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Goodwill Hunting

For many Houstonians, helping others is the best gift of all. Here are some of the givers and galas to know now. 

Jennifer Ellzey offers tips on perfecting your look for the next big charity bash.

 Susan Plank

Gabe Canales

Beth Sanders Moore

Cindi Rose

Gracie Cavnar

Phoebe Tudor

Owen Daniels

Claire Thielke


A piece from MFA’s Islamic arts collection

George Mitchell

A choir serenades guests at the Houston Grand Opera ball in 2012.

Belle of the Ball: Ready to Wear?
“Houston’s a very social town,” observes Jennifer Ellzey, a former Hollywood fashion stylist who moved to H-Town three years ago, trading her red-carpet clientele for gala-going Texans. “The same thing you’d do for a celebrity is what people want here,” says the Wisconsin native, who broke into the biz as a costumer on movie sets in the Midwest and spent years in L.A., working with celebs and on national commercial campaigns for Cover Girl and Mercedes, among others. “There’s all kinds of rules... people follow, but it’s about making a statement and feeling confident.” Ellzey, who frequently handpicks gowns and baubles for local fashionistas on the social circuit, suggests investing in vintage couture, wearing comfortable shoes and accessorizing with bold jewelry. But be careful, she warns: “One statement piece can transform an outfit—two can ruin it!”

Solid Foundation: Generation Shift
When fracking pioneer George Mitchell, credited also with “creating” The Woodlands and reviving Galveston, died in July, he left a $400 million philanthropic legacy in the arts, education and environmental concerns. He also left a family to carry on his mission through his Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, founded in 1978. “Now more than ever, it is very much a family foundation,” says Katherine Lorenz, president of the nonprofit and one of the Mitchells’ 23 grandchildren. “Sustainability will continue to be the core of our work,” she says, noting that the foundation is taking some time to regroup. “My grandfather was bold, a risk-taker, and we will continue to take that same approach.”

Making History
“We tend to think of Houston as a city of now, and as a city of the future, which is great,” says Phoebe Tudor, among Houston’s leading philanthropists, along with husband Bobby. But the mom of three believes the city’s largely unsung past is equally important. “I’m drawn to things that are permanent and lasting. I like to know these are things that are going to be there for a long time, and that they’ll be open to the public to use and enjoy.”

Witness her initiative to help raise $31 million to mark Hermann Park’s 100th anny next year with a vast renovation including the installation of the 17-acre McGovern Centennial Gardens. Phoebe’s eyes light up as she rattles off the components of the development—the Cherie Flores Garden Pavilion, a giant water feature, a rose garden, an arid garden, a sculpture garden, a kids’ garden of organic produce, a Chinese pagoda gifted from the city of Taipei, “and a beautiful green lawn longer than a football field!”

The ambitious, successful project—nearly $30 million has already been raised—will be complete by this time next year, marking the third successful centennial project the Tudors have taken on. “If you’re turning 100, call us; we can help you,” she jokes. Bobby helped spearhead Rice’s $1.1 billion centennial campaign, reinforcing the university’s mission for years to come, and they have both been key players in raising money for the Houston Symphony as it turns 100 this year, serving as chairs for the group’s storybook-elegant gala earlier this year, among other posts.

Phoebe, who holds a master’s in historic preservation, and who cut her teeth in philanthropy by leading a six-year $32 mil effort to renovate Downtown’s Julia Ideson Library, will also be chair of the Houston Ballet board in 2014. If that doesn’t seem to have the same historical resonance as some of her other projects, maybe that’s because this one’s personal. “Dance was my childhood love,” she says. “If you had asked me when I was 15 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a professional ballerina.”

Good Sport
Texans tight end Owen Daniels, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at around 250 on any given Sunday, is a big man with a big heart, scoring both on and off the field.

The Illinois-bred Daniels’ charity, Catching Dreams Foundation, touches the lives of chronically and critically ill children through its Owen’s Locker initiative, which supplies families with electronics and opportunities to see the Texans play, and Operation North Pole, where Daniels joins with Wal-Mart every December to pass out gifts to needy kids.

The goal since the charity’s inception has been to help 400,000 kids, a number that Daniels and his supporters have almost reached in just three years. “We’re going to surpass that soon,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to help as many kids as we can. There’s no real end goal; we don’t want to stop.”

Charity is doubly meaningful to Daniels, as he met wife Angela, a lawyer with the District Attorney’s office, at a fundraising flag football game. “She’s an attorney,” he says with a sheepish grin, “so I’ve learned very slowly to pump my breaks when it comes to arguing.”

Daniels, by the way, isn’t the only Houston-area athlete giving back. In fact, there’s a long tradition of H-Town pros lending a helping hand to the community. For example, Daniels’ teammate JJ Watt’s namesake foundation aims to provide funding for after-school athletics programs here and in his home state of Wisconsin. The Dynamo’s Brad Davis and Tally Hall created Banded Brigade Outdoors, helping military veterans live more active outdoor lives with activities like fishing, hunting and target shooting.

“The city has been so welcoming to me,” says Daniels. “I think from an athlete’s [perspective], we just want to give back however we can.”

Fast Five: The most ethnically diverse city in the U.S. touts philanthropic opportunities that follow suit. Here, five charities making waves now.
1. In its fab new building, Asia Society Texas hosts rotating art exhibits, guest speakers and concerts.

2. With its Arts of the Islamic World initiative, the MFA pays homage to art spanning 14 centuries, from Spain to Southeast Asia.

