Governor’s Volunteer Awards

We are pleased to announce the winners of the
36th Annual Governor's Volunteer Awards!

The Governor’s Volunteer Awards honor the extraordinary service of individuals and organizations in Texas that have made a difference in their communities through service and volunteering. Awardees were recognized during at evening reception in October 2019 at the Texas Governor’s Mansion, hosted by Honorary Chair, Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott and OneStar Foundation.

2019 Governor's Volunteer Award (GVA)


Governor's Volunteer Awards photoSelect an award category to view the full description and winners!

Governor’s Lone Star Achievement Award

This award recognizes the exemplary service of an individual who has volunteered for a minimum of 15 years. Lone Star Achievers are those rare individuals who recognize a community need and create new systems, programs, or processes to achieve positive change. Nominees inspire others to serve their cause through volunteering and philanthropy, often engaging cross sector partners for greater impact.

Sammy Nieto
San Antonio

Many in Bexar County equate the name Sammy Nieto with truancy prevention, community service, and volunteerism. In 1997, Sammy, an accounting manager and head of the Valero Energy volunteer committee, was invited by a local judge to spend a day in juvenile court listening to truancy cases. That day he listened to almost 200 cases, most of which had gang violence, abuse, incarcerated parents, broken homes, teen pregnancy or drugs at their core. “There was so much hardship there, it was shocking,” he says. “I ended up crying in the parking lot.”

Sammy was convinced that with the right outreach strategy, many of these truant teens could find themselves on a more positive life trajectory. With the blessing of Valero’s CEO, Sammy founded the Valero Juvenile Justice Mentor Program, a partnership between Valero Volunteers, the Bexar County Courts, and the San Antonio Independent School District. The program works directly with the courts to connect youth cited for truancy with Valero Volunteers.

In the late 1990s the first classes were held at the Alazan Apache Courts, San Antonio’s first public housing project, built in 1939. Since then, thousands of at-risk youth have gone through the program, many attending weekly classes at the direction of local judges in lieu of punishment. Curriculum includes college-prep and motivational courses designed to expose these young people to a world of possibilities. Mr. Nieto has added to the original curriculum with mock court sessions and counseling classes. Students who successfully complete the course can also avoid fines imposed by the court. When the classes outgrew their original location, they moved to a Valero office. When even more space was needed, the University of Texas at San Antonio’s P-20 Initiative invited Sammy to host classes at their downtown campus.

In 2014, Sammy was among 50 industry volunteers profiled in Fortune Magazine’s “Heroes of the Fortune 500” piece for his work in founding and supporting the Valero Juvenile Justice Mentor Program. When Sammy is not mentoring truant teens, he may be found helping at the Guadalupe Cultural Center, volunteering for various fundraisers, or collecting toys for the annual Apache Courts Housing Holiday party. Giving back is a way of life for Sammy Nieto.

First Lady’s Rising Star Award

This award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of an individual 18 years or younger serving and inspiring his/her community. Nominees should demonstrate leadership, commitment to service, and the ability to inspire others to serve. Rising Stars mobilize others to achieve measurable impact on critical issues within their communities. Nominees understand the importance of collaboration and cross-generational partnerships.

Kara Weld
San Antonio

Kara Weld is a 2019 graduate of Northeast School of the Arts at Legacy of Educational Excellence High School in San Antonio and will be a freshman at Texas A&M University in the fall. Kara is known for her strength of character, her academic prowess, her talent in the arts and her heart of service. When it comes to supporting a cause in which she deeply believes, she is a girl who knows how to make a difference. When Kara was in middle school, she was the victim of cyberbullying. But beyond that, she is a survivor who understands the devastating effects that cyberbullying can have on young people, like David Molak, age 16, of San Antonio who took his own life after relentless cyberbullying.

Kara quickly reached out to the family to offer her condolences and shared her own story of cyberbullying. After his death, David’s family founded David’s Legacy Foundation. Kara became an ambassador for the Foundation and began speaking to PTAs, schools, public events, and anywhere that she could to share the message of the scourge of cyberbullying. For her efforts she was awarded the Girl Scout Gold Award and is creating a new Girl Scout patch that will continue to raise awareness of cyberbullying. 

