Montgomery County nonprofit revitalizing itself with same mission, new vision

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? One of the oldest and most enduring organizations of its type in Montgomery County is about to do just that, revitalizing itself with a few new tricks of its own.  

The mission of the Humane Society of Montgomery County, Inc. (HSMC) has long been simply “to promote the humane treatment of animals through community education and supporting responsible pet/animal ownership.”  

In 2019, a renewed group of area residents will serve on the HSMC Board of Directors, with ideas to take that mission to a whole new level.

“Same Mission, New Vision,” president Nelda Luce Blair enthusiastically calls the distinctive plan. Blair and HSMC Secretary Denise Matthews recently welcomed new board members Lisa Robinson, Kristi Marimon Lindahl and Kevin Sumrall. Both Robinson and Lindahl are returning board members, each of whom served a previous stint in past years. Sumrall, a Lone Star College Montgomery professor, formed the Maverick Pets Alive student club and is new to HSMC.  

An ambitious, yet unique future is being envisioned by the board, one that would allow HSMC to act as a support organization throughout the county.

“We really wanted to ‘think outside the box’ in applying HSMC’s tried and true mission,” explained Blair, who served on the HSMC Board in the 1980s and received a lifetime membership for her years of support since then.

“At one time, the Humane Society was the only game in town. Now, countless creditable animal welfare groups exist in our county. We think the Humane Society has the longstanding reputation and future durability to serve as an agent for unity among our area humane organizations. We want to be a catalyst not only to help other groups with their   extraordinary needs, but also to encourage them to work with each other toward the overriding goal of providing a better life for animals in our communities. We hope to tap the heart and soul that all of these groups have in common, with the goal of accomplishing greater results in animal welfare.”

Formed in 1972, HSMC was originally the undertaking of seven local citizens who joined together to help prevent cruelty to animals. Since that time, HSMC has consistently operated under the same nonprofit organization, although its work has varied over the years.

One of the most frequent misconceptions Blair encounters in the community is that HSMC and the Conroe or Montgomery County Animal Shelters are one in the same. The City of Conroe operates an animal shelter on Sgt. Ed Holcomb Blvd., and Montgomery County operates an animal shelter on Highway 242, both of which are funded by tax dollars, as well as private and volunteer donations and efforts. HSMC, on the other hand, is purely a non-profit organization that works in many different ways to pursue its mission of animal welfare.

“Decades ago, HSMC did operate the only shelter in the county, by contract with the city of Conroe,” Blair recalled. “Yet, over the years, its roles have changed as different needs arose. The Humane Society once offered spay and neuter services, it has worked with animal rescue and foster groups, managed animal adoptions for the county shelter and, until 2016, operated ‘Ruff House,’ providing temporary pet care for families in crisis. All of these services were accomplished as a nonprofit,  operating primarily on the generosity of its donors.”

According to Blair, the renewed HSMC mission and vision will focus on helping other animal welfare groups within Montgomery County with needs above their base operating and maintenance expenses. Blair explained that those needs might include arranging in-kind donations of unique “wish list” items or emergency materials, assisting with volunteer recruitment during a crisis,] and even monetary expenditures for priority items outside normal budgets. The HSMC rebranding will include a new logo and updated social media, introduced at a planned group meeting for all interested animal welfare organizations, on December 2 at Lone Star College.

 “We have many exceptional animal organizations in this county that perform a whole range of services — like spay and neuter, pet education, fostering and adoption, shelter volunteering, wildlife rehabilitation, sanctuaries and rescues for practically every animal species,” Blair noted. “The Humane Society wants to help those groups perform their roles even better by supporting the fine work already being done.'
For more information on HSMC, visit Blair is available at 281-363-3632 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./.

Houston Symphony's newest concertmaster communicates with skill and intuition

In South Korea, Yoonshin Song’s mother was very fond of classical music –– so much so she enrolled her young daughter and son in music lessons. Her brother was directed to the piano, and Song was five when she was given her first violin.

She said she was envious of her brother's instrument, but instructors told her mother she didn’t have the aptitude for piano. Fortunately, she discovered her true talent was in strings, not keys, and focused on mastering the violin.

By the time she was 11, she made her solo debut with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, launching her into a career she now loves.