3. Latin Women’s Initiative supports local nonprofits like Casa de Esperanza. Its annual lunch is lively!

4. Holocaust Museum Houston also champions causes like anti-bullying, and hosts its annual Guardian of the Human Spirit lunch on Nov. 18.

5. Ensemble Theatre, dedicated to preserving African-American artistic expression, honored Marla Gibbs and Kim Cole at its fall gala.

Coming Home
After graduating Stanford with a Ph.D. a few years back, Claire Thielke moved back home to Houston, “as opposed to a New York or an L.A. or a Chicago, where people move there and have a transient mindset,” she says. “It’s easier to move here and get your head around investing your life here. From the first week I’ve been back, I felt that.”

Thielke indeed hit the ground running, investing time and resources in several nonprofits, the first of which was Legacy Community Health Services; she’s now chair of the Endowment Board for Legacy, which opened outposts in Baytown and beyond last year, and is chairing the org’s luncheon next fall. For several years, she was also on the board of Recipe for Success—“one of the first charities I got to know really well”—a local nonprofit for which her mother, Yvonne Cormier, served on the inaugural board.

In between board meetings and luncheons, Thielke, a director of investment management for Hines, explores Chinatown with husband Rick, whom she met at Lamar High. “We love local adventures,” says the former Olympic contender in track and field, who rode the MS150 with a friend on a tandem beach cruiser earlier this year, and who will participate in her first Ironman race next month in Mexico.

This season, Thielke is involved with the finance committee for Hermann Park’s Centennial Campaign and is on the board of the Brilliant Lecture Series. Also on the board of Preservation Houston—formerly known as the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, it’s distributing its Good Brick Awards at a dinner in February—she spearheaded the creation of its young professionals group, Pier & Beam, two years ago.

“Preservation tends to be for an older generation, but I push back on that notion,” says Thielke, 27, whose dissertation was on adapting use of historic buildings. “I say preservation is for the young, because it’s a city that we will inherit.”

Number Crunch: $423 Million
The amount given in 2012 by hedge fund mogul John Arnold and wife Laura, per The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The young, press-shy Houston couple was ranked third in the nation among the most charitable donors, behind social-media king Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett. Just last month, the couple made headlines for giving $10 million to keep Head Start programs going during the government shutdown.

Spend the Night: Pay Up and Party Down
Houston loves a good party for a great cause! Here are six sensational functions—all at different price points—for those who like their spirit of giving with a side of socializing. Plus, what you might pay to play.

Opera Ball
Purchase the top table for $100,000. Will your $6,500 Oscar de la Renta gown be a springtime showstopper?
Total: $106,500

Bering Omega’s Toga Party
Tickets for the HIV org’s summer bash are two for $50; sheets are $15.
Total: $65

Cattle Baron’s Ball
Splurge on $600 Lucchese boots to complete your cowboy look, and hit the cancer-research benefit this spring. Tickets start at $400; raffle tix for items like an Audi A4 cost $50.
Total: $1,050

Spirit of Spring Luncheon
Buy a $2,500 table for the Children’s Assessment Center’s style-show fete, and impress your girlfriend guests with new Louboutins!
Total: $3,200

MFAH’s One Great Night
A top table at this month’s men-only dinner runs $25K. Your tux no longer fits? A rental’s just $150.
Total: $25,150

Catastrophic Theater Gala
Tickets for the indie troupe’s spring masquerade start at $50. Its last theme was ’90s, and Goodwill charges $10 for neon overalls.
Total: $60

Founders Circle: Leading the Charge
These boldface-name society notables are taking their own charities to ever-greater heights of service and giving.

1. Gracie Cavnar
FOUNDED: Recipe for Success in 2005. MISSION: To combat childhood obesity by changing kids’ perspectives on food, with educational “seed-to-plate” gardening and cooking programs. HOW IT STARTED: Cavnar, a former journalist, was effected by research she’d done on children’s health. LATELY: The program is expanding to other cities including D.C., with one annual fundraiser, the Blueplate Special luncheon, set for Nov. 19.

2. Cindi Rose
FOUNDED: The Holly Rose Ribbon Foundation, with surgeon husband Franklin, in 2005. MISSION: To provide reconstructive surgery to post-breast-cancer patients. HOW IT STARTED: Cindi pledged to help survivors after her sister Holly undertook, and later lost, a battle with breast cancer. LATELY: Ribbon has added a scholarship program for kids who’ve lost a parent to cancer.

3. Susan Plank
FOUNDED: Dec My Room, with daughter Kendall, in 2007. MISSION: To decorate the hospital rooms of very sick kids—think UT football, princesses—to promote healing. HOW IT STARTED: Kendall transformed the room of a friend, and wanted to do more. LATELY: Seeing a need beyond Texas Children’s and MD Anderson, Dec has expanded to several other cities.

4. Gabe Canales
FOUNDED: Blue Cure in 2010. MISSION: To promote prevention of prostate cancer, especially among young men. HOW IT STARTED: Canales was diagnosed with the disease at 35. LATELY: Blue Cure’s Masquerade event is Nov. 1, with fun runs and golf tournaments planned for next year.

5. Beth Sanders Moore
FOUNDED: CancerForward, with Brian Cruver and Bo Bothe, in 2010. MISSION: To engage and empower survivors. HOW IT STARTED: Moore beat breast cancer in 2001 and found a lack of survivor resources. LATELY: The group, having helped 200,000 online, hosts Ted Kennedy Jr. for a luncheon Nov. 14.