Monday, December 9, 2013

Anita Jaisinghani

Photo by Louis Vest
Anita Jaisinghani is the Chef/Owner of two award-winning restaurants in Houston. Raised in India and trained as a micro-biologist, Anita came to Houston via Canada in 1990.  Having been a stay-at-home mother for her two young children, she gradually developed her love of food into a very successful career, starting out as a pastry cook at Houston’s famous Café Annie, then with her own restaurants, Indika in Montrose and Pondicheri in River Oaks.  With both menus, Anita combines the complexities of Indian cuisine with the goodness of fresh Texas ingredients.

What’s your story, Anita?
I have always loved food.  As a teenager I wanted to learn more but Indian food is possibly the most undocumented undisciplined cuisine there is. People just do their own thing.  There is no prescribed way to make anything in India and every dish has a different version in every family.  The one culinary school in India is in Mumbai and it’s more of a catering college so my parents asked me, “Why would you go to cooking school?”  All my family were professionals and very respectable, we employed a cook at home, so in the end I went into micro-biology. 

I left India and moved to Canada in 1980 and I loved it there.  I have a degree in microbiology, I was working towards becoming a pathologist and my daughter was born there in 1988.  We moved to Houston in 1990 and my son was born here so I was a stay-at-home mom for about four or five years. 

But I still had this affinity for food and I began to play with it more and more when I got to Houston.  I had some friends from Morocco, from France and from Holland.  Talking and making food with them was a great influence about food on me. We opened up a little catering business out of our homes and that did well, with some very high-end clients in town.  Then I opened up a little business selling sauces to Whole Foods. I did start to study at the restaurant and hotel management school at the University of Houston, but when you are older than most of the students, you get most of it so fast and I just felt that I could learn all that I wanted to learn through real-life experience instead. 

I wanted to work in a restaurant, so I looked at the list of Houston restaurants and said to myself, “What is the number one restaurant in the city?  Café Annie?  Let’s go there!”  I sent my résumé to them and they let me come in for a day’s trial. I had the wrong shoes on and the wrong clothes and the guy who had to spend the day with me, the seafood cook, had me down as some wannabe and told them, “Don’t take her.”  But there was a pastry chef there at the time who had been watching me on the other side of the restaurant and she said, “If you want to come and work in pastry, you can come and work for me.”  I said, “I’ll work for free for you, just let me in the kitchen!”.  I started working for Café Annie for free for two days a week - with the right shoes and the right clothes, of course – and within a month, they offered me a job.  It was part-time as a pastry cook.  My husband couldn’t understand it.  We paid our maid more per hour than I was earning, but to me it was like gold.

I worked at Café Annie for about two years. They did offer me the job of Pastry Chef, but I turned it down because I didn’t want the responsibility, and also I’ve never had a sweet tooth.  We have these sweet cookies which we serve at Indika at the end of the meal and that was the only thing that I knew how to make really well when I walked into Café Annie.  Then, when I started looking at locations for my own place, they gave me a lot of support and at the end of my two years working there, I brought them a plate of those cookies as a gift. Chef Robert Del Grande immediately said, “I want the recipe!”

We opened Indika in 2002 and I ran it for about ten years, but I wanted to do a restaurant which would take food to more of a street level.   I wanted a mass appeal restaurant without compromising on the authenticity of the cuisine, not just keeping it traditional, I wanted to add a creative touch.  That’s what I’ve tried to do here at Pondicheri.  I opened here on March 1st, 2011, so I’ve been here just over two years.

Of course, I have a crew at each restaurant that I have trained very carefully so I can spend about two days each week in the kitchen at Pondicheri and two days at Indika. Outside of that, there is a lot of other stuff that I end up doing, but I am trying to delegate more and more of that.  I try to focus as much on the food as I can.  It’s a balancing act, knowing how to delegate, and knowing how to train other people is something I’ve learned on the way.

With my children, I made a very strong decision to put family first, though my kids might disagree with me on this!  Within a year of opening Indika I got a divorce, so I was pretty much a single mom with two kids of 12 and 14.  That’s a tough age to be a single mom, but we lived within a block of the old Indika location in Memorial and those were some of my best years, you know, and my kids turned out great.  I had a few rules that I followed as a mother.  I ate breakfast with my kids and that was our time together, an hour every morning and I would make them whatever they wanted.  Then I was always at home when they came back from school at 3.30.  That was the middle of my working day anyway, so when they came home we all had a snack and a drink together and would talk about our day.  Then I would go back to Indika at about 6.30 or 7pm and come home at ten or eleven.  They were home alone most evenings, but I had Sundays and Mondays off because we were closed.  Sometimes they would walk over to the restaurant and we would eat dinner together too if I wasn’t too busy.  Other than that, I stayed on top of things as best I could. 

Why do you do what you do?
I am such a big lover of everything I grew up with in India, though I didn’t realize that until I left.  I couldn’t wait to come to America and to try all the new food.  In fact, my first week in Canada was spent in the supermarket examining the food – it looked like art!  In India, if you visit the markets, they are very visceral, you can smell and feel everything.  Here, everything was so beautifully packed and presented, and I thought it was so clever.  It took me a few months to ask myself, “Why doesn’t it taste as good?”  At first I denied that there was a difference, but when I went back after my first year away and had some chicken at my mother’s house, it tasted simply amazing!  This was in the early 80s and the chickens over here were already being pumped up with stuff, unlike the scrawny chickens we would eat in India.  The bananas over there might be spotty, but they tasted so much better in India than they did over here. 

