Newsflash

Friendless on Facebook

With the jubilance of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing in my mind, I dipped my hosted onion ring into a tasty pool of ranch dressing. This was a moment to savor – collecting on a lunch bet from my long-time friend, Tony. During our nine-year history of pitting our baseball or football teams against one another, this was one of my few victories. My triumphant mood, though, was quickly erased like yesterday’s box scores. Replacing it was the awkward feelings of a skinny fifth grade girl standing on the volleyball court anxiously waiting to be picked.

The waitress had just refilled our iced teas when Tony said, “I looked you up on Facebook.” In between bites of his cheeseburger he added, “You have one friend.

”Choking down my last bit of onion ring, I hurried to explain that I’d joined to contact a friend I’d lost touch with. Outwardly, I blamed Vicki, my one and only FB friend, for the embarrassment. Inwardly, those four simple words – you have one friend – sat on my stomach like an expanding weight, daring me to defend my popularity. Savvy Internetters thought that my lifetime of experiences had yielded one lone friend. An off-the-cuff observation reduced me from a confident wife and mother to an insecure 10-year-old whose happiness was measured by the width of her circle of friends. 

I thought it was pretty amazing that I had any presence on this phenomenon of a social-networking site. I’d heard of Facebook. My sons, Shawn, Jake and Seth, had MySpace pages, but until lunch that day, I never saw the value of getting involved. Tony’s cavalier comment had launched me, head first, into the intricacies of online communities. For days I surfed the web, clicking, searching and tinkering my way through the sites. Before I knew it, I was writing on Tony’s wall, re-tweeting posts on Twitter and uploading links. I also learned that the reasons people join these sites are as varied as the folks themselves. After sending out some friend requests and joining an alumni group, I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else had hitched up to quell their elementary school ghosts. 

In my urgency to prove that I was a likeable sort, I’d stumbled on an instantaneous way to stay connected. Years ago I swapped the daily workplace security for the freedoms of being a stay-at-home writer. With that change came the realization that I missed my co-workers and our daily impromptu discussions about last night’s episode of 24 or what movie isn’t worth the 10-bucks-plus-popcorn ticket. The chats about kids, cars and diets that I took for granted as part of my workday now come to me via an anytime cyberspace coffee break.

I get status updates from my colleagues, my cousins and everyone else in between. This morning I learned “25 Random Things” about Fran, my godsister in Pittsburgh; where Jane, my gal pal in St. Louis, went for her birthday dinner; and how many points my 10-year-old nephew, Zach, scored during his basketball game in Sacramento.

Usually my posts are innocuous – a home decorating victory, a recent challenge of being a mom, a book recommendation. But last month, when our family made the difficult decision to put our sickly 16-year-old spaniel mix down, I turned to Facebook. I wanted to express my grief and let everyone know how special this soccer-playing dog was to us. Within moments I had posted a farewell to Max — photos and all. Seconds later, and for the next several days, condolences and comfort streamed electronically into my home. 

Courtesy of my broadband connection, job changes, geography or jammed schedules aren’t hurdles to staying in touch with people who – in big or small ways -- have enriched my life. They’re now a part of my day, and I have a new place — and an avatar —in theirs. At last check, my Facebook friends’ list has grown to 86. I’m following 54 people on Twitter and about 70 folks follow @ClaireFlaire. I’m LinkedIn. I have a blog. And, I have Tony, my second FB friend, to thank. Who knew that winning a hamburger could be so rewarding? 


Claire Yezbak Fadden, an award-winning columnist and freelance writer, is the mother of three sons. E-mail her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

City Hall Fellows

A unique opportunity to participate in Houston city government has been given to 10 recent college graduates. All have been named City Hall Fellows for 2009-10.

They include Rachel Deason, Christopher Gustafson, Sara Mansur, Minh Nguyen, Rachel O'Shields, Lauren Rosales, Mercedes Sanchez, Ted Wieber III, Elisabeth Wilkins and Lindsay Zwiener.   

City Hall Fellows was founded in 2007 by Bethany Rubin Henderson. Her goal was to create a national service corps of recent college graduates who spend a year serving in and learning about how to create social change through local government in their own home communities. Currently, the program is offered in only two cities, Houston and San Francisco, and this year, over 500 applications were received. Just 16 were named City Hall Fellows.

In addition to showing a strong connection to the host city, the Fellows were selected because they display academic achievement, strong communication skills and leadership qualities. Participants hold degrees in various disciplines and majors, but all are civic minded.  

Zwiener attended Rice University with a focus on political science, policy studies and health sciences.  

She said, “I applied for City Hall Fellows to further develop my understanding of both local government and the policy process. I have done academic and policy research, and I was interested to see how policy is implemented at the local level.

