Helping Houston

22 Nonprofits Worthy of Your Time, Money, or Both

Houston's nonprofit organizations—and the causes they support—could always use a helping hand.

By Morgan Kinney, Gwendolyn Knapp, Nicki Koetting, Abby Ledoux, Laura Furr Mericas, and Dianna Wray Published in the August 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Houston Food Bank

This, America’s largest food bank, provides 83 million meals to 800,000 people each year. “To eat is a basic need, and because people have struggles doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the help to get that basic need met,” says HFB communications director Adele Brady. The organization works with more than 600 partner agencies to fight hunger and offer nutrition education in Harris and 17 other counties in southeast Texas. Its successful Backpack Buddy program sends nutritious food home with at-risk schoolchildren each Friday throughout the school year. Brady recalls one enrolled student who started flunking her exams, afraid she wouldn’t be eligible for the program in the next grade, before a teacher intervened. “You know that backpack meant a lot to her and her family.” 

Houston Justice

“Inmates are people, too,” says former prison guard Durrel Douglas, who founded Houston Justice last year. Project Orange, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the nonprofit and Harris County, enables volunteers to enfranchise eligible citizens in Harris County Jail, where on any given day around 70 percent of the 10,000 inmates have not yet been charged with a crime. The project registered 662 inmates and their family members to vote in the last election cycle, with an impact that is twofold: Incarcerated pre-trial defendants, many unaware they can still vote, have a say in the electoral process, while volunteers gain empathy as they’re exposed to “another side of the world that they would otherwise never experience,” Douglas says. “Worlds start turning.” 

Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation

The foundation envisions a future—specifically, 2030—when every child in Houston will be able to read at grade level and have books at home. In 2017 it raised $4.4 million, and partnered with local efforts including Harris County Public Library’s mobile library, the Curiosity Cruiser; UH’s literacy research program; and Literacy Advance, which tackles adult illiteracy—one in five Houston adults can’t read. “There are a lot of organizations doing great work in our communities,” says Julie Baker Finck, the president of the foundation, which she launched with Neil and Maria Bush in 2013. “We want to invest in the innovative programs.” Speaking of innovative, the foundation’s own initiative, My Home Library, invites kids to go online, pick six books, and get them for free. Last year 11,509 kids took part; this year the number of participants will more than double. A $30 donation covers one child’s reading wish list. 

Kids In Need of Defense, Houston

Since 2009, KIND’s Houston office has matched pro bono legal aid from top law firms and corporations with unaccompanied child immigrants and refugees heading to U.S. immigration courts across southeast Texas. “Many of the children we serve are fleeing gang and narco-trafficker violence from which their governments cannot protect them,” says managing attorney Claire Doutre. “Without an attorney, it is nearly impossible for these children to navigate the U.S. immigration system. Our volunteer attorneys help ensure that the children have a fair chance to make their case for U.S. protection so that they are not returned to grave harm, or even death.”

Clinic Access Support Network

“A volunteer once described us as the most grassroots-iest thing you can do,” says CASN founder Angela Hayes. The group’s volunteers have driven more than 1,000 women to and from clinics for abortions since 2013, the year state regulations forced more than half its facilities to close, leaving thousands of women more than 100 miles from the nearest clinic, with limited access to birth control. Women now come from hundreds of miles to reach Houston clinics, Hayes says, and CASN volunteers are ready to help them, providing financial support, transportation, lodging, and even child care—over half of those seeking abortions are already moms.

Air Alliance Houston

This year the American Lung Association ranked Houston the eleventh most ozone-polluted city in America. That might seem bleak, but take heart: We were once ranked sixth. The improvement is a direct effect of “very intentional efforts,” says Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, which monitors industrial polluters and advocates for protective city policies. Air quality is a matter of public health, Nelson says, especially in an oil-centric town like Houston, in a state like Texas, where there’s a shameful lack of regulation. “We believe everyone has a right to breathe clean air,” Nelson says, “and we know that the air we breathe in Houston is not as safe or as clean as it could be.”

Project Row Houses is a living work of art.

Project Row Houses

Twenty-five years ago, seven African American artists bought a block and a half of rundown shotgun houses in the Third Ward, restored them, and turned them into a work of living art called Project Row Houses. Today some serve as artist studios or exhibition spaces, while others are home to single mothers; the nonprofit has expanded, getting into social work while offering free art classes and a host of other programs. The original block of homes, now considered a “social sculpture,” is featured in a permanent display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This month PRH will take a group of Third Ward children to D.C. to see it. “Your neighborhood may not have all the resources of a River Oaks or a West U, but your neighborhood is important,” executive director Eureka Gilkey likes to tell them. “And here it is in this national museum not even a block from the White House."