That’s really what made me look at food and ask why does it all taste so different in India than here?  At first, I used spices as a way of masking the inherent taste that I didn’t like about American and Canadian food.  At that point, I had never heard of organic or of national/local because that was just how we lived in India, it wasn’t special, that’s just the way it was. So that took me some understanding. 

I used to talk about opening a restaurant when I was a young mother, but I never thought that I’d actually do it. I was going to work as a micro-biologist!  By the time I came to the US, however, I loved to entertain.  I could make a dinner party for forty people, cooking all day. It would be the most seamless party you’d ever been to because all the food would be perfectly done and that just came easy to me.  I loved the organizational skills to run a dinner party. I wondered how I could take that up to the next step and do it in a restaurant and that became my journey of reinterpreting Indian food. 

My parents were from a small province called Sindh which now only exists as part of Pakistan, so my food is different from most Indian food that you taste, although I love all Indian food and I try to represent the country as best I can.  I bring in local Texas ingredients because asking me to cook in Houston without using local ingredients is like asking me live here without breathing the air.  I have to use what I have close by.  Indians do a lot more than what you see in restaurants too.  In the south you get all sorts of octopus, mussels and crab and in Rajasthan where my uncles live, there is lots of hunting. We used to eat whole pig roasts and ducks and quail, so there is a lot more to Indian food than most people know.  People ask me if I use these ingredients because they are Texan but I say, “No, it’s because they are things I know about.”

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
I think opening my own business gave me great confidence.  I own Indika with my ex-husband, but opening Pondicheri on my own has definitely given me a lot more confidence.  I’ve learned more here than I did there because here I deal with everybody.  I’m not fighting a battle though and I’m not trying to prove anything so if I don’t enjoy it, then I’m not going to do it anymore.

My mother was a great influence on me too.  She’s been gone for sixteen years so she didn’t live to see my two restaurants, but she used to tell me that I could do anything I wanted to with my life and that I was the best thing in town. Like an idiot, I believed her! 

What advice would you give to someone new to the restaurant business?
I’d say, get experience in the business, whether you are man or a woman.  Learn everything about the business from A to Z, don’t depend on anyone else to tell you how to work the numbers, what the tax implications are or about financial planning.  And you have to know that what goes out must be less than what comes in.  If you follow that, you’ve got a business!

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
That is my greatest challenge!  But it’s all about having the right team and I do have a great team in each restaurant.  I could be the greatest cook in the world, but I need to have a team who can follow my vision.  Or not even my vision, I am a very collaborative person. I’m not stuck on my own ideas, so if one of my team tells me that there’s a better way to do something, then I will do it the better way.  I always talk to my staff the way I would want to be talked to, I don’t shout at people and I’m not an abuser.  As a result, I don’t have a high turnover. I don’t pay them more than the industry standard, but I have learned how to treat people well.  In any business, picking out the right people and knowing how to treat them well is crucial. That means that I can walk away, so I travel a lot and I can take vacations.  When I’m away, I don’t call all the time to ask if they are okay, if they need something, they’ll call me. 

What does Houston mean to you?
I love Houston because of the weather – people always laugh at that!  Houston is my home now, but I have to admit I didn’t like it at first, I thought it was an ugly city.  We moved here from Calgary which is at the base of the mountains and then we were in Boston for about six months. It’s so beautiful there in the fall and I just didn’t want to leave.  When we came to Houston, I still had one leg out but now that I have two businesses here, I have definitely put both feet down.  What I love about Houston is the people.  I came here out of nowhere and opened up a business and I had more support from native Houstonians than I did from anybody else, even from my friends.  It was the native Houstonians who have helped me out and so I have a lot of affection for them.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
My home and my two kitchens.  I don’t get out much and I’m not a very public person. I’m not a media hog, I turn down every request to be involved with things unless I am really required to do it. I’m not a social butterfly, I never go to bars and I’m usually home by ten!  I’m not like some chefs who finish their work and then go to bars drinking.  Also I am a strong believer in leading by example.  If I am a drinker and a talker, then what am I teaching my kids or my staff?  I can’t do one thing and expect them to do another.  

What is your favorite restaurant?
For special occasions I will still go to RDG – which used to be Café Annie – because I am very fond of the people there because they gave me a start. Outside of that, I love Korean food and also there’s a phenomenal place called Mala Sichuan on Bellaire Boulevard – I’ve eaten there twice in the last week!  You know, Indian food has a lot of Chinese influences and I’ve been playing with some Chinese cooking here. Then I discovered that place and I now want them to give me a lesson in how to cook their food!  That would be awesome.

What is your Houston secret?
The park by Allen Parkway – it’s under construction just now but it has bike and walking trails and I’m on it every other day.  A few people know about it and I’m sure once the construction is finished it’ll become a more public park and more people will go there.  For me, logistics are important.  I don’t want to give up half a day to go somewhere, but I can walk there from my house or go on my bike and it’s just beautiful. 

If you could change one thing about Houston…
Mountains would be nice!  Or even just a hill!