”After a three-week orientation, the participants spend 4.5 hours a day working as special project assistants to local senior government administrators or officials. The rest of the day continues their training in the Civic Leadership Development Program. Under the guidance of Nancy Brainerd, the Houston program director, the Fellows learn about the structure of city government, including budget, regulatory organizations, policy-making processes  and the relationship  between local, state and federal government. Guest speakers, site tours and reading assignments complement the hands-on work experience of the participants, allowing them a base of knowledge and network to become effective local leaders.

O’Shields, who majored in political science at Houston Baptist University, said, “I am looking forward to the contacts I will gain throughout the year, and I have really enjoyed the impressive array of guest speakers we have been fortunate enough to host thus far.”

The program aims to place the Fellows in a variety of agencies throughout the city, not just high-profile political offices.  The placement process matches the city government’s needs with the Fellows’ skills, ensuring a varied work experience for the group.

Wilkins, who majored in psychology and sociology at Houston Baptist University, is working with the Parks and Recreation Department. Her job is to help the city establish a comprehensive and reliable methodology to count the number of park visitors and to obtain certain demographic characteristics of the citizens visiting our 369 parks.

Sanchez attended Southwestern University and majored in economics. She is working in the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, in the Anti-Gang Office. MAGO assists youth, young adults, families and communities in the prevention of gang involvement and juvenile delinquency through a tri-fold strategy that focuses on prevention, interventions and suppresion.

Mansur graduated from Brown University with a BA in international relations. She is working in the Office of Special Projects for the City of Houston. This office focuses on the city’s environmental sustainability and energy efficiency projects.

Rosales, who earned a BS in biology and a BA in psychology from the University of Houston, said, “By learning more of the potential avenues for careers as a public servant, I aspire to discover a direction for my passion of serving others while growing as a person.”

In terms of scope of impact and brand recognition, Brainerd hopes the City Hall Fellows program will continue to attract applicants such as this and reach its goal of becoming the next Teach for America. 

More information on the program can be found at www.cityhallfellows.org.

Nikki Rosenberg is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

Lessons of Ike

It was just over a year ago when Hurricane Ike howled through the Houston area, slamming commercial property and houses, toppling trees and power lines and causing a mass exodus from Galveston and coastal communities. Despite the damage and flooding, the storm also left behind something that local officials are taking to heart: lessons learned in how to deal with the next storm, from preparation to improving relief and restoration efforts once the storm blows through. 

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says the county has wasted no time, and lessons learned are already in place. First and foremost, he says, is improving communications with elected officials in smaller communities – especially those hardest hit along the coast. 

“It’s incumbent upon the county to make sure they have what they need in advance,” Emmett explains. “We did okay, but it could have been better. I didn’t have all of their cell phone numbers, for example, as the storm was coming in, and we were calling for evacuations.” 

He also says Harris County should provide help to surrounding communities that don’t have as many resources, like hard-hit Chambers County. Another lesson is what Emmett calls a “personal lesson” learned by him and his staff – namely, to have rested staff take over once the storm passes. 

“We need what you might call a second wave or second team to be ready to come in fully refreshed,” he explains, “and not have some of the same people who have been up three or four nights in a row already to immediately take on the relief effort.”

Improvements already in place before Ike are the lessons learned regarding massive evacuations during Hurricane Rita – the powerful Category 5 storm that was on track for Houston in 2005, but missed. 

“One reason the evacuation of Ike went so well is because the evacuation of Rita went so poorly,” notes Emmett. “Now we have contra-flow lanes in place and cameras on all the highways.”

Improvements also include having small traffic contra-flow changes in bottleneck areas such as on I-45 in Conroe and along I-10 towards San Antonio. 

“The plans for dealing with the storm are so specific that we can literally tell you what reserve constable should be at which intersection,” he adds.  

As nervous residents tuned in to local news broadcasts as Ike approached, Emmett calmly urged Houstonians to “hunker down” during the Category 2 storm – a phrase that has since received national attention.

“With all the preparation leading up to Hurricane Ike, we all had memories of Hurricane Rita, where people got stuck on the highways for hour after hour,” Emmett explains. “One of the reasons is a lot of people evacuated who shouldn’t have evacuated. They needed to stay in place.

“For two years, this office and all offices of emergency management in the region have been saying, ‘run from water and hide from wind,’ ” he adds. “If you’re in danger of the storm surge, then evacuate. Otherwise, stay where you are, wait for the storm to pass and then you can always leave.” 

CenterPoint Energy, the utility company responsible for delivering electricity to Houston area customers, played a major role in Ike restoration efforts. The hurricane had knocked out power to 2.1 million of CenterPoint’s 2.2 million customers – only the Medical Center and Downtown still had electricity. But through precision planning in advance, CenterPoint restored power to 50 percent of customers in five days, 75 percent in 10 days and to all customers within 18 days. Priority went first to infrastructure for safety and health, including hospitals and police and fire departments, then major circuits supplying large numbers of customers, and finally secondary and smaller lines with fewer customers. CenterPoint brought in about 11,000 out-of-town workers – mostly linemen and tree trimmers – from 35 states and Canada. 