In May 2019, she joined the Houston Symphony as its newest concertmaster –– a role second only to the conductor in its importance to an orchestra  and always held by the “first chair” violinist.
“It’s a job that requires both skill and intuition,” Song said.

“Both are equally very important. As a concertmaster, you actually do some bowing for the section –– showing how to use the right arm in the same way,” she said. “There are many people in the group playing the same line so you want to have the same type of bowing.”

She added, “I lead the first violin section with my body gestures and verbally also. I try to translate how the conductor wants the direction of the music making. We discuss, and I try to transmit information to them in the correct way. This facilitates a better ensemble and better communication between the principals of each section of the orchestra.

“I try to unite all the group together so we can follow the conductor’s musical idea in the same way,” she said. “Music is not like something mathematical, so you need a lot of intuition also.”

Song came to the United States in 2004 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. As a soloist, she has been featured with the Utah          Symphony, the New Mexico Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in Germany, the Paul Constantinescu Philharmonic Orchestra in Romania, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and KBS        Philharmonic Orchestra in South Korea, as well as the Detroit Symphony, where she was its concertmaster before coming to Houston.

She was chosen from a field of 39 candidates, 17 of whom performed as guest concertmasters after Frank Huang left the position in 2016.

“The appointment of the  right concertmaster is crucial to the advancement of the artistic goals of any orchestra,” said Houston Symphony Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada. “Yoonshin’s exceptional musicality, artistry, experience and personality made her our unanimous choice.”

Song said, “There was no time to think; there was a phone call and, then, a couple hours later I was on a plane to Houston. The transition was made easier by the fact that the Houston Symphony musicians were so warm and welcoming. The rest was just the pleasure of making music.

“It was just the right timing and the right people. There are lots of great violinists and concertmasters, but sometime, you just need the right chemistry –– like a marriage. That kind of luck is very precious.”

Song has earned international recognition throughout her        career, winning top awards in the Lipizer International Violin Competition  in Italy, the Lipinski & Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Poland, the Henry Marteau International Violin Competition in Germany and first prize at the Stradivarius International Competition in the United States.

This fall, she spent three weeks traveling throughout Europe, performing as concertmaster of the Budapest Festival Orchestra on tour in Vienna, London, Baden-Baden and Hamburg. Some of her favorite pieces to play as a soloist are baroque violin concerto, and she also likes Brahms.

Because of her own early start, Song is an advocate of giving children a chance to explore their musical skills. Science has confirmed that the way the brain reacts to the arts promotes a more complex way of thinking, she said.

“The best way to learn something and understand it from the heart is to not try too hard to make an effort. Just feeling it is an easy way,” Song said.

“When you expose children to arts –– music, painting, every kind of art –– and just let them play, it’s going to grow within them. Culture naturally grows in them. I think it’s important that children experience it with joy and not so much discipline.”

Song said she has enjoyed meeting new people since being in Houston and would like more patrons of the arts to come and enjoy the Houston Symphony.

On January 9, 11 and 12, the Houston Symphony will present Paganini and Pines of Rome, and from February 13-16, it will feature the Schumann Festival.

“We are preparing so many   great repertory programs,” Song said. “Please come and enjoy.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Local production company preparing for world premiere

Having cultivated a thriving artistic hub, Houston is the perfect market for developing and launching new works of theatre. Thus, the world premiere of the new musical, Lady of Agreda, A Mystical Journey will open at  Queensbury Theatre in CityCentre in the Spring of 2020. 

At the helm of the production is Donna Fujimoto Cole, the president and CEO of Cole Chemical & Distributing, Inc. and the executive producer of Pantheon Producers LLC and Lady in Blue Productions LLC.

Cole has found a way to pursue her passion for both industry and art by being a champion for captivating stories about influential women.

The play was produced by Pantheon Producers LLC, in association with Lady in Blue Productions LLC. Lady of Agreda, A Mystical Journey is a musical with a book by Marley Singletary, music and lyrics by Cynthia Jordan and direction by Bruce Lumpkin. It tells the mesmerizing true story of the 17th century mystic, Maria of Jesus of Agreda, Spain — known in Europe and the New World as the mystical Lady in Blue.