To find out more about Anita’s restaurants, please visit Pondicheri at 2800 Kirby Drive and Indika at 516 Westheimer Road.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Naomi Warren

Naomi Warren was born in Poland in 1920. During the Holocaust, she survived three concentration camps – Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Bergen Belsen. Her mother and her first husband, Alexander Rosenbaum, both died in Auschwitz.  Naomi survived the war and came to Houston in 1946. She married another Holocaust survivor, Martin Warren, and together the couple raised two daughters and a son in Houston. They established a successful import company which she continued to run after her husband’s death.  Naomi has made very generous donations to numerous organizations, particularly supporting projects which educate younger generations about the Holocaust.  These gifts include support for the Future Teachers Fellowship which Naomi founded at Houston’s Holocaust Museum and the forthcoming US premiere by Houston Grand Opera of The Passenger by composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz.

What’s your story, Naomi?
I was born in Poland in 1920.  My 19th birthday was on the first of September 1939, the day that war broke out.  It was a very special birthday because I had just finished high school and I was going to go to the university, but of course, the war changed all the plans that I had. 

In 1938, Poland was divided into two parts.  The eastern part, where we lived, was occupied by the Russians and the western part was occupied by the Germans. My father was a president of a bank and as such, he was considered an enemy of the communist system, so they arrested him and deported him to Siberia.  It was a tragedy at the time, but thanks to the Russians, my father survived the war. 

Naomi as a young woman
Photo courtesy of
In 1941 the war started between Russia and Germany and that was the point that the Germans occupied our part of Poland and that’s how I had the “pleasure” of experiencing of the concentration camps. I survived three concentration camps before being liberated by the British in 1945. 

It’s really very strange; out of every experience you draw certain ideas and strengths.  I don’t think I would be ever have been the same type of person had I not been in a concentration camp.  I was so lucky to survive and I was so happy to be alive, but you had to be very strong. My brother was also a doctor, but he survived. My sister survived because she was already in the United States. 

My mother and my young husband were both killed in Auschwitz.

Many times I have wondered why I was one of the survivors, but I was always thinking of my father.  First of all, education was very important to him, but besides that, he taught me to be strong, he taught me to fight for what I believed in and perhaps that has resulted in who I am now.  I was reunited with my father in the United States, and my brother and sister too. He lived to age 95.

The war, of course, changed my life totally because I had to fight for survival.  So as a result of that it has been a very, very exciting life – a very tough life from many points of view, a life of fear and a life of not being so happy and not knowing what was going to happen tomorrow, but I always had hope. I never gave up my hope.

After Liberation, I chose to come to the United States because I had a sister and an uncle who both lived here.  In 1946 a new life started for me in Houston.  Later on I remarried, I have three children and a rather wonderful life.  Really, I am a very happy person.

Have you ever returned to Poland?
I went back to Poland ten years ago in 2013 though I never wanted to go back.  When we got there, I forgot a lot.  I think I had wanted to erase it from my memory.  I went to where I thought we lived, but it wasn’t the right house, it was a different street.  I felt very sorry that I had messed that up because later I remembered the name of the street that we lived on.  But at my grandfather’s house, we met a lovely lady who invited us all into her garden to talk to her.  It was very interesting to meet her.

I forgot so much but yet I remembered such little incidents.  I had a sister and a brother. My sister was seven years older than I and I saw a clear vision of my mother standing outside the door.  The boyfriend of my sister came to see her.  He was absolutely gorgeous and a magnificent dancer and my sister liked him very much, but it was a problem for my mother. She didn’t like that my sister was going out with this guy.  My mother said to him “Are you back already?”  He went for a vacation or something and the first time she saw him when he came back, she said, “Are you back already?”  I remembered that so clearly.

The gates of Auschwitz concentration camp
Photo courtesy of
We went to Auschwitz and it was absolutely incredible.  I cried all the way from Krakow, the closest city, because I really did not know how I would react.  But when we came there it was different. There is a big gate and the gate has a big saying over it, Arbeit Mach Frei, which means work makes you free.  All my family stood outside the gate and suddenly so much strength came to me and I thought to myself, “My goodness, I survived this hell and look at who is with me, my whole family.”  

I don’t know where I found the strength to deal with it, but I did.  But was so tragic to see the railroad and to see the cattle cars which transported us.

What’s your Houston story?
My sister came to Houston because my uncle lived in Houston. He owned a steamship company and his ships were hauling newsprint. When my father came to Houston after the war, my uncle helped him start a business selling newsprint to the local newspapers. My father was a very bright man.

A few of Naomi's enormous
collection of pigs
After I remarried in the United States, my husband and I started a business called the International Trading Company.  We started importing sardines because he saw that there were no Maine sardines to be had – Maine sardines were the most important sardines in the United States – so we brought our sardines from French Morocco.  That’s how we started our business and then we started importing ham too.  Later it was just ham.  We were one of the largest importers of ham from Denmark – Danish pigs were smaller and had less fat. Later we started producing ham in the United States. That’s why I have all these little sardine boxes and pigs everywhere.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
Certainly my father, but also my mother.  She was a very unusual person and she was very bright.  In Russia, she finished the gymnasium [high school] and she was accepted to medical school.  She wanted to become a doctor, but she met my father, they fell in love, and that was the end of the medicine.  My mother was born in 1890 and my father was born in 1885. 

What advice would you give to someone trying to start a new life after a tragedy?
As far as I was concerned, I felt that a new life was starting for me when I came to the United States and I felt that the past was the past.  I thought, “Now I have to start building something else.  Will I be capable of doing that?  I don’t know.”  But I had to experience it and somehow it worked.