American Civil Liberties Union of Texas

“This last year has taught me that we have to redefine success,” says Terri Burke, executive director of the Texas branch of the ACLU. “Our biggest success of the last 18 months is that people are paying attention.” And they’re paying attention to a plethora of issues that, here in Houston, includes criminal justice reform, racial equality, LGBTQ equality, and reproductive freedom. The group has been particularly focused on protecting the rights of the city’s immigrant population, providing legal services and other help. “Because of our diversity, concerns about inhumane treatment of immigrants is writ larger in Houston,” Burke says. “If they feel threatened, the city is threatened."

Islamic Society of Greater Houston

What began in 1969 as a group of Muslim UH students gathering to pray together has grown into the largest Islamic society in North America. This organization, which oversees mosques around the city, serves Houston’s 60,000-strong Muslim community while building bridges to non-Muslims, something that’s especially important in our increasingly politically charged climate. “As part of our faith, we are required to be a benefit to all of God’s creations,” president M.J. Khan says. After Harvey hit, ISGH mosques transformed into 24-hour evacuation centers, and the society raised $1.3 million for at-large relief efforts. “Many times,” Khan says, “God gives us challenges which can also be used as an opportunity.” 

Montrose Center

Advocates started the center as a mental-health organization with a single therapist and a few thousand bucks back in 1978—a time when, explains chief development officer Kent Loftin, “our communities were considered mental illnesses.” It’s now the fifth-largest LGBTQ community center in the nation, serving 100,000 Houstonians each year. The nonprofit offers a clinic, a domestic-abuse shelter, and a host of other programs, from yoga, to free hot lunches for seniors, to housing and job training for homeless LGBTQ teens (for which none other than Lady Gaga provided the furnished apartments). Next up: an LGBTQ-friendly Midtown-area complex for the elderly, There’s No Place Like Home, slated to open in 2020.  


If you ask what this nonprofit does, be prepared for a laundry list of an answer. Serving more than 500,000 people a year, the organization provides Head Start, day care, and after-school programming, as well as senior-citizen care, disaster relief, and job-training and tax-preparation services for low-income Houstonians of all ages. It accomplishes all this via its eight community centers and 11 “workforce solutions” offices—BakerRipley works with the state to help Houstonians find and keep jobs. “We exist to keep Houston a region of opportunity for all,” says Jeff Kramer, vice president of fund development. 

Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast

“There have been constant restrictions and attacks on access to reproductive health care and real sexual education,” spokeswoman Rochelle Tafolla says. “Here in Houston and Harris County, so many people lack access to high-quality, affordable health care. Planned Parenthood is here to open up those doors in the community.” Operating throughout southeast Texas and Louisiana, PPGC has six health centers in the Houston area that offer wellness visits, cancer and STD screenings, sexual and reproductive health care, and birth control options for both women and men, while prioritizing advocacy and sex-ed. “There is an unfortunate history where some people in our communities are never taught about sexuality,” Tafolla says. “Even though they want to have those conversations, they don’t have the language to do so.” 

Nearly 200 Galveston Bay Foundation volunteers replanted an acre of marsh grass last spring.

Galveston Bay Foundation

Just because Houstonians can’t see Galveston Bay from downtown doesn’t mean it’s not vitally important to the city. “Galveston Bay is our lifeblood around Houston—we are all connected to it,” says GBF president Bob Stokes. “We all drain to it.” It’s the foundation’s mission to remind people of this truth through advocacy, conservation, education, and research programs, all aimed at promoting water quality and bay health, preserving this vital resource, and increasing public access to it. “We all have some impact on Galveston Bay whether we recognize it on a daily basis or not,” he says. 

Jewish Family Service

JFS was founded in 1913 to assist Houston’s Jewish community, but it has since expanded its mission to include everyone in southwest Houston. The organization provides counseling as well as specialized aid to those grappling with sustained, pervasive mental health issues. “That focus on mental well-being makes a lot of sense when you think about it,” says CEO Linda Burger. “Whether coming out of pogroms or fleeing the Holocaust, Jewish people have arrived on these shores with issues, so we’re good at handling these things.” The group also provides care for the elderly and disabled, helps people find jobs, and visits the sick. “We’re a support,” Burger says. “We’re the safety net against this crazy world.” 

