Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Project Unity and aloft Hotel Score Hat Trick in College Station’s Social Hot Spot

About a month ago, the Brazos Valley hosted one of the most amazing social events of the year, July 20th to be exact. So, why does it take this long to write a ‘little something’ about it? One reason. I wanted to actually monitor and measure the real impact of the ‘Live at Aloft Benefiting Project Unity’ event on the organization that it was designed to benefit—Project Unity.

This community is very philanthropic, and for every great cause that has an extravaganza come its way, many times you see the initial focus and attention and coverage on the organization is magnificent, and the event appears to be a magical night. But then… the minute the cameras are off, the organization is completely forgotten.

“Would this be the case with Project Unity?” was my initial hypothesis. Fast answer: Just the opposite. Today, Project Unity is on the minds and in the hearts of more people than the organization could have even hoped to attract. And it all started at Aloft, in College Station.

Thanks to generous-minded people, the Brazos Valley community is enriched daily, even when it overflows with good causes and multiple nonprofits. And, most of them have some special event in the course of a year’s time that is designed to help support the organization for the rest of the year, actually making the operational budget so the group can write grants and seek funding for the course of the year, ultimately growing and thriving and becoming self-sustaining. Well, that’s the goal at least. But, the cost of things keeps going up and sometimes funding sources that you could count on like clockwork….disappear.

Were you part of the swelling crowd of Brazos Valley residents who flowed in and out of the lobby of College Station’s Aloft Hotel Wednesday night, staying to meet and greet the community’s most ardent, active forces in behalf of children and parents, better known as Project Unity? If you were, you had a major league great time at the inaugural “Live @ Aloft” benefiting Project Unity. And, if you missed notice of the event, then you missed KBTX's Rusty Surette's on camera interview with Judy and Wienkie LeUnes. With respect to both of the adults there, it was Wienkie who had his own name on his own chiron graphic "Wienkie LeUnes." Rusty is a great community-minded add to the station, and he's fully Wienkie-approved.

Now if you weren’t among the hundreds of people there, you missed out on the hat trick––the excitement and buzz as the come-and-go flow saw Jeannie McGuire, Founder and President of Project Unity, teamed up with Judy LeUnes, Bryan-College Station’s most gifted volunteer and promotions expert and a little brown dog named Wienkie LeUnes, Project Unity’s Life Enrichment Coordinator—the triumvirate team that scored three goals in the game in one night. That’s one. More on the hat trick later.

The goal was to establish a signature “Friendraiser,” for the (formerly) low-key nonprofit, so people could learn what it was that Project Unity does, and why they should consider joining Club 365, to pledge and give $1 every day to accomplish tasks that everyone talks about doing, but only a few are willing to do. More on the organizational mission later. First, let’s talk about the party that founder Jeannie McGuire had always dreamed of in her heart but had no idea would happen!

Who Was There?

Better question: Who wasn’t there? Starting at 5:30 p.m., hundreds of people came in the first wave of the folks entering Aloft’s parking lot, where they were treated to a fabulous Sno-Cone, perfect for the Texas heat. Smiling as they came in, then Katie Watson, Project Unity’s newest development intern took your photo and welcomed you on behalf of the nonprofit.

Next, from Aloft, Dezi Nguyen greeted you and put her hospitality manage know-how to work immediately, making every single person in the room at home within an instant. Never before has any hotel representative made it her personal mission to introduce complete strangers to each other and get them in conversation. All new, fresh ideas in hosting events. Others should take notes.

Now before things got started, Judy LeUnes and her team arrived at Aloft to get everything all set and Aloft’s Joseph Kennedy had a private room set aside for…Wienkie!! Wienkie’s key card was handed to his mom, and when they entered, there was a place for his crate, a lovely water bowl and a little sack of treats saying “Welcome Wienkie!” a-l-o-f-t knows the V-I-Ps, just saying.

Project Unity Board Members and Staff were everywhere, and this is really the first time they have been together not in a giant staff meeting, and the joy in seeing Bobby Williamson (Spirit of Texas) and wife Gina, Mike Bowers (Property Offers Today), Danielle Fifer (BB&T), and more being recognized by the community members…the reason the large group was assembled

Better Business Bureau head honcho, Bill McGuire, was there (and even managed to snag his wife Jeannie for a dance to the classic and cool sounds of the Christopher Crow Band).

