'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.

Workplace Problem No One Talks About

Imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t get a promotion because of your religion or skin color. The only good news would be that you could probably sue your employer for discrimination.
But, what if you didn’t get it because you were overweight?
In most parts of the United States, there would be little you could do. But, a handful of local and state governments have       extended anti-discrimination protection to include weight as a protected class.
Here’s a closer look at how it works.
What is a Protected Class?
A protected class is a group of individuals sharing a characteristic that is protected by law. Race, national origin, sex and religion are commonly recognized protected classes. Unless an individual is a member of a protected class, she cannot sue for unlawful discrimination. A variety of federal laws establish a number of protected classes, including: race, national origin, sex, color, religion, pregnancy, age, disability, familial status and genetic information.
One potential protected class that is still up to legal debate is sexual orientation. Some federal courts, as well as the         Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), believe Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 recognizes sexual orientation as a protected class. However, not all federal courts agree with this reasoning.
Right now, these federally protected classes do not include weight.
Weight Discrimination
There is good evidence that discrimination against workers who are overweight occurs.  Research data finds that individuals suffering from obesity are more likely to be “stereotyped as lazy, unmotivated, unintelligent, sloppy and lacking willpower.” This happens despite scientific studies showing genetics play a major role in an individual’s weight.
Studies also show that overweight workers likely suffer the effects of these negative stereotypes, including not getting hired or being passed over for promotion. To help combat this discrimination, a few states and cities have anti-discrimination laws that recognize discrimination based on weight.
Currently, only a few jurisdictions prohibit discrimination based on weight: Michigan, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Urbana in Illinois, Madison in Wisconsin, Binghamton in New York and Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C. is particularly noteworthy given the number of protected classes it creates through its D.C. Human Rights Act.
Washington’s Law Differs
The D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and schools. It established the following 20 protected characteristics: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, genetic information, marital status,         personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity (including gender expression), gamily responsibilities (the obligation to support a dependent family member), political affiliation, matriculation, familial status (basically, this means being a parent), source of income, place of business or residence, credit information and status as a victum of an intrafamily office (such as domestic violence and stalking). 
All of the above will apply in the employment setting, except for: familial status, source of income, place of business or residence and status as a victim of intrafamily offense. Besides the vast number of protected classes created by the D.C. Human Rights Act, it goes much further than most anti-discrimination laws in other ways.
First, the D.C. Human Rights Act applies no matter how small the employer is and even if the victim is an independent contractor. This is significant, as many anti-discrimination laws, especially at the federal level, don’t apply to employers unless they have 15 or more employees. Additionally, federal anti-discrimination laws usually only apply to workers classified as employees.
Second, there are few limits on the amount and type of damages a victim of discrimination can recover. If it turns out an employer has violated the D.C. Human Rights Act, the victim of discrimination is entitled to “any relief” the court deems  appropriate. This means a worker can receive equitable   relief, such as reinstatement or a promotion.
It also means the worker is eligible for compensatory damages as long as the court deems it “appropriate.” This includes back pay and lost benefits. Punitive damages are possible as well, although they usually aren’t imposed unless the employer’s discrimination is especially egregious. Unlike the federal Title VII statute, the D.C. Human Rights Act places no cap on the amount of compensatory or punitive damages a worker can recover.
Third, a victim can go directly to court to sue his or her employer. Most discrimination claims brought under federal law against a private employer must first be addressed by the EEOC before the worker can sue in court. Under the D.C. Human Rights Act, a worker can immediately file a complaint in D.C. Superior Court and bypass the administrative process of filing a complaint with the Washington, D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR). For those who are wondering, the OHR is tasked with enforcing the D.C. Human Rights Act and is basically Washington, D.C.’s version of the EEOC.
Given how few jurisdictions recognize weight as a protected class and the prevalence of weight discrimination in the workplace, much of the weight discrimination case law focuses on obesity as a disability. The law is not fully settled on this question, but there is a pending case before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Richardson v Chicago Transit Authority,  No. 18-2199) that addresses whether obesity is an “impairment” under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
As for lawsuits specifically alleging discrimination based on weight as a protected class, the number of cases is far fewer, although there is one in particular from a few years ago that received a lot of press. The case (Smith v. Hooters of Roseville Inc., Circuit Court for Macomb County, Michigan, No. 10-2213-CD) involved a Hooters waitress from Michigan who claims she suffered from             discrimination because she weighed too much, despite being 132.5 pounds and five feet eight inches tall.
Unfortunately, the case was not decided on the issue of weight discrimination. After spending time in court arguing whether the waitress had the right to sue or was required to arbitrate her grievance, the case made its way to arbitration where it settled.
One case that concluded on the question of whether an employer was guilty of weight discrimination was Harris v. Hutcheson. In this case, a dental hygienist alleged she was fired because her boss viewed her as being overweight and made constant comments indicating his displeasure with her size. However, she ultimately lost her case because the court concluded that she was fired for her professional conflicts with a recently hired dentist and not for her weight.
Bottom Line
Weight discrimination creates a significant and often ignored problem in the workplace. A few jurisdictions have recognized this, but more could be done.
Tom Spiggle is author of the book “You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers and Other Caregivers in the Workplace.” He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, he works to protect the rights of clients facing pregnancy and caregiver discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination in the workplace. To learn more, visit