Maria is a nun and spiritual writer revered, and criticized, for her miraculous bilocation between her cloistered mona- stery in rural Spain and the Jumano Indians of West Texas where she believes she has traveled over 500 times since the age of 18. Maria humbly rises to the rank of Abbess at her convent where she writes over 14 spiritual books, and her revelations and reports of bilocation quickly captivate the mind and heart of King Philip IV.

Through a correspondence of over 600 letters, Maria becomes a lifelong spiritual and political advisor. Although she is an instant international sensation, a friend of the king and an inspiration to the Franciscan missionaries in the New World, Maria’s controversial writings, relationship with the King and her claims of bilocation are called into question by some of her fellow nuns and, eventually, the Spanish Inquisition who tries her for heresy twice over the course of her life.

As one of the most spiritually and politically controversial and influential women of the 17th century, Maria was a woman well ahead of her time who embodied strength, integrity and courage and realized the power of her words.

When Cole learned of Maria of Agreda, she was instantly drawn to the compelling story, and she knew it was a project she wanted to develop.

Believing this is a musical that will resonate with people from diverse backgrounds and belief systems, Cole said, “Maria is the most unlikely woman of the 17th century to be so powerful and influential while being tormented by authorities. Many aspects of her story are relevant today, and people will find great spiritual inspiration in this mystical journey.”

Lady of Agreda runs from March 12 thru April 5, 2020 at Queensbury Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit,

'Ecumenical Brigade' continues 53-year-old tradition

There’s nothing very jolly about spending the holidays in a hospital bed — especially if you are battling cancer. But, local businesswoman Fran Epstein knows exactly how to make Christmas Day merry and bright again. It’s something she’s been doing for patients at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center since 1967.

It started with Epstein’s mother,  Honey, who was in charge of coordinating weekly themed parties for pediatric patients at the hospital. One week, the celebration might involve leis and ukuleles, grass skirts and special Hawaiian-themed cupcakes. The next week, the party might revolve around the rodeo with red bandanas and cowboy hats and, maybe, a country western singer or a representative of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

“You could imagine what our house looked like with all the things she would order for the children,” Epstein said. “But, it was amazing!”

Every Wednesday, the theme would change, but one thing remained constant: the children looked forward to the party all week and were delighted when Wednesday arrived.

And, then the holiday season came, and the head of volunteer services told Honey Epstein that nothing special was planned for Christmas Day; the staff would be off and the office closed, and only a skeleton crew of medical personnel would be on hand.

Sadly, that meant patients ––children and adults alike ––would sit in their rooms surrounded by medical monitors instead of stockings and Christmas decorations. Some were patients too sick to go home on a 24-hour holiday pass. Others had come for treatment from far away ––  some from other countries –– and might not have family nearby to visit. So, Honey Epstein sprang into action.

“My family is Jewish, and we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we would be happy to come up and visit the patients,” Epstein’s mother said.

There were 125 patients remaining in the hospital that Christmas morning in 1967, and the Epstein family visited every one of them, handing out stockings donated by the Red Cross and newspapers that Volunteer Services had ordered.

Epstein’s father, Stanley, called their group “The Jewish Brigade," and the name remained for a decade,  as more and more of their friends in the Jewish community stepped up to volunteer.

At the same time, M.D. Anderson was expanding, add-ing new wings, so the number of patients increased yearly. Over the next few years, volunteers of all faiths stepped up to help. Some were former patients and other cancer survivors who wanted to give back.

“My dad then renamed us ‘The Ecumenical Brigade’ and that’s what it’s been every since,” Epstein said.
Then, a surplus of donated teddy bears helped launch a new tradition. One year, there were more teddy bears than there were pediatric patients, so the plan was to distribute them to adults, as well.

“My dad walked into one of the rooms where there was a gentleman in his 70s. My dad handed him a teddy bear, and he just hugged it and started to cry,” Epstein said. “He told my dad this brought back so many memories.”

Afterwards, the volunteers decided giving out teddy bears should be a regular part of their holiday mission, and Volunteer Services began to include them in its budget.

Over the years, other gifts have included stockings, newspapers, nutcrackers, handmade blankets and small pillows to offer comfort and support for patients whose arms had intravenous catheters (IVs) inserted. There are always boxes of chocolates for the nurses, too.