Linda Harvell took a turn in a photo with Wienkie. Brandy Burkhalter Norris, Sheree Boegner, Kathy Niemeyer Savell, Katy Pruitt, Hugh Stearns, then Ricky Gonzales took time out to come by, as did Jason Cornelius (Prosperity Bank), Brian Blake (TAMU) and more.

If You Don't Know About Texas A&M and Hockey...Here's Why You Should

In fact, one of the community’s more recent stellar personalities to be on the volunteer scene is Jason King, a former advertising and marketing executive who relocated to Texas A&M as the Assistant Coach of Texas A&M Ice Hockey Team. No, you read it right. Yes, those of us who love Texas A&M athletics don’t know everything going on around Aggieland! The town’s best-kept secret might just have to relinquish that title, as we are now blessed with another exciting and dynamic sport to cheer on our student athletes.

To get you started, learn important hockey phrases like “changing on the fly,” “a breakaway,” understand what a “shoulder check” is and what a “drop pass” is. Think you’re good on ice skates? Well, maybe you are and maybe you aren’t but if you can’t do a “power stop,” then stay on the porch with the little dogs until you can skate out with the big ones. When children in our community learn from the finest instructors and can be inspired by the special guests Coach King can bring in to talk with them, the sky is simply the limit. Project Unity and Aloft started that dialog, and that’s just one example of networking among friends here can be about.

Now, imagine the potential for inspiring young children from underserved families with new, exciting goals of athletic prowess, and we caught up with Danielle Fifer, who is a founding member of the Bubba Moore Memorial Group, who continues each and every year to make possible tremendous philanthropy in Bubba’s honor and memory. Nothing could have made him happier, I daresay than to see his family and his community flourishing so beautifully. He gave full-page ads in, and front-page covers on, TV Facts to local nonprofits in need, as though they were water flowing freely from a faucet, rather than $1,000 gifts in kind that they were, simply because of his heart the size of Texas.

Here’s How This Magnificent Night Came To Be:

LeUnes is Project Unity’s Director of Development & Communications, and is on a first-name basis with virtually everyone in town, plus their dogs and cats—not kidding, especially dogs. Think: Jefferson Award winner founds Wienerfest—Bra Art—et al., same Judy LeUnes. The dynamic do-gooder assembled all of her friends, a dynamic, diverse community of movers and shakers together—in support of Jeannie McGuire’s simple wish—that the nonprofit she founded 20 years ago might not be the community’s best-kept secret any longer. So, what is Project Unity? Just wait. A few introductions are in order first.

McGuire is a beautiful, gifted woman (inside and out) with a heart of gold, a soul full of love for children and parents, and an indefatigable spirit. Together, Jeannie and Ella McGruder have (quietly) been blazing a path across the Brazos Valley, building a team of gifted social workers and volunteers who help keep children safe. Importantly, they educate parents on how to keep families together, safe from abuse. And, they care for and about local HIV/Aids patients.

Through educational programs they offer, parents do not berate their children, they embrace step-children into blended families, and they transform families through building communications skills. Ella is a local “You’re the Tops” honoree, devoted wife, mother, church member and social worker. Her title has been Director of Programs at Project Unity, but she’s actually Jeannie’s spiritual twin, co-captain visionary, and has been from the get-go.

More on projects, but there’s a new team member to fall in love with.

There is this little brown dog, who’s become a social media and TV favorite: Wienkie LeUnes. Before you consider devaluing Wienkie’s role in this effort, and smiling, saying “Oh, isn’t that cute…” here’s a fact. Judy LeUnes’ advocacy for fur babies in the Brazos Valley is a given. But just as she took her beloved dog, “Hey, Dude! LeUnes” to school with her every day when she was a teacher, and he had his job there, Wienkie is following the path blazed by Hey, Dude! (Note: to the right is Sheree Boegner and Wienkie)

Naturally, Judy took her Chihuahua to work immediately at Project Unity s but know that this was not a for-pretend cutesy little gimmick. Far from it. Wienkie has earned his title “Life Enrichment Coordinator.” Wienkie sends out important updates and messages on Facebook, and he’s been on KBTX with his Mom and Aloft’s Joseph Kennedy. What was the amazing hat trick this triumvirate pulled off? Keep reading.