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
I enjoy life, I always like to be doing something and I enjoy my family too.  I keep busy, I just cannot stay home do nothing.  I can read or I can listen to music but then I have to do something. I enjoy family and friends very much.  I am always so happy when my children come to see me.

What does Houston mean to you?
I like Houston and I like living here.  I don’t think I would feel as comfortable living in another city.  However it is so hard if you don’t’ drive.  You have to get used to living without a car, but I am very fortunate to be able to afford all the help I need at this stage in my life.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
My home, because I feel secure here, because I feel that my family will always come when I need them so I don’t feel alone.

What is your favorite restaurant?
Oh, there are not enough restaurants in Houston!  I have visited almost all of them, I can tell you.  I like Toni’s and I like Café Rabelais, because they have good bread.  There’s Pologna, but it’s still Polish food and anyway, I think we make better Polish food at home!

What is your Houston secret?
I used to love to go to the theater, The Alley was such an important part of my life, but right now, I don’t go so much because I am not hearing as well as I used to, and so I have to have very good seats.  It’s hard for me to get around, to get out of the car and to move around.  It’s a different life that I have now.

I am also proud to support The Passenger at Houston Grand Opera very soon.  The opera is about a survivor of the concentration camp and a guard.  They travel together years later and they recognize each other.  I was in Auschwitz and I am a Holocaust survivor so that’s why I am involved.

If you could change one thing about Houston…
I feel sad that people don’t walk.  They go to Memorial Park to run, but people don’t just walk.

Naomi was nominated as one of the many Inspiring Houston Women by Andrea White. 

To hear more of Naomi Warren’s amazing story, please watch the touching film by Leslie Sachnowitz Meimoun called NAOMI WARREN: A Story of Hope and Renewal. The film recently received a top Grand Remi Award at the 2013 WorldFest International Film Festival. You may view this incredibly moving documentary about Ms. Warren's experiences and survival of the Holocaust here.

For more information on Houston Grand Opera’s US premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger in January 2014, please visit the HGO website.

For more information on the Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers at the Holocaust Museum Houston, please visit the Holocaust Museum’s website.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sarah Fisher and Trish Morille

Sarah Fisher and Trish Morille are the Co-founders of +Works (pronounced Positive Works), a parent-driven program serving as catalyst for positive community change in eleven Houston public, private and parochial schools.. Building up from grass roots, Sarah and Trish have driven forward a campaign which encourages positive debate and creates opportunities for positive action within families, schools, and the wider community. Their distinctive logo, with the blue and black positive sign, can be seen in schools buildings, on the fences of sports fields, and on cars, declaring that these environments to be a positive zones, where high expectations for positive behavior are clear.

What are your stories, Sarah and Trish?

SARAH – I have been married for 23 years to my husband and best friend, Ken Fisher. We have two teenage boys, ages 16 and 13. I was born and raised in the mid-west, and have lived in three other countries. This is the third time I’ve lived in Houston and I first met Trish on our first round in Houston 15 years ago.

Work-wise, I have a marketing degree from the University of Notre Dame, after which I joined a big national advertising agency and then had my own one-woman ad agency at age 27. I love doing the strategy all the way through to the creative production and I am known for my rules-breaking creative approach. . When we were moving around the world with my husband’s job, it became clear that one of us needed to be home with the kids. I put my advertising career aside for 13 years – a time Trish calls my ‘long nap’! I did a lot of pro bono work in my boys’ schools and also started painting.

TRISH – I am married to the love of my life, Rock Morille and we have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We have two amazing children – our daughter is 19 and a sophomore at Texas A&M and our son is 15 and a sophomore at Strake Jesuit high school. I am a first generation American on my mother’s side, with roots in Germany and I was the first person ever to graduate from college from my family. I put myself through school, willing to make coffee, hold-down nighttime retails jobs, and do whatever it took to follow my goal to work in journalism. I interned in Austin at the NBC affiliate, KXAN helping the political reporter, and then had my first paying job at KXAS in Dallas. When I moved to Houston, I went to work for KHOU while finishing up my degree at the University of Houston. I was pregnant with my daughter when I graduated with a degree in Journalism – finally! I then transitioned from working in broadcast journalism to working in public relations, heading up Macy’s special events and public relations division in Houston, but my desire to get back into serious news drove me to the Houston Post where I worked until they were purchased by Hearst in 1995.

I’ve always worked, even when my children were young but I worked differently and smartly.  I had to look strategically about how I could buy more time with my children and still have the career that I loved and be able to support my family, something which really was important to me. My work was very demanding and I knew it would be a challenge to rethink it all. I went out and starting interviewing other women about how they did it, how did they have full time careers and manage to be good mothers? I wanted to be the best mother I could be and still have time for my career.  Through all this, my husband was incredibly supportive but really it was a balancing act.

In 1995, I started my own consultancy, Morille & Associates working with a variety of businesses and non-profits. For about the last ten years, I have had the great fortune to work alongside Sue and Lester Smith and help run the Smith Foundation. It gives me the flexibility to do +Works and maintain other causes I feel passionate about including support to Houston’s cancer community at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, mental health and Houston’s homeless. In addition, I am a founding board member of Dress for Success Houston and had the great opportunity to help establish some other incredible organizations including Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Purple Songs Can Fly at Texas Children’s Cancer Center.

Why did you create +Works?