“We also serve a complimentary Christmas luncheon to all patients and their families –– turkey and dressing, side dishes and pie provided by the hospital’s catering department,” Epstein said. A separate luncheon focuses on the culinary tastes of pediatric patients, she added.

Marisa Nowitz has been helping Epstein coordinate the delivery of gifts to pediatric patients for several years,  and she and her brother, Blake Minor, have been volunteering since they were teenagers. Nowitz remembers a very special gift delivery more than 15 years ago.

“It was when Tickle Me Elmo had just come out, and the toy was really hard to get and very expensive,” Nowitz recalled. “We took one into the room of a little two-year-old girl, and I have never forgotten how excited she got. She lit up like I had never seen and was giggling and smiling, which made her parents smile.

“My dad and I were both crying happy tears for them,” Nowitz said. “You could feel the joy radiating from that little girl, and we knew it wasn’t something she was feeling a lot of at that time, so it was a really special moment.”

Heartwarming memories like that — and the memory of her parents — have kept Epstein motivated to continue this 53-year-old holiday tradition — now with a team of 80 volunteers serving about 500 patients.

“My mother and my father were the most amazing, selfless people I have ever known: I do this volunteer work at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center every Christmas to carry on their legacy and their tradition,” she said. “I do it for the patients, but also in loving memory of my parents.”

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and staff reporter at Houston Woman Magazine.  

Law school student achieving lofty goals, despite challenges of Sickle cell Disease

With a grateful heart, 35-year-old Amber Simpson, a student at TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, will receive her well-deserved diploma on May 8, 2020.

“It has been a fight all the way, so much so that when I was doing my undergrad work at the University of Oklahoma, I missed a couple of semesters because I was sick,” she said.

Simpson, who battles Sickle Cell Disease, has had five hospital stays since 2017.  

She explained, “The experiences of Sickle Cell sufferers are different. In a healthy person, red blood cells are actually round and carry oxygen. A sickle cell person’s blood cells don’t carry oxygen. The cells are brittle, hard and folded under like a sickle, making it difficult to move through veins and causing excruciating pain as it cuts off oxygen throughout the body.”

Simpson said she’s happy to know that, through research, a lot of progress is being made.

“New medicines are coming out, and about 100 people have actually been cured through experimental trials by drug companies,” she said.

Simpson grew up in the Dallas area, where her mother and father always encouraged her to fight her disability.

“My parents are both college graduates. My mom is a nutritionist, and my dad was a police officer for 26 years with the Dallas Police Department. Later, he accepted a position as the first black police chief of Corpus Christi. Tragically, he was killed in an off-duty motorcycle accident at age 51,” she said.

“Despite limitations, Amber perseveres,” commented Lydia Johnson, associate professor and director of the Criminal Law Clinic at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

She added, “Amber was a  student in my Title IX class last summer. Title IX mandates that any educational institution that receives financial aid can’t discriminate. Amber made a 10-minute presentation on the ‘Consent’ aspect of Title IX. The #MeToo movement has forced everyone to focus on what it means.

“The judges all agreed;  Amber’s presentation captured the essence of the movement and defined ‘Consent.’ Her disease has given her an awareness of the importance of remaining steadfast toward achieving, despite her disability.”

Currently, Simpson has two years’ experience as the chief justice of the Executive Board of Advocates, an organization started at the law school to promote advocacy. Students learn how to be trial advocates by competing with other schools. All total, Simpson has served on the Board of Advocates for five years.
Simpson is also a law clerk for Clarke & Associates. Upon graduation, she will become an associate attorney with that firm.

Simpson commented, “My dad’s profession in law enforcement contributed to my desire to be a trial attorney. I’m hoping to practice Labor & Employment Law and some Criminal Defense Law.”

Simpson also said she is grateful to both of her parents for setting a good example and teaching her that sickle cell should not defeat her. She is grateful for two sisters who are always there for her and for lifelong friends who have stuck with her.

During this holiday season, Simpson plans to spend quality time with devoted friends.

“Soon, I will be studying for the bar exam and will have little time to spare,” she said. “My biggest wish in life is to be remembered as someone who gave her all and did the best she could.”

Minnie Payne is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

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