The Projects of Project Unity

In going back to the very beginning of Project Unity, Jeannie and Ella have had a phenomenal team to work with, including Michelle Bouldin and San Juanita Quintero who have been there in the 20-year time frame, and you would never know they were there unless you were the clients being served. They literally go around the Brazos Valley every day, looking for parents who need parenting skills among neighborhoods where the children need to come first in their parents’ lives.

Because grants that Project Unity receives are generous in nature but almost ridiculous in statistics reporting the division of work falls to the team on the ground and the folks on the computers in data entry try hard to keep up with the whirlwind of Michelle and San Juanita.

It’s not only amazing that they have been there as long as they have, Michelle commutes to and from Houston because she believes so much in Jeannie, Ella, and their impact they have on children. It’s really a family. In fact, when Michelle went into labor with one of her children, Jeannie and Ella were on each side of her holding her hand. #Family. We the public don’t know this, don’t see this, should know this, should see this. It’s simply phenomenal.

Diana Gaytan, Family Support Facilitator, is very excited about her work out of the Beck Street Location for Project Unity, Here’s the basic rundown on what it is that Project Unity Does.

Slowdown for the Low-down (with thanks to the late Maxine Messenger of the Houston Chronicle, for allowing me to borrow one of her signature phrases, at least this once)

It takes a tremendously committed Board of Directors to know all the employees, all of the initiatives, see the results of every grant that Jeannie is writing at her office or late, late into the evening at home. The grant requests never end and there’s a stark reality that this observer sees that may not be immediately clear to others.

But, Joseph Kennedy had thrown open the doors wide to welcome at Aloft because when Judy LeUnes says “There’s a need,” then Joseph joins in with “We’re in,” and that is how Judy rolls in the Brazos Valley, continuing to spread love, understanding, education and a little brown dog, who’s the hit of every event he attends.

With a focus on families, on parenting, on prevention of child abuse through educating parents, great programs that provide safe harbor and supervised visitation for parents to have safe access to their children for a few hours each week while they try and put their lives back together.

In the exciting and ever-expanding world of Project Unity—Jeannie McGuire’s dream that attained an all-new visibility, one she’d never dreamed of before, some 20 years later , that hat trick was accomplished by one woman, Judy LeUnes, who invited everyone she knew and loved in town over to Aloft Hotel for the party of the summer. And they all came.

Every single one of Judy’s volunteer groups that the Jefferson Award winner has ever championed, has ever garnered support for, in all of her community do-gooding over the years—showed up, stayed, shared, and stayed some more. It was the party that simply no one wanted to leave. And Aloft’s penultimate host with the most—Joseph Kennedy—smiled and said, “Stay as long as you want. It’s why we are here.”

How Can You Support Project Unity?

Two ways are possible to support this magnificent organization: a) with an initial gift in any denomination, whether a first-time gift, as many were given that night at the Aloft celebration, by joining Club 365, where you commit $1.00/day to the organization (and they’ll even set it up where you can bill your credit card, monthly or yearly, earning miles and points for your philanthropy). Check out www.club365.org and see what tremendous things they do with your dollars, and note where Project Unity was awarded the Daily Point of Light Award by President George H. W. Bush in 2001. Quietest nonprofit in town never had the chance to be bragged on for all it does before. Judy LeUnes is changing the “best kept secret in town” image….par excellence.

Or, you can donate items on their wish list (call them to find out what they need. Currently, Judy LeUnes would love a real conference table and chairs for their conference room as they are “making do” with something that someone’s brother’s cousin’s neighbor didn’t need. Just sayin’.

There’s a Community Partnership Board with over 65 people “from across housing, employment, faith-based entities, and basic needs” who come together to help people in our community.

Volunteers for the Safe Harbour Program are cherished and needed, as they are the nonrelative adults who supervise children whose noncustodial parents still want to see them and there needs to be a ‘safe harbour’ for the two to meet. Imagine you have a loved one with a parent who dearly loves their child or children, but it’s not good for them to be at the home of the other parent.