But she didn’t stop there. Determined to give victims a voice, she descended upon the Texas Capitol like a whirlwind during the 2017 legislative session. Undeterred by legislative staff and elected officials who frequently cancelled scheduled meetings, she logged over 260 hours lobbying on behalf of a bill that was dear to her heart, Senate Bill 179. David’s Law was ultimately signed by Governor Abbott, making cyberbullying a punishable crime.

Besides her work with David’s Legacy Foundation, Kara volunteers her time assisting kids with special needs, working at the local food bank and serving through her church. She was instrumental in setting up a youth education room at Haven for Hope homeless shelter. Kara has received many awards, including the Girl Scout Trifecta Award, The Presidential Service Award, The Marine Corps League Good Citizen Award, and the Women Marines Good Citizen Award. This is a young lady who will continue to make a difference wherever she is.

Partners in Education Award

This award recognizes an individual or group that demonstrates measurable impact on a recognized need within a public, charter or parochial school(s). The Partner has implemented innovative and/or informed or evidence-based solutions to further educational goals for students. Nominees are committed to long term results and employ an evaluation component for continual learning and improvement of the program or intervention.

Reading with Barbers
Fort Worth

The Reading with Barbers Initiative, established by Fort Worth ISD’s Equity and Excellence Division, along with local barbers, aims to help students ages 4-14 maintain and improve their reading skills in a safe and trusted community space – the local barbershop. Currently, only about a third of FWISD students are reading on grade level. FWISD’s Office of Equity and Excellence and the FWISD Board of Education understood that tackling that literacy challenge needed a multi-faceted approach, employing initiatives such as Reading with Barbers (RWB). Designed after a similar grassroots barbershop reading program in South Carolina, RWB taps into the energy and enthusiasm of community-based barbers, especially those in African American and LatinX neighborhoods.

Barbershops are traditionally seen as the hub of neighborhood activities, places where thought leaders regularly gather for influential conversation and camaraderie. Barbers are in the unique position to influence students’ lives, serving as role models and mentors for children and their parents in need of literacy inspiration, motivation and assistance. The pilot began in east and southeast Fort Worth, home to many of the District’s lowest performing schools. While the initial focus was on male African-American students, students of all demographics are now included.

FWISD provides barbers with bookshelves and books that are ethnically and culturally diverse. Barbers ask each child to select a book to read while waiting for and getting a haircut. The barbers read with the students, help them understand words and ask questions about the content. Some barbers use wall charts to track each student’s progress and qualify for incentives. A secondary goal is to provide literacy-challenged adults with information about free literacy education available through FWISD. In its second year of operation, the RWB’s impact is demonstrated by the high degree of interest of other businesses wishing to participate and the lengthy waiting list of new barbers wanting to join the program.

Service to Veterans Award

Nominees may include individuals or organizations that have designed program(s) or services to meet the needs of military-connected families or individuals. The exemplary service will show respect for the unique challenges of military-connected families and individuals. The awardee will demonstrate cross-sector engagement including significant input from those served.

H.O.N.O.R. Mentoring

Many veterans struggle to adjust upon their return to civilian life, and far too many find themselves involved in the criminal justice system. H.O.N.O.R Mentoring (Helping Our Neighbors Overcome and Rebuild) is a new program already showing promising results for justice-involved veterans within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. H.O.N.O.R Mentors are veterans who have successfully worked through their own traumatic issues arising from their time of service. H.O.N.O.R Mentors are graduates of a companion program, TRIUMPH, where they have learned to share their stories with other veterans, effectively working through their pain and suffering to recapture and reclaim the social and professional skills once buried by PTSD.  

Recognizing a need for further healing of the veterans participating in The TRIUMPH Program, Melanie Davis, herself a trauma survivor, created the H.O.N.O.R Mentoring Program, now being implemented fully in the Eastham Unit of TDCJ. The H.O.N.O.R Mentoring program teaches participants to use their educational and life skills to tutor other veteran and non-veteran inmates. They teach math and reading to GED students, English as a second language, college prep and reentry classes. Liberated from the grip of despair, H.O.N.O.R Mentors are modeling the way for all those they serve, showing that they too can be survivors. Test scores for mentees are soaring as veteran service to others overcomes what once were seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but now are strengths employed to rebuild and renew a sense of purpose and value in the lives of those who have served our country and those they are now serving.