SARAH – As our family was moving around, it was getting harder and harder for our boys to be ‘the new kid’. If it’s hard when you are in first grade, it’s even harder when you are in fourth grade and by the time you get to sixth grade…! If you don’t know how to handle being targeted, you can get into a pattern that can be difficult to escape. . And for me, it wasn’t easy to be the ‘new mother’ in all these schools either. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

This came to a crescendo when we were in Europe eight or so years ago, and Trish was going through the same challenges with her kids in Houston. Trish and I had many long long-distance phone conversations, trying without much success to help each other and help our kids. There was a lot of shame involved. Look at us. Can you imagine us just bawling? We are not exactly wimpy women, but the bullying issue reduced us to tears.  It was very difficult to know what to say to the schools, and it was very hard to know what to say to our children. It’s very lonely when you are a new parent.  You don’t want to be high-maintenance from the get-go and yet your child is really upset.  It’s hard to understand why they are upset because you don’t have the words to talk about it. It’s awful. Here we were, both writers, both PR experts, yet we couldn’t find the words to help our kids.

TRISH – And we couldn’t find the words to help ourselves either. My daughter was really struggling with bullying – and seeing it taking place with others, too.  I didn’t know how to react or respond appropriately. Everything was about reacting, about a bully and a victim. We didn’t want to raise victims; we wanted to create a new community language to deal with it, asking why are we here? Why are we as a community allowing this to happen? And how do we get ahead of it?

SARAH –When my older son was in 5th grade, he made the school soccer team. He was young and one of the smaller kids on the team. At a scrimmage early in the season, I was standing on the sidelines and heard another mom say, “Why is our team so small? How could this have happened?  It’s going to be such a long year!” My son then stole the ball from the largest and most athletic boy on the other team and took it up the field and scored our first goal. It was like a Nike commercial! Even so, a week later, I heard another kid on the team ask, “Coach, why is our team so small?” And I thought, “Wow, how many times have I said something to my kids that’s then come out of their mouths at some other place and time?” It was like a lightning bolt for me. I immediately called Trish and said, “I want to do an awareness campaign!” That was a key point in the beginning of +Works.

We came back to Houston at the end of that school year and though we got into that same horrible cycle, what was interesting and different was that news stories were starting to pop up which moved us to act. There were two in particular: the awful story in January 2010 of Phoebe Prince who was bullied and killed herself.

TRISH: Then on March 27th, at 7.30 in the morning, I was at my son’s West U Little League game and Sarah called me and said, “Where are you? You have got to see the front page of the Houston Chronicle. It was yet another dreadful bullying story, but this time in Houston.  Sarah came right over and put the newspaper in my hand and said, “We have got to come out of the Positive closet.”

SARAH: That was when Trish and I really started to look for solutions and to think more as ‘brand people’. We let the professionals in us take over from the mothers, which was therapeutic in itself.  We came up with the Positive Works name, and I created this positive sign with the black and blue cross. Within a month, we were up and running as +Works. We had a three person board, with another friend acting as Treasurer and we filed our papers with the state.

We decided to have two +Coffee meetings in my backyard. We put an eight-page presentation together that basically said, “Families need schools and schools need families to get ahead of the bullying problem, and we cannot just wait for bad things to happen. We have to understand why bullying is happening in the first place. Why are we blaming other people when we should be working together to help our kids?"

TRISH – One of the things that became clear to us at that time was that how we parent matters. The choices we make and the choices we allow in our homes, our cars and in our community greatly impact all of us. In order to begin to see change in our kids, we had to first look in the mirror.

We were thrilled to get the support of Dr. Stuart Twemlow of Menninger Clinic, an international expert on bullying. It was the first time he had seen a program started by parents and after reviewing our materials and unique approach, he endorsed us.

TRISH – One of the unique aspects of our program, are visual reminders such as banners, stickers and signs, placed on campus in the physical locations where negative behavior choices tend to happen. What’s cool about what Sarah designed is that it is customized to reflect the culture of each school.  At Annunciation Orthodox School, it is Agape in Actionagape is the Greek word for love. It’s just fabulous!

One of the banners inside Pershing Middle School
SARAH – It’s all about building +Community. Each school wraps its own idea and unique culture around the common core which means that both the kids and the school community own it; the teachers and the parents, as well as the kids.

TRISH – Our message really is first to the adults in the lives of children because we strongly believe that in order to raise them, we have to look at ourselves first. There’s a reason that the flight attendant on a plane tells you to put your oxygen mask on first before you help others. Children pick up negative things and they regurgitate what we feed them. Are we raising children to be compassionate and respectful by showing them compassion and respect? Are we raising them to handle life with resilience and a little grit? Are we introducing them to what it means to fail, so that they can enjoy the success? Life is tough and it gets tougher.

I look at my daughter and see how this work is impacting her. She’s a resident advisor at college and she is using the Positive Connection inventory with her charges on the first floor. +Works is about raising resilient kids, kids with determination but in the right way, kids who care, kids who are speaking up with respect and dignity for themselves and for other people.
The first +Works rally, at Mark Twain Elementary School in January 2011
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?

SARAH – My husband Ken has been a huge influence on me. He’s been my best friend for thirty years, and I have always appreciated his sense of humor and his ability to step back and take the long view.

TRISH –Parenting has been the biggest influence in my life. And when I reflect on my own childhood, I recognize how difficult it was for my mother, who largely raised three girls on her own and has struggled with major depression throughout her life. She grew up during war times in Europe, and my late father served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war. When he came home, he suffered from what I believe was post-traumatic stress disorder. They both really struggled but no one talked about it as we do today. They ended up divorcing. I just knew that I wanted a different life for my children and I learned how hard I was willing to work to achieve that.