Did you know that there are 500 children and parents every year right here in our community who can see their parent under the very safest conditions and still give and receive love and affirmation to one another. Conditions are very specific and the volunteers are very safe as are all parties concerned. As a Project Unity representative to explain the specifics. One very neat thing is that BB&T adopted Safe Harbour as their “Lighthouse Project,” and not only was there financial support—BB&T employees gave up Saturday mornings for two-hour shifts to the tune of 220 hours of service.

Again, these community partners don’t do it for the acclaim or the brownie points with the corporate bosses. They do it because eyeball-to-eyeball, they care about children first in this community. That’s first-class philanthropy.

Another project is called TFTS—of course it is, but what is it? It is Texas Families Together and Safe. Parents of children 3-9 are in one group and those of children 9-17 are in another group. Project Unity teaches parents how to raise their children, how to deal with children’s acting out behavior, tantrums, refusal to adhere to house rules, and one of the biggest success stories is for parents with children by previous marriages to come together in a home and be shared-parent step-parents with everyone included ‘in.’

Rather than my family or your family it is ‘our family.’ Helping children do homework does not mean doing their algebra for them, as if that is even possible in this day and time, right? It does mean being aware of free tutoring, of public library resources and offerings, and other ways of helping your children to succeed, even changing their attitudes about school entirely. It’s just lives they change at Project Unity, every day of the week.

Now What Happened at the Party?

A brand new world opened up for Project Unity. The loving but somewhat shy leader/founder of the group met, like, a million people, and remembered all their names because she has that kind of mind. Plus when you walk in the door, there’s a little Xeroxed thank-you for coming message from Wienkie, signed with his paw print. If you wanted to make an initial donation coming in, there was an easy-to-find, no pressure place to do it. Or, some folks came at the invitation of board members and then were shuttled over to meet with Judy, Director of Development and Communications for it. Wienkie LeUnes, as cohost, was given VIP treatment upon his arrival earlier that day at Aloft. There was nothing cutesy about it.

Aloft’s Joseph Kennedy gave Wienkie his own guest room, with a special place for his little carrier/crate and he had a bowl of water waiting, as well as special little puppy treats in a bag, embossed with “Welcome, Wienkie!” He was there to do a job, but like every man who works a room with gusto, he needed a place to rest, refresh and prepare for reappearances.

He donned his formal attire, a little tuxedo, for the evening and frankly, once Judy brought him out into the crowd, the fight was on to be next in line to have pictures taken in front of an ingenious step-and-repeat banner with (you guessed it!) “Project Unity’s” name and logo on it. Have any idea how many hundreds of photos went viral across Facebook? Judy didn’t win the community’s Jefferson Award without skills, folks! Brilliant marketing.

Wienkie took rests between throngs of people fussing over him, and yet, he seemed entirely at bliss, unperturbed by the rock band playing upbeat, happy tunes with folks dancing close by. Then again he’s not an only dog. He comes from a current family of rescue pups that Arnold LeUnes and Judy LeUnes and roll call goes something like this: Lilly, B, Remy, Charlie, Wienkie, and Darth…..”Darthhhh….Darth Vader where are you?” You see, Darth Vader LeUnes is still learning a few rules of the road, but he’s so darned cute that his learning period for forgiveness continues to be extended. He may have to sweep up Project Unity headquarters one day but for now, he’s just well…Darth.

Money came in for Project Unity with gusto that night, but more importantly, each person there became and ambassador for spreading the word about the organization that does so much, with so little, and never has had the kind of advocate before that the whirlwind that is Judy does for the group. With Katie Watson and David Rogers (pictured here with friends) spent a few weeks interning with Judy, well that was like releasing even more inspiration into the universe. Inspiration is all it takes, combined with training, to create exciting transformations in lives every day.

Now, since that time, what has happened for Project Unity? Let’s take a look. Wienkie did a prompt video thank-you to all his friends, then a massive photo album was published online on Facebook. Follow them here and please click “Like” on the page as that will help them get grants as they continue to increase public awareness for @ProjectUnityBCS.