Higher Education Community Impact Award – University

This award recognizes a university that supports and encourages civic engagement and volunteering as a core value. Nominees demonstrate how students are engaged in intentional cross sector collaboration to address one or more identified needs within the community. The institution is considered a valuable partner in addressing community needs either through coarse curriculum or intentional service learning.

St. Mary’s University Office of Community Engagement, Center for Legal and Social Justice and Office of University Ministry
San Antonio

As a Catholic and Marianist institution, the St. Mary’s community lives out civic engagement and service as part of its core values. St. Mary’s students engage in intentional relationships that reach far beyond the physical boundaries of their campus, impacting the lives of those who live in and around their community. Under the leadership of St. Mary’s University President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D., the university emphasizes service to vulnerable, indigent and at-risk residents of the San Antonio metro area. St. Mary’s students have long served the West Side of San Antonio, with a particular focus on families from Holy Rosary Parish, which borders the St. Mary’s campus. Beginning in 2016, the university partnered with Catholic Charities and Holy Rosary to establish a summer camp for neighborhood children who are largely from low-income households. The camp has expanded each year both with respect to length of time and the number of children participating.

The St. Mary’s School of Law requires community service as a condition of graduation. School of Law students — with broad support from faculty, staff and administration — provide a number of pro bono legal services including advice to veterans receiving care at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital; assistance for wills and estate planning for residents in Habitat for Humanity housing; ID recovery and warrant-relief services for individuals experiencing homelessness at Haven for Hope; help navigating resources and services for individuals with intellectual disabilities; assistance for court-involved youth; free tax preparation through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program; and assistance to Texans recovering from disasters through their Civil Justice Clinic. In 2019, St. Mary’s received from Catholic Charities its “Partner School Volunteer Recognition Award” in recognition of the approximately 10,000 volunteer hours the university community has dedicated to serving neighbors in need; in 2018 St. Mary’s University received the “2017-2018 College Partnership of the Year Award” from Communities in Schools of San Antonio.

Higher Education Community Impact Award – Community College

This award recognizes a community college that supports and encourages civic engagement and volunteering as a core value. Nominees demonstrate how students are engaged in intentional cross sector collaboration to address one or more identified needs within the community. The institution is considered a valuable partner in addressing community needs either through coarse curriculum or intentional service learning.

Austin Community College (ACC) Student Life, Food Pantry & Resources Program

The Office of Student Life at ACC provides students with a wide variety of student leadership, campus engagement, and experiential learning opportunities. Each program incorporates an aspect of service, both to reinforce learning outcomes and to encourage students to begin a lifetime of volunteering. A shining example is the ACC Food Pantry and Resources Program. In 2017, ACC collaborated with Aunt Bertha, a social service search and referral network, to embed a simple search box into the ACC Student Life website. Data showed that 37% of searches were in the “Food Resources” category. A subsequent report on ACC student financial wellness indicated that over a third of students surveyed showed signs of very low food security according to USDA methodology.

In response to the data, ACC Student Life formalized food pantries on all 11 ACC campuses. With the ACC Board of Trustees supporting the charge, the entire institution answered the call for non-perishable items to stock the pantries. Over 2000 students have utilized the on-campus pantries. Student Life also developed a partnership with the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB) to host a fresh food distribution at the ACC Riverside Campus. Since October 2018, CTFB fresh food distributions have served 1200 ACC and surrounding neighborhood households representing 4100 individuals with 64,400 meals and 77,300 pounds of food. Monthly distributions aim to serve the food insecurity needs of ACC students and the Central Texas community, while also reinforcing the importance of community service.

ACC students are provided training by the CTFB ranging from donation sorting to gardening to meal preparation. Student volunteers and Student Life staff also maintain and operate the 11 on-campus food pantries. The Food Pantry and Resources program is a key component in the call to service for the Office of Student Life at Austin Community College.

Corporate Community Impact Award

This award recognizes a private sector entity, including small businesses, for implementing employee volunteer programs that have demonstrable community impact. Nominees have community service as a core value and business strategy. Nominees go beyond episodic volunteering and are committed to long-term community engagement. Corporations or other for-profit, private sector entities/businesses are eligible for the Corporate Community Impact Award.