Kinder Houston Area Survey reveals lingering concerns in wake of Hurricane Harvey

The 38th Annual Kinder Houston Area Survey was released May 13 at the popular Kinder Institute luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston.
Stephen Klineberg, the founding director of Rice’s Kinder  Institute for Urban Research and an emeritus professor of   sociology at Rice University, conducted the survey. 
More than 1700 locals  — business and community leaders —  attended the big event, and witnessed Jeffrey C. Hines, president and CEO of Hines, accept the Stephen L. Klineberg Award. The award recognizes an individual who has made a lasting, positive impact on Greater Houston. 
Economic Hardship
Traffic continues to reign as the area’s biggest problem, according to survey respondents (36 percent). Meanwhile, the outlook on other issues is improving. Only 15 percent of respondents said crime is the biggest problem in the city of Houston, and 67 percent rated job opportunities in the area as excellent or good.
Despite the positive outlook on job opportunities, the survey reflects the prevalence of economic hardship in Harris County. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said they could not come up with $400 in an emergency. This number is close to the national average, recently reported by the Federal Reserve Board.
In addition, 25 percent of survey respondents lacked health insurance, 31 percent reported household income of less than $37,500, 35 percent said they had problems paying for housing and 33 percent had difficulty buying groceries.
The survey indicates more people than ever in the Houston area are calling for government programs to address these inequalities. Sixty-six percent said government should act to reduce income differences, 62 percent said government has a responsibility to help reduce inequalities, and 53 percent said welfare benefits generally provide an opportunity for recipients to improve their situations. These figures compare with 45 percent, 51 percent and 34 percent, respectively, a decade ago.
About two-thirds of survey respondents said education beyond high school is necessary to obtain a job that pays more than $35,000 per year. No one was more certain of this than Hispanic immigrants (76 percent).
This recognition of the importance of education could be related to the change in opinion on the need for additional funding for public schools, Klineberg said. Fifty-six percent of respondents in last year's survey said more funding was needed for public schools; in 1994, 54 percent said the schools had enough money to provide a good education. Less than half of the respondents in 2018 – 42 percent — said the schools have enough money, if used wisely, to provide quality education.
After Harvey
Eighteen months after the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, the survey indicates fewer people in the Houston area consider flooding the city’s top issue. Floods and storms were cited as the area’s biggest problem by seven percent of survey respondents this year, compared to 15 percent last year. Yet, three-quarters continue to agree that Houston will almost certainly experience more extreme storms in the next 10 years, and 53% of respondents are also concerned about climate change. And survey respondents are even more insistent (75 percent this year, up from 70 percent in 2018) on the need for better land-use planning to guide development.
One noteworthy change from last year is declining support for specific flood-mitigation controls. Only 56 percent favor prohibiting new construction in flood-prone areas of Houston, compared to 71 percent a year ago. Fifty percent favor increasing local taxes to buy out more homes that have repeatedly flooded, down from 55 percent in 2018.
Houstonians of all ethnicities are growing more comfortable with the region’s burgeoning diversity – including everything from attitudes toward immigrants to friendship patterns and romantic relationships.
 The survey revealed that area residents in every community are more likely today than in earlier years to have close personal friends from each of the other major ethnic groups in Houston. The most powerful predictor of interethnic friendships is age: The survey indicates younger respondents have grown up in a world full of such friendships and welcome what many older Houstonians still find difficult to accept.
Harris County has grown more aligned with the Democratic Party in recent years, the survey showed. Area residents have dramatically changed their minds about the moral acceptability of homosexuality, but there’s been little change in abortion attitudes. Most respondents (59 percent) continue to believe abortion is morally wrong, but 62  percent are opposed to making it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion.
Houston-area residents are  expressing significantly more support today than in earlier years
• for policies to reduce the inequalities and address the needs of the poor;
• for more spending on public education, from cradle to career;
• for controls on development to reduce the vulnerability to future flooding; and
• for continued efforts to enhance the region’s urban amenities.
The surveys, according the  report, also show clearly that area residents are embracing the region’s diversity and feeling more comfortable in a world of thriving friendships across ethnic communities, religious beliefs and sexual orientations.
Additionally, beneath the divisive political rhetoric, area residents appear to be more inclined than ever before to support the many ongoing efforts in the Houston area that are addressing today’s most compelling challenges.
It  remains to be seen whether the Houston community as a whole can summon the political will  to make the critical investments that will be needed to position the region for sustained prosperity in this new era of economic, demographic and technological transformation.
About the Survey
Interviews for the Kinder Houston Area Survey averaged more than 30 minutes each. They were conducted between February 4 and March 14 by SSRS in Media, Pennsylvania. SSRS surveyed a scientifically selected representative sample of 1,000 Harris County residents; 50 percent were reached by landline, 50 percent by cellphone.