New members of Club 365 were signed up that night, with checks and credit card gifts completed online, boom! Wienkie encouraged folks to become Unity Partners and the next week, Project Unity went to Carver Elementary School in Bryan to recruit more families for parenting classes (Sanjuanita and Michelle, the dynamic duo on the move again). Then there was talk of a Downtown Bryan event to potentially benefit Project Unity. As that continues to develop, that’s one tremendous result of what great things people can do for you, once they know about you.

Deborah Cowman of The Brazos Valley Museum was kind enough to donate tickets to the “Wish Upon a Butterfly” release event for Project Unity families they serve “who would not ordinarily be able to afford to go to the museum” to attend. Imagine the looks of wonder on children’s faces when they see a museum, history, exciting exhibits, displays, and butterflies. It just causes them to dream and want to become researchers, explorers, adventurers, archeologists, or just to see beauty wherever it abounds. #Lifechanging through simple, thoughtful gifts, once people know who and where you are.

Days later, the College Station Men’s Wearhouse conducted a National Suit Drive for Project Unity and donated some prime men’s clothing to the group—when you don’t have a job, you don’t have a wardrobe for the job, and forget all those speeches about “Dress for the job you want.” With the blink of an eye, Men’s Wearhouse filled an important need. Hmm, wonder where they heard about it? Well, it’s “word of mouth” and sharing good news.

Then, speaking of a heart of gold and a spirit to match, Steve Ellis, currently a Los Angeles-based actor, but always a popular DJ and social scene king whenever he's back in town to visit, arrived to lend Project Unity his support. (Left: Steve Ellis and Dawn Lee Wakefield)

It was truly a night where friends saw friends they have not seen in ages, who all came together because of a dream a gifted and talented visionary had to serve children and families in Bryan-College Station. Jeannie is being honored by the Girl Scouts of Central Texas, on Thursday, Sept. 1 as a Woman of Distinction in the Brazos Valley, at the beautiful Miramont Country Club in Bryan. A most fitting tribute indeed as Jeannie is definitely a wonderful role model for young girls to grow up and do something really big! If they dream it, they can do it.

So, you see how children, ice hockey and Bubba’s dreams might intersect? That would be your second hat trick. Well, yes, technically, it’s actually “when one player scores three consecutive goals in a single game and then everyone in the crowd celebrates by throwing their hats onto the ice,” but in our example it’s where Project Unity brought all these dynamic community leaders together in the single arena of Joseph Kennedy’s domain, Aloft in College Station. Let’s walk things back a moment and reflect.

A Personal Story

Two months ago I was over in Project Unity’s headquarters offices, visiting with Judy LeUnes, Katie Watson, and David Rogers about a particular topic, and this wonderful woman enters the offices in nondescript fashion and she asks if it’s the right place to donate ‘some clothing’ in good condition for people to use who need to have professional attire. Jeannie and Ella were out of the office at meetings at the COG and Beck Street, respectively, but Judy immediately jumped up from her chair, motioned for Katie and David to follow and in five minutes’ time, they had one of the most extensive and fabulous group of women’s clothes that would make them feel “as good as” work colleagues who could afford to shop for nice things.

No one has money for clothes when you don’t have money to feed your children. So when people are quick to say, “Well, get a job and work,” they don’t understand that to get that job where a uniform is not issued, it takes this to make that happen. It was amazing to see philanthropy in action and motion. Wienkie supervised the process quietly from his perch as Life Enrichment Specialist, and I’d swear that little dog was smiling.

What Happened After The Event? Amazing Things

The team over at KAGS-TV, where Shannon Madlock keeps her eyes and ears open for all good things happening in town, did a story on the donation from Men’s Wearhouse, and now, people know one more thing to do with clothing where it can really help.

Then four days later, Judy and Wienkie had the Project Unity team over with the Brazos Valley Bombers, competing with other nonprofits for a share of the proceeds from the game that night. You could get in by “paying what you wanted” and put it in the organization’s jar as a gift. Wienkie was back on the job, in a maroon baseball jersey no less.

People, this is serious business, and Wienkie has a real job and he works harder than a lot of folks I’ve seen in much harder conditions. You try working a crowd in 100°F heat and not wimping out. Not this guy. He’s “all in,” and so is his mom. Check out their Facebook page to see that Wienkie had a sweet love letter drawn for him by a young fan.

