MAM faced a growing gap of teachers to serve students due to technological limitations. “John always asks what more he can do while also taking on more,” said Colleen Mayer, MAM Literacy Advance program director. “He understands the impact that learning English has on the lives of people who are new to Houston and how it’s essential in their lives, from helping their kids with homework to being able to feel more confident in living in America.”
Barton sees his role as helping students overcome difficulties and barriers that exist when people can’t speak English. “Learning English has a huge impact on someone’s life. One story that is gratifying is a student of mine who was able to successfully schedule and attend her medical appointment because of our learning program,” said Barton.
West Houston Assistance Ministries (WHAM)
Although WHAM has been fighting hunger and poverty in Houston since 1982, it never before experienced the enormous surge of people who turned to the organization like last year. It had to quickly adapt to meet increased needs. The pandemic created a greater level of need for food, financial assistance, employment resources, school supplies, clothing, medical care and meals. In 2020 alone, WHAM distributed food to 106,833 individuals and 28,666 families. They provided more than $1 million in financial assistance and helped 1,725 individuals with employment and education services. WHAM volunteers logged more than 42,000 hours of volunteer services in 2020 valued at $1.1 million. As food distribution lines got longer, WHAM CEO Mark Brown kept his organization focused on being able to respond and meet the surging needs. “The need among families is still incredibly high and thousands are still needing us,” said Brown. “These are adults and children, including the homeless, who are experiencing extreme hardship during the pandemic. We are here to serve. We keep going and keep adapting.”
Sherry Fox, Westchase District vice president of communications, lauded WHAM’s amazing work. “They could win this award every year,” said Fox. “If there is a need in the community, they will meet it and be there.”