MFAH's expansion to complete largest cultural project in North America

The opening of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building next fall will complete the multi-year expansion and redevelopment of the Sarofim Campus at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Kinder Building will be dedicated to installations from the MFAH’s collection of 20th- and 21st-century art. The building will open with an exhibition highlighting major collections never before presented in depth.
The redevelopment of the Sarofim Campus and related off-site, art-storage facilities is the largest cultural project currently in progress in North America, with some 650,000 square feet of new construction.

Inaugurated in 2012 with the selection of Steven Holl Architects and undertaken through a $450 million capital campaign, the project will unify the campus by creating 14 walkable acres. It has already added a public plaza and two buildings to the MFAH: a new home for the Glassell School of Art and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation.

The Kinder Building is the final component of the plan as the third gallery building on the Sarofim Campus, joining the museum’s original Caroline Wiess Law Building (designed in the 1920s by William Ward Watkin, with later extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) and the Audrey Jones Beck Building (designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000).

Steven Holl Architects has designed the Kinder Building to stand in complementary contrast to these existing structures and to create a dialogue with Isamu Noguchi’s 1986 Cullen Sculpture Garden, which Holl’s gallery building fronts on one side. The trapezoidal concrete building is clad in vertical glass tubes that will emit a soft glow at night, through composed patterns of illumination across its facades. Five rectangular courtyard pools are inset along the perimeter, reinforcing the building’s openness to its surroundings.

The Kinder Building is 183,528 square feet overall, excluding 53,685 square feet of belowground parking on two levels. With more than 100,000 square feet of space, or 56 percent, dedicated to the presentation of works of art, the Kinder Building increases overall MFAH exhibition space by nearly 75 percent. Additional features of the building include a 215-seat theater for film screenings and a restaurant and café on the ground level.

A series of seven major site-specific commissioned artworks will be inaugurated with the Kinder Building, serving as portals that connect this new structure with the other components of the campus. Commissioned artists are El Anatsui, Byung Hoon Choi, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Olafur Eliasson, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Cristina Iglesias and Ai Weiwei.

The master plan also adds public plazas and gardens to the campus. Green spaces and upgraded sidewalks, street lighting and wayfinding are creating an urban oasis in the increasingly dense Museum District.

“The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has, over the last dozen years, become one of this nation’s fastest-growing art museums in terms of collections, programs, and audience,” MFAH Director Gary Tinterow said. “For some eight years now, through our campus plan, we have been stepping up in every way to match the growth, diversity and dynamism of our city. When we open the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in fall 2020, we hope to welcome the entire world to an expansive, beautifully designed complex of buildings and urban gardens, revealing the previously unsuspected riches of an international collection we could never before exhibit in such range and depth.”

The MFAH has surpassed its original $450 million campaign goal, raising $472 million to date. Nearly 100 percent of  the donations have come from within Houston, with principal gifts provided by Susan and Fayez S. Sarofim and the Kinder Foundation.

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