But wait, there’s more! Judy, the pied piper of relevance, had the team downtown, becoming the newest member of the Downtown Bryan Association. Their Beck Street operations are, hello, downtown, and what wonderful ambassadors they are for the community. Then he sat in front of a banner advertising Club365.org, which in full disclosure, I’m a member of, because everyone who knows me knows that I have no power in me to say ‘no’ to the dog, mine or anyone else’s.

Seriously, Jeannie hand-delivered my packet of information from Judy and even though I thought I knew what Project Unity was all about, clearly I had not a clue of the depth and breadth this organization makes its impact on. It’s all about goodness, love, sharing, caring, and taking care of children.

Finally, two weeks ago, the A&M student newspaper, The Battalion, caught wind of what Wienkie was up to and reporter Ana Sevilla conducted an interview with him. Result was clear as a bell today as Wienkie wound up in the back-to-school fall edition of The Battalion.

But that’s not all, last week, a dear person, Anna Perkinson, won two tickets to the A&M vs. UCLA home football opener at the BCS Chamber Business After Hours (yes, Judy is an Ambassador of the BCS Chamber, as if you had to ask!) and she donated the tickets to Project Unity! Bidding is on until August 31st, so it’s a tax deduction to ‘win’ this prize.

Late last Friday, the Bryan College Station Optimist Club made a major donation to Project Unity (presented at a Bombers game) for “school supplies for the students in the Snook ISD.” Is that not phenomenal?

But wait, there's more. Judy, wearing her Project Unity name tag and taking seriously the organization's new membership in the Downtown Bryan Association, got angry when she read The Eagle and learned of a downtown restaurant, Ms. Helen's Cafe, that had been burglarized five times and was facing closure, simply because the food had been stolen, too. Judy made about five phone calls, one of which was to Jason Cornelius at Prosperity Bank, and got things rolling. Understand that when Judy LeUnes is on a mission, you'd best get high and behind her or get run over because either way, you're going to be seeing great things happen.

Just this past Saturday, the badge-wearing Judy was downtown at Blackwater Draw Brewing Company, who supported donors for Ms. Helen's Cafe's owner in gift cards to local grocers including Readfield Meats, cash, checks for the cause. The owner of a local security company donated a system and installed it himself, in between his paying clients, to help assure safety and videography for all would-be perps to know better. No, it was not a direct Project Unity event, but LeUnes carries her name with her and identity for the group, everywhere she goes, 24/7. And she brings Wienkie right along with her. If you're not enthused, invigorated, and ready to join in Project Unity's great endeavors in this community, then just watch one of Wienkie's speeches and your cold, cold heart will melt and the ink will flow onto your checkbook. It's just the right thing to do.

Now, if corporations and local business owners see this excitement and buzz and understand the reality of what it costs to keep this tremendous organization going each year, then Judy and Wienkie can make time available in their schedules to receive your gifts. Check them out on the web and on Facebook. Call them and ask questions.

Or, do what I did, and the next time they offer you a chance to bring your pet to work at their offices, show up with your pup and learn what goes on there. There’s water and dog treats, and playmates for your pups. Mine even did the unthinkable and he was loved, not scolded. Unconditional love for children and fur babies alike.

Once you walk in their doors, you will be a willing and joyful ambassador of what happens in our community, thanks to Project Unity. Frankly, it’s one of the most exciting nonprofit organizations in town, and they’re just getting started in sharing the good news. If you’ve lost count of how many hat tricks happened as a result of July 20th’s “Live at Aloft” event for Project Unity, you really can’t count because the goodness that will continue to flow from building friends first, before asking for funds, goes a long, long way to cultivating long-term support.

All gifts are welcome, from $10 to $1,000, to whatever you can pledge and give. Statewide funding agencies see both kinds of numbers as valuable in reviewing the grant proposals that Jeannie has the patience and foresight to complete. Yes, one month after the inaugural event, Project Unity is alive and thriving here, and Wienkie will thank you personally, once he’s awakened from his well-deserved nap, working hard as he has during the (pardon me) dog days of summer. Special thanks to Katie Watson for all the photos shared here so generously.

1 comment:

  1. Great read. Thank you, Dawn for the kind words. -Rusty Surette