What advice would you give to someone trying to launch a campaign for a cause?

TRISH – Do it with someone you enjoy being with and have fun. Even though we work very hard, we have a lot of fun together and we laugh a lot. You have to have a passion for something. It sounds trite, but you do. We are doing this work pro bono, and when we walk into a school and hear these anecdotes from teachers we say, “My goodness there’s a reason we are supposed to be doing all this”. I do think there’s a calling in it all. It isn’t an easy thing to do, but we do it with people we enjoy and we are astounded how much we can achieve.

SARAH – Our skills are very complementary. We are both strategists, and we’re both writers. I bring the branding, the graphic design and marketing to the table, and Trish has the journalism, PR, event management experience.  Starting a non-profit is the hardest work you’ll ever love. Put your time in, hang in there, and be open and flexible. 

What does Houston mean to you?

SARAH – Houston is an amazing place to start something like +Works.  People here are so open to ideas, it’s incredible. I’ve lived all over the world and there’s no place like Houston. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. I’m living proof of that. We didn’t know a soul when we came here sixteen years ago, and we were warmly welcomed.

TRISH –I agree totally. Not only are people generous with their time, their talent, their money and their energy, they are also generous with their people. I think that is really the biggest thing. They say, “You need to meet so-and-so” and they follow through and they show up.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?

SARAH – I try to take time to appreciate nature. I try hard to stop and look at the sunrise as I’m taking my son to school. I really try to find peace and joy in little moments like that and I have been trying to teach my boys to do the same.

TRISH – I love to walk and I love Jazzercise. Being outdoors with my family is also wonderful – skiing, hiking, and riding bicycles together. On most Mondays, I do a healing rosary with a group of other moms. It’s so peaceful to sit in a room of faith-filled women, such a moment of quiet in a busy week.

Where is your happy place in Houston?

SARAH – For me, it’s walking around Rice University. I really enjoy walking under those beautiful live oaks.  If Trish and I need to get together to work something out, the two of us will go all the way round and we are fast! We are probably the only one the other one can walk with.

TRISH – She’s right. We are both power-walkers. I walk with other friends when they ask me, but then they say they can’t keep up with me because I’m too fast. Sarah’s the only one who can match me, other than my husband.

SARAH – The two of us work at the same frenetic pace and we walk at the same frenetic pace! We do very well together.

TRISH – My happy place is my home. I am so grateful to have my family and friends in it. The more the merrier.

What is your favorite restaurant?

TRISH – My kitchen!

SARAH – Yes! Her kitchen! Trish is an amazing cook!

TRISH – We cook as a family and so enjoy those times together. We also have so many great options we can walk to in Rice Village. We love Café Rabelais.

SARAH – We walk to the Village – it’s just so easy. And there are so many great choices.

If you could change one thing about Houston…

SARAH – Mosquitoes!

TRISH – Zoning! My neighborhood is where we’ve had the big struggle over the Ashby high rise. Although I love our neighborhoods – all of them – I just wish that we had a better framework for building in our city.

Who would be your own Inspiring Houston Woman?

TRISH - The woman I would like to nominate is Anita Kruse.  I am so crazy about her work.  Anita taught my children the piano from when they were three.  She used to be the music instructor at Poe Elementary, has a background in classical music and is a songwriter and composer.   I met her when one of my neighbors, an MD Anderson Hospital doctor, asked me if I would write a press release about a CD Anita wanted to do.  It was a Christmas CD and she wanted to give the proceeds to MD Anderson, and there was born the idea of Purple Songs Can Fly.  I helped her to build a recording studio at Texas Children’s Cancer Center where children with cancer and their siblings can write and record their experiences through music. Anita is so inspiring to me. She started her own non-profit, a few people came together to help fund it and get it off the ground, and now each child gets a purple CD.  The songs have literally been in outer space.  She is just awesome.  To read Inspiring Houston Women's interview with Anita Kruse, click here.

SARAH – I would like to nominate Susan Fordice who is now the CEO of Mental Health America in Greater Houston.  We met her when she was the Chief Operating Officer and she was a very early supporter of Positive Works and has remained so.  She has such a passion for advocating for a better understanding of mental health and getting rid of the stigma. She has a great line, “Putting the head back on the body”, understanding the whole person and making it okay to talk about what is such a tough and challenging issue. I think she’s amazing.  Talk about someone who puts everything she has into what she does! To read Inspiring Houston Women's interview with Susan Fordice, click here.

For more information about Sarah and Trish's work and about +Works, visit the campaign's website at:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ten down, how many still to go?

A huge thank you to everyone who has visited, read, commented on and Liked my first ten days of interviews with eleven amazing and Inspiring Houston Women.  I promised a festival of inspiration to launch the blog and I think that’s what we’ve had, but now it is time for a calmer routine to begin! 

From this week, I will aim to post one interview every Friday as I follow up all the inspirational women suggested by each woman I have interviewed.  As you can imagine, I already have a long list in my notebook of women who inspire them, inspire me and I know, inspire many others.  

As Tina Hultén said in her interview last week, “What I like the best about Houston is that people want to do the best they can.  I think people work hard but they really have a desire for quality.”  I couldn’t agree more, Tina.  In this city, people seem to strive constantly to do better for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for their city. Somehow, I don’t think I will ever run out of women to interview.  And that’s all good.