Friends of Texas Wildlife

Marcia Bartos originally wanted to volunteer in a cat-and-dog shelter, but after touring a facility, she realized there was a problem: If she wasn’t careful, she’d end up adopting every pet in the place. Still wanting to help animals without exposing herself to temptation, she linked up with FTW, the Magnolia-based nonprofit that cares for injured, displaced, and orphaned wildlife with the goal of rehabilitating and releasing them. Today she’s president of the volunteer-run, donation-funded organization, whose primary goal is educating people on how to coexist with wild animals. “Every little species is vital to the environment,” Bartos says. “And, of course, every animal matters.”

Texas Organizing Project: Drive for Democracy

In this year’s local primaries, a mere handful of votes sent some races into a runoff, proving the old adage true: Every vote counts. And as Drive for Democracy’s tagline puts it, “sometimes, all people need is a lift.” This campaign, part of the Texas Organizing Project, aims to get voters, especially those in areas with low civic engagement, to the polls. And it’s seen success: Houston volunteers have given rides to more than 700 voters during each election cycle since 2012. Now some Houstonians “basically wait for our call,” says Crystal Zermeno, director of electoral strategy, recalling one area resident who spied the group, approached, and asked, “Is it time to go vote?”

The Beacon

After everybody’s fed, showered, and clothed, the real work here begins. Pro-bono legal aid for Houston’s homeless population? Check. Transitional housing for homeless women recovering from addiction? Definitely. Connections to health care and a savings-matching program? Of course. But that all happens after the Beacon helps clients navigate the red tape necessary to get a roof over their heads. “It’s just incredibly challenging and traumatic to live on the streets,” says CEO Rebecca Landes. “If we can get people into housing, then we make them more successful and stable going forward.” 

Image: Pin Lim

Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts Houston

What began as a multicultural festival at St. Joseph Catholic Church in the old Sixth Ward more than 40 years ago has since blossomed into MECA, an arts-education organization for underserved communities. The programming hasn’t changed much over the years—there’s a variety of dance, visual art, and music (including mariachi) classes—but MECA has expanded its academic-support and social services, says executive director Alice Valdez. “Our goal, always, was not to make Michael Jacksons or Beyoncés, but to get these kids into college,” she says. “The whole concept was that the arts help the children study better, understand better—it helps them discipline themselves. It opens up their brains to be more creative.”

The Center for the Healing of Racism

This center was founded at a Houston kitchen table back in 1989. “We were just a bunch of good friends,” says executive director Cherry Steinwender, “and we decided that we wanted to have really honest conversations around racism.” They started organizing talks, to which they invited more and more people, and soon, she says, “it took on a life of its own.” Today the center, now based at HCC, conducts workshops in schools, offices, and religious organizations across the country. But the work is seemingly never-ending. When asked about goals for the future, Steinwender doesn’t hesitate: “The only goal is to keep going.”

Writers in the Schools

While everyone tells kids to use their imaginations, much of the school day is based around rote memorization and preparing for standardized tests. WITS is the antidote to that monotony, each year connecting over 38,000 often at-risk Houston kids with professional writers who teach them the craft in 360 area classrooms. “We have an active learning field for these kids—they are in charge, they are creating their own stories, they are telling them,” says WITS executive director Robin Reagler. “The kind of education we are offering is the thing kids need most at this point.” 

Interfaith Ministries

This all-faiths-based nonprofit has two goals: “welcoming the stranger and caring for the elderly,” says president and CEO Martin Cominsky, through refugee-resettlement and Meals on Wheels programs. While the group previously provided housing, food, and furniture to about 2,000, mostly Middle Eastern refugees annually, the number of arrivals has declined so sharply, they’ve only had the chance to help about 400 this year. Outreach to the elderly has been steadier: Interfaith serves hot meals to about 4,000 Houstonians in need each weekday, and has plans to expand. “The idea was that we would bring people of all faiths together, we would dialogue about issues of our faiths, and we would do service together,” Cominsky says. They’ve been at it for more than 60 years now. 

Children’s Assessment Center

When a child is the victim of sexual abuse in Harris County, this group steps up, connecting families to psychological services and working with law enforcement, CPS, and other agencies to spare victims potentially re-traumatizing trips to the hospital or police station, thanks to its on-site medical clinic and private, child-friendly spaces for forensic interviews. “All the families that come here feel like they are protected,” says CAC communications coordinator Martha Vieco-Garcia. “They find a place where they feel secure, and the support they need in those difficult moments.” 

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