I Do Declare

Of course, these do-good Houstonians deserve to be Southerners of the Year

These do-good Houstonians deserve to be Southerners of the Year

One Fifth Underbelly Chris Shepherd
Chris Shepherd, the man behind Southern Smoke. Photo by Julie Soefer
Plant It Forward president Teresa O'Donnell In white blouse with graduates from training program
Plant It Forward Farms president Teresa O'Donnell, second from the right, with some graduates from the organization's training program. Photo by Colleen O'Donnell/Plant It Forward
Chad Houser of Cafe Momentum
Chad Houser, co-founder of Cafe Momentum. Photo by Daniel Rodrigue
Natalie Madeira Cofield
Natalie Madeira Cofield, founder of Walker's Legacy. Courtesy photo
One Fifth Underbelly Chris Shepherd
Plant It Forward president Teresa O'Donnell In white blouse with graduates from training program
Chad Houser of Cafe Momentum
Natalie Madeira Cofield

There are a lot of preconceived notions about Southerners, but one that's indisputable is their can-do attitude and generosity toward others. To honor that spirit, Southern Living magazine named its 50 Southerners of the Year, folks who are "moving the South forward with groundbreaking nonprofits, impactful projects, and innovative ideas."

There are six Texans on the list, which spans Alabama to West Virginia, including two Houstonians.

You might not know it, but Houston is technically a food desert, importing most of the foods its residents consume. It's also a place where refugees are settling in record numbers. Plant It Forward Farms president Teresa O’Donnell is turning both challenges into solutions by giving the refugees land and training them to farm, helping them become self-sufficient and contributing members of Houston's society while increasing the options for fresh, sustainable, and local produce.

Brisket can be a lifesaver too, as Chris Shepherd and the HOUBBQ Collective have recently shown. The chef behind UnderbellyHay Merchant, and Blacksmith wanted to help his friend, sommelier Antonio Gianola, when he received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, so he "responded the only way he knew how: he fired up his smoker and threw a party."

Southern Smoke's ticket proceeds were expected to help raise $30,000 for the National MS Society, but when the HOUBBQ Collective — made up of chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner, Terrence Gallivan, Ryan Pera, and Justin Yu — stepped up to help, the total topped $184,000. This year's second event brought even more big-name pitmasters, along with wineries and a performance by the Rebirth Brass Band, and raised another $281,000. The goal is high for next year's events, but the anticipation is even higher.

Austin's Natalie Madeira Cofield founded Walker's Legacy, a professional collective for businesswomen of color. The entrepreneurial Cofield founded the group in 2009 while searching for female mentors and role models, and it has since expanded to include lecture programming, a business accelerator, and network that empowers its members to incubate, launch, and grow their own businesses. And it's name? A reference to Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in U.S. history.

In Dallas, there might be no better description for Chad Houser's Cafe Momentum than his own: "We're taking kids out of jail and teaching them to play with knives and fire." The downtown Dallas cafe gets raves for its sophisticated American cuisine, but it's what's cooking behind the scenes that's really newsworthy.

Young men and women coming out of juvenile facilities learn every aspect of the restaurant's operation, from washing dishes to seating guests to plating dinners. The intensive culinary, job, and life-skills training comes in the form of a year-long paid internship and even includes a case manager and post-internship job assistance. And executive director Houser notes that in its first three years, the restaurant saved Dallas taxpayers nearly $8 million by freeing these kids from the justice system cycle.

Another Dallasite helping children is Jim Looney, the president of high-end commercial design firm Looney and Associates. He read an article in October that Dallas Morning News intern Sanya Mansoor wrote about Roger Q. Mills Elementary School's new washer and dryer, and how important the appliances are to students' confidence. Mansoor explained how many Dallas students go to school in stained or soiled clothing because their families don't have access to their own laundry facilities or public transportation to get to laundromats.

So instead of a Christmas party, Looney and his 30 coworkers gave another Dallas school, J.W. Ray Elementary School, an extreme makeover. The volunteer day was so successful that Looney plans to do something similar for other schools every year, and — thanks to readers of Mansoor's article — more than $137,000 has been raised for the Dallas school district.

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