Friday, October 25, 2013

Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox

Elaine Green (left) and Fran Wilcox
Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox are the Special Education teachers at Lamar High School. Together they manage a class of students with a variety of learning and physical disabilities. They also work closely with their students’ parents to plan for the transition into further education or employment after graduation. Elaine has been a teacher her whole working life, but before teaching, Fran was a professional musician, playing the horn in orchestras and bands internationally.

What are your stories, Elaine and Fran?

ELAINE – When we both first came to work together at Lamar, I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. We’d met once because we both worked in Special Education, but to be honest I was a bit leery. We would be sharing this classroom for eight hours a day and what if we didn’t share an educational philosophy? It could not work out well, but actually, it has.

FRAN – Our strengths are totally different and it is totally brilliant the way we work together. Green’s a detailed person…

ELAINE – … and she’s a global person. There are times when I say, “I just can’t see that…” but she just gets it immediately. It is almost a marriage made in heaven. We haven’t had a spat yet and this is our 15th year together in this room. Strangely enough we found that we both have the same teaching philosophies and these days, I can say something and she will have been ready to say the same thing or vice versa.

We had met once before. I was at Fondren Middle School for about 100 years – ok, for 23 years – and we used to put on this little dance at Christmas which the kids loved. We we invited the participating high schools and that was when Fran was at Lee High School, and the day she came over for that was the only time we’d met before we had to work together.

FRAN – Yes, and you had on that really nice dress. I remember thinking, wow, she’s very dressed up. Maybe I need to tidy up my act a bit!

ELAINE – We both decided to come to Lamar at the same time and we’ve worked out well.  At first, we had a struggle because people expected us to do the same thing as the previous teacher. But I’m sure when we leave here, people will say, “Miss Green and Miss Wilcox used to do blah blah” too.

Anyway, I’m a native Houstonian. I am a mother of two, a widow of ten years, and my kids are 33 and 28. One is in Dallas, he’s an artist and works for the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth as an educational curator, so he somehow got into education too. My other one went into architecture. He’s a project manager in construction here in Houston. I take a lot of pride in them both. You know, you want your kids to be happy first of all, whatever their area is. I do take a lot of pride in knowing that they are ok and that they’ve found their niche.

When I was at school, and before I even graduated from Westbury High School, I just knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was in the Future Teachers of America back then and so I went to college to train and somewhere along the line I thought that I’d like to do Special Education. I didn’t have a cousin or a sibling with special needs, I didn’t know anyone, but I just really wanted to do that. Then I decided to get certified in Special Education and Elementary Education at the same time. When I started teaching Special Ed, I thought I’d do that for a few years and then go to teach elementary. Well, forty years later, here I sit. I’ve never done anything else. But she’s got a much more interesting story!

FRAN – I was born in New Jersey and had an undergraduate degree in Music Education, K through 12. I wanted to have performance degree but my parents would not allow me to do that, they said I had to have something to fall back on. But I knew was never going to be a Band Director. I did my student teaching with the band and I had no patience. I was really fortunate when I did my student teaching that I got to work with some students with hearing impairments and I absolutely loved that room. The kids in there were great and asked if I could do that full time instead, but they wouldn’t let me. But I knew right then that if I could never play my horn again, I would want to work with kids with special needs, I just knew it. But I went to Rice with a music fellowship and then played professionally in Colombia, South America, for a while. When I came back, I played with the Houston Ballet, substituted with the Houston Symphony and did the Opera tour. Then I developed Bells’ Palsy in my face and that pretty much ended my career overnight. I was 31.

I still play in a Czech band – my dad’s side of the family is Czech so it’s one of those ‘get in touch with your roots’ things – but these days I’m at the back only playing the up-beats. I put the PAH in the oompah! I think I could keel over back there and nobody would notice!  You see, because the Bells’ Palsy affected the nerve at the front of my face, sometimes I sound horrible and sometimes I sound great and think, hey, I wish I could still do this!

So I needed to find another career and it was always in the back of my mind that I had really enjoyed those kids from student teaching. I ended up working in vocational rehab and from there to managing a workshop for adults with hearing impairments and addictions and some folks with mental health issues. It was there that I was really introduced to the Life Skills population. I didn’t really enjoy it, but two women I worked with asked why I didn’t become a self-contained teacher because I loved working with all the clients, but I wasn’t very good at managing the staff. I did my Alternative Certification instead and ended up at Lee, then Houston Community College, and then I came to Lamar and that’s history.

On a personal level, because I was a musician, it took a long time for me to really settle down, but now I have a very important relationship in my life, and my sister and her family are down here and they are super important to me. I’m very close to my nieces, my sister and her husband and then I have my family at home in New Jersey. I’m the oldest of six. My sister Cathy is a teacher’s assistant working with special needs kids, and I am very proud of her.

Why do you do what you do?

ELAINE – At the moment we have 20 kids in the class, but we’ve had 34 at one time, it was nuts in here! We’ve never wanted this classroom to be a ‘holding tank’ so to speak. Our goal is to get the kids involved with the school and not to be the ‘group down in the basement’. We want to make them as independent as possible and that’s been our goal from the very beginning.  I guess if you get to the point where you don’t get some kind of gratification from that work, then it’s time to say ‘hang it up’, but we still both do. When one of the kids does something wonderful, it’s still very rewarding, and that’s the bottom line. We do it because we both love it.

FRAN – Yup, we just love these kids.