“Our infrastructure held up rather well, but we had a lot of damage from trees being uprooted and debris being blown onto the power line,” says Rhonda Welch, CenterPoint’s Director of Distribution Dispatching. “Tree crews would clear the right of way and make the line safe for the line crews to put it all back together.” 

What would CenterPoint do differently next time? Two changes in particular – setting up more staging sites for crews and equipment and improving communications via the Internet and local media. Staging sites are large holding areas like racetracks or fairgrounds where out-of-town crews park their large line bucket trucks, where management efforts are conducted and where workers are fed.

“We need large areas to have solid footing in case it rains during this time, so we don’t end up with a swamp and trucks getting stuck,” says Scott Prochazka, CenterPoint’s Division Senior Vice President of Electric Operations. “So we have to have facilities that can accommodate hundreds of vehicles that can be parked and moved in and out on a daily basis.”Nine staging sites were set up during Hurricane Ike; something Prochazka wants increased to 16. 

“We could be even more efficient to help with the restoration time if we were to increase that number,” he says, noting more staging sites would reduce travel time for crews, especially with inoperable traffic lights causing additional congestion.   CenterPoint is enhancing its website to improve communications.

“We’re trying to provide better information to customers, so they’ll have a clearer picture when we’ll provide restoration to their homes so they can plan accordingly,” Welch explains. “The website last year had just a basic model. The upcoming will provide a better range of dates when we can restore service to an area.”  

The improvements include using a so-called translator to tie in circuits to specific neighborhoods and streets. 

“They’re not set up by zip codes; in fact, many power lines cross zip codes while many zip codes have multiple power lines in them,” explains Prochazka. “This translator – technology we’re adding – will help translate more effectively between the power line outages and language that consumers can understand such as neighborhoods, streets and addresses.”

CenterPoint’s Ike restoration costs, which the company filed with the Public Utility Commission, amounted to $678 million. The figure includes repairs, labor, manpower and equipment purchases to replace damaged equipment. 

“That’s a pretty sizeable hit – it was the most the company ever spent on a major storm,” says Prochazka. 

Regarding distributing food, ice and other supplies, the state recently designated that the county judge make decisions about where to place points of distribution – decisions that Emmett says would be made in conjunction with Houston city officials and others. The county also wants to work with volunteer groups who would take supplies from distribution points to bring back to their own communities – especially to residents who don’t have cars. 

“We’ve been meeting with the Houston Food Bank and some of its support groups,” says Emmett. “A lot of private groups put up their own points of distribution and we’re all for that. If we know where they are, we can put ours in places that supplement them.”  

Emmett says ice distribution was misunderstood after Ike, noting it should be distributed early to preserve food and medicines when electricity is out. 

“I think we’re going to have to do a better job of explaining the purpose of ice – that it’s not just for convenience,” he says. “Ice was never meant to be handed out on the west side of Harris County to keep drinks cold.” 

What other lessons were learned from Hurricane Ike? 

“We learned and solidified that the value of preparation is very high,” says CenterPoint’s Prochazka. “Having relationships with other utilities and community leaders so we have open lines of communication. And we learned the value of what our employees can do when they’re called into action.”

I think we’ve learned the importance of communicating to customers – the importance of having their own personal plan to take care of their families and their belongings during a hurricane,” adds Welch. “Also, the importance of education concerning tree issues including power lines, easements and trees falling onto power lines.”Judge Emmett, however, may have learned the best lesson yet.“My solution for hurricanes is to just cancel the season from now on,” he says with a laugh. “If I could get away with just canceling the season; I really don’t want to go through another one again.“But we’re ready for it,” he adds.

Richard Varr is a staff reporter and free-lance journalist. Previously he spent 14 years as a FOX26 reporter.

Traits of Office VIPs

There’s no room for a weak link on a Super Bowl team. Similarly, even one poor performer can hurt a company’s ability to make strategic plays and score new business. That’s why the pressure is on for hiring managers who are looking to add strength to their talent bench.

“When companies are operating extremely lean, hiring errors take a greater toll on the team, since each employee is bearing a heavier workload,” said OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking. 

“Today’s managers are well aware of the high stakes when selecting new hires and striving to find professionals who can contribute immediately and build a long-term career with their firms,” said Hosking. “Although the high unemployment rate has resulted in more available talent, identifying the strongest candidates remains a tough task. Many professionals have had considerable time to perfect their resumes and interview skills, making it more challenging to distinguish job seekers with the greatest potential.” 