At a Lamar High School Pep Rally - October 2013

What advice would you give to someone coming new to teaching in Special Education?

FRAN – Volunteer first! Because Green and I have such a good relationship, we can spell each other.  Sometimes if she needs to do paperwork or call a parent she’ll go into our office, and I’ll cover the class room. We figured that out for each other, but if you were just a single teacher, I’d don’t know how you would do it.

ELAINE – That’s right, keeping on top of the paperwork can be very daunting. There are so many state requirements, even for the regular teachers. My niece came and volunteered in here with us a while ago and then decided she wanted to become a teacher too. Because she had volunteered first, she knew what she was getting into. I guess that would be my advice, you need to know that all of the stuff, the paperwork etc, can take away from what you want to do. Sometimes I say in meetings, “If we didn’t have the kids, we could keep up with all the paperwork! These darn kids just get in our way!” I’m joking of course, but that’s how it feels sometimes. The kids must be our priority, and although this other stuff is essential it must come second with us.

FRAN – I’d say if your passion is to work with our guys, just keep it pure. And you do have to have a passion – we both still have that passion. Even on days when we know we are dragging, the kids just spark us and we get so much from them. To share their “Aha!” moments and their laughs if they get a joke is just wonderful. We had a few minutes spare today and we played Hangman together on the board. Everyone was involved and laughing, it was great.

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?

ELAINE – We both have friends, but we are also friends with each other outside school too. We go out together sometimes after school and have Mexican food and a margarita. We talk about the day and try to work out how to fix things. We’ve even, at a restaurant, got a napkin and drawn up a list of pros and cons for a problem.

FRAN – Sometimes we get our toenails done too!

ELAINE – We also take yoga, and that’s our gift to ourselves. We don’t let anyone interfere with our Tuesday afternoons. We have a group of ladies that get together to do yoga and then go get dinner after that. We all get our balance and then we get our food!

FRAN – As well as that, I love to ride my bike and I used to run marathons, because of that I have this whole world of friends. I’ve just bought a kayak so that’s a new adventure. I paddled to the Christmas lights down in Dickinson last year – you decorate your canoe and paddle at night which was the most fun thing. And I love bird-watching. I’m real diversified and I have all sorts of groups of friends.  I’m really not a wild child or anything, but I don’t stop still very often.

What does Houston mean to you?

ELAINE – For me, it’s roots. I didn’t pick Houston, I was born here, my parents were here and my husband’s parents were here, so it’s about roots. I met my husband in high school and when we got married after college and I guess Houston means family to us. We bought a house ten minutes from where we each lived because we wanted to be around our parents as they got older, which we were. We were just a phone call away and we had many of those between the two sets of parents as they got older.

Now my children may break the link to Houston, but that’s ok, I want them to be happy. They are both of them looking further afield, and that’s fine because it’ll give me some nice place to visit.

FRAN – I loved playing my horn because it allowed me to travel. I travelled around Europe on a rail pass with a brass quartet and we travelled all over. I also love all things British and I did once apply for a scholarship to a school in London. I had a dream of living in one of these little villages where Miss Marple would have lived, where you could ride your bike and there were flowers everywhere, that would have been my ideal, even if New Jersey was always my home. At first Houston was just about my job, but now I have a lot of friends here, and I like Houston now, though it took a while for me to settle.

Where is your happy place in Houston?

ELAINE – Probably at my home with my family and my dogs, that’s my happy place. And also on my yoga mat. It’s very easy for me to find a happy place at yoga. For ten years we’ve been doing it and we consider it a gift to ourselves. It took me about two years to get to that point where things weren’t buzzing around my head, but now I find that spot on my mat and all of that other stuff outside is gone for an hour. Occasionally I have to fight to get it out but most times it’s just gone.

FRAN – I have several. On the couch, just being quiet, or sitting on the back porch watching the birds at the many bird feeders we have. We feed the hummingbirds and we see all the migratory birds come by, which is really cool. And I love being out on my bike in the country and actually, I’m happy in the classroom too, and also with my sister and her kids. You know, I have lots of happy places, I’m just quite a happy person.

What is your favorite restaurant?

FRAN – Carmelita’s on Bellaire Boulevard is right between both our houses, and then there’s El Ranchero and …

ELAINE – Basically, we just love Mexican neighborhood restaurants!

What is your Houston secret?

ELAINE – I think a secret that many people don’t know about is the beer can house. I saw it years ago as a child and then again recently with the kids. It’s off Washington, right in the middle of all these homes and people come from all over just to see it. The man who made it has gone but it’s still maintained by the same people that run the Art Car Parade – and that’s another Houston secret that everyone should know about, it’s fantastic!

And of course, there are the bats on Waugh Drive. Unlike in Austin where the bats go away on migration, our bats never leave. Bats all year round! Aren’t we lucky?

FRAN – It’s not really Houston, but a great day out from here is to Brazos Bend State Park to see the alligators, it’s just fantastic, and there’s amazing birdlife too. Also, there’s the Azalea Trail here in the spring which is also a wonderful thing to go to. We rode our bikes one year, and ate at every stop! The azaleas have such a short blooming time, it’s really worth going to see.

If you could change one thing about Houston…

ELAINE – the summer heat, it’s just too hot. When even the kids can’t go out to play, it’s just too much, even for us natives.

FRAN – Absolutely right, and because it’s hot most people don’t get to know their neighbors very well because we stay indoors for the greater part of the year, which is a shame.