OfficeTeam offers seven hallmarks of top performers and how to assess those traits:
• A winning mind-set. The best employees are optimistic yet realistic. Have candidates describe how they have handled a difficult boss, budget cut or mistake at work. Strong performers acknowledge challenges without sugarcoating their answers. Watch out for candidates who can’t think of any problems; they either are wearing rose-colored glasses or aren’t being honest.
• Willingness to change plays midstream. Persistence is an important trait, but it’s even better when coupled with adaptability. High-achieving employees don’t give up on problems but, instead, tackle them from multiple angles. Question potential hires about how they were able to adjust their strategy on an underperforming project to improve the outcome.• Quickness on their feet. This is especially important when hiring for customer-facing roles. Ask applicants how they would handle an irate customer. The answer itself may yield some interesting material, but more important will be how they think on their feet and give the rationale behind their response.
• An eye on the prize. Top performers strive for success in everything they do and have a good sense of what it means to them. Ask candidates to describe their greatest work achievement. While the accomplishment itself may be revealing, even more so is how they characterize success.
• Ability to make tough calls. The most valuable employees can be counted on to exercise good judgment and make difficult choices. Have potential hires walk you through a complex decision they had to make. Look at how they gathered facts and came to their ultimate conclusion.
• Good sportsmanship. High performers put ethics first in all situations and don’t climb over others on their way to the top. Ask candidates to describe an ethically challenging situation and how they handled it. Also ask references, including former colleagues and direct reports, how they would describe an applicant’s integrity.
• An enthusiastic fan base. The best employees don’t just have references; they have fans. Listen to not only what a candidate’s professional contacts say but also how they say it. Pose questions such as, “If you had the opportunity to hire this person again, would you do it?” and pay close attention to the tone of the responses.

Hosking also noted, “Many companies are choosing to work with potential new hires on a temporary or project basis before offering them a full-time job. This provides hiring managers with a clearer sense of a professional’s capabilities and allows both parties to evaluate the fit before committing for the long term.” 

OfficeTeam provides businesses with the temporary administrative professionals they need to maximize productivity, achieve cost efficiency and support existing staff. The company has more than 325 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at www.officeteam.com.

Cynthia Mitchell

Cynthia Woods Mitchell passed away at age 87 on December 27, 2009 after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer's Disease. Philanthropist and patron of the arts, Mitchell’s legacy stretches from Galveston to the community she named, The Woodlands.

Born Cynthia Loretta Woods in New York City on September 24, 1922, she and twin sister, Pamela, moved to Houston with their family in 1939. The sisters supported their family during the Great Depression while studying art and literature at the University of Houston at night. Two years later, Cynthia met future husband George P. Mitchell on a train ride home from a football game in College Station. The two, along with twin sister Pamela and her betrothed, were married in 1943 by an Army chaplain in a double ceremony. Then a captain in the Army, George Mitchell was soon transferred to his hometown of Galveston where the couple resided until the end of World War II. After moving back to Houston, the couple produced 10 children and an extremely successful company, Mitchell Energy & Development.

The Woodlands Corporation, an extension of Mitchell Energy, founded The Woodlands in 1974 and then managed the master-planned community in Montgomery County. At around the same time, the couple began revitalization efforts in Galveston. Over the years, they restored many buildings, including the 1871 League Building, the Tremont House and the Hotel Galvez. In 1985, the Mitchells also brought the annual Mardi Gras celebration back to the island.In 1976, while visiting her daughter in Austin, Cynthia Mitchell attended a ballet performance at the Zilker Hillside Theatre. She conceived of a similar venue in The Woodlands. That dream became reality, and the structure became known as the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Staying true to her vision, The Pavilion remains an affordable venue for popular music and classical performances, including the Houston Symphony’s Summer Series. It also plays host to a number of educational events.

Cindy DuBois, director of marketing and education at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, shares this story: “In 2001, Cynthia attended one of our Musical Scores concerts. She sat in the middle of a sea of about 5,000 middle school children participating in the program. As she looked at the students, you could just tell that she was tickled to see them learn.

“For me, it really spoke to what drove her — her love of the arts and education and the importance of passing that on in the community, especially to the young people,” DuBois concluded.

Continuing her support of arts education, Cynthia donated $20 million to the University of Houston, establishing the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. The center forms an alliance among five units at U of H: The School of Art, Creative Writing Program, Moores School of Music, School of Theatre and Dance and the Blaffer Gallery. The Center serves as a collaboration of performing, visual and literary arts for the public and offers an Interdisciplinary Arts minor for students.

After Cynthia’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2002, the Mitchell family created the George and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases at The University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston and the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Cynthia Woods Mitchell is survived by husband, George P. Mitchell, sister Pamela Woods Loomis, 10 children, 23 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

The Woodlands has declared April 29 as Cynthia Woods Mitchell Day. That night, the Houston Symphony will celebrate her life with a concert at The Pavilion.

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