Noble Charities Foundation
La Feria, New Braunfels

In 2015, three men of vision, Rene Capistran, Alfredo Garcia and Patrick Williams, founded Noble Texas Builders. In just a few short years, Noble Builders has become a recognized brand in South Texas. One of Noble Texas Builders core values is COMMUNITY. “We build a sense of belonging and unity that inspires our team to make a difference and be part of the fabric of our community. Noble supports community involvement and encourages its team members to participate through volunteerism. One person’s actions can make a lasting impression on our future and ensure our communities have the strength and resources required to thrive.”

To facilitate giving back to the communities in which they work, Noble Texas Builders created Noble Charities Foundation, focusing primarily on improving education and health outcomes in the Rio Grande Valley. Noble Texas Builders’ employees are encouraged to give back to others whether through their church, nonprofit board service or volunteering for a cause they are passionate about. President/CEO Rene Capistran models civic engagement through his leadership on numerous local boards including serving as President of Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) Centennial Foundation. A stellar example of Noble Charities’ giving philosophy is their partnership with BISD Centennial Foundation, The Legacy Foundation, local businesses and organizations and the Cameron County Parks and Recreation Department to renovate La Esperanza Park into an all-inclusive playground where both disabled and able-bodied children can play. The Legacy Foundation donated $500,000 to purchase new playground equipment. Local businesses and organizations contributed not only money, but in-kind services. Noble provided their services pro bono to build the facility, including ADA compliant restrooms.

Other examples of Noble Charities’ community support include creating a scholarship fund for students enrolled in Construction and Public Safety Programs at South Texas College, child care renovation projects for Easter Seals Rio Grande Valley (RGV), and a scholarship fund for engineering students at UTRGV. Noble Charities also created a $25,000 scholarship fund for Our Lady of the Lake University to support students from La Feria, Texas, attending the La Feria Campus. In addition, Noble partnered with Magic Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC) to build a much-needed Community Park in La Sara, Texas. The San Benito Boys & Girls Club was awarded a $150,000 grant to renovate their gym. The estimated cost of the work was to be approximately $250,000. but Noble partnered with local subcontractors and their own forces and were able to donate a $100,000 in savings for materials, labor and fees to complete the renovation.

This relatively young company is not only making a huge difference in communities where they serve, but they are also a model of intentional corporate community engagement and thoughtful philanthropy.

Community Leadership Award

This award recognizes an individual, group, or organization for strengthening their community through intentional partnerships. Nominees understand the importance of service and developing connections between groups and individuals and forge collaborative solutions to meet local needs. They exhibit a dedication to their community that inspires those around them to serve. Any individual, group of individuals, or faith-based or community organization including civic groups can be nominated for this award.

Dr. John Fink

When Medina County thinks of community leadership, Dr. John Fink quickly comes to mind. Dr. Fink, a retired physician, has been instrumental in engaging members of the community in numerous projects over the years targeting specific needs. Some of these projects include Texas Ramps Project, Blessings in a Backpack, Medina County Food Pantry, Feast of Sharing and Hondo Helping Hands.

Seven years ago, John brought the Texas Ramps Project to Medina County. Under his leadership, a small army of volunteers constructs and installs 25-30 ramps each year, at no cost, to neighbors homebound due to mobility issues. Blessings in a Backpack, is another project initiated by John in response to his belief that children can do better in school when they are not struggling with food insecurity. Eligible children at Meyer Elementary School in Hondo are provided a weekend backpack filled with nonperishable, nutritious snacks. John has engaged his church and the Rotary Club of Hondo-D’Hanis to fund and support this project.

John serves as president of the board of directors of the Medina County Food Pantry. When notified that the San Antonio Food Bank would no longer be able to partner with them due to the poor condition of their building, Dr. Fink worked tirelessly to find funding for a new facility. Due to his efforts, a grant was secured from Baptist Healthcare Foundation. Whether organizing Medina County’s Thanksgiving Feast of Sharing or mobilizing volunteers for Hondo Helping Hands in response to disasters like Hurricane Harvey, John is making a difference in Medina County, and beyond.

National Service “Make a Difference” Award – Senior Corps

This award recognizes the exemplary achievement of a Senior Corps volunteer who is currently serving or has served the State of Texas. The volunteer has achieved extraordinary impact above and beyond the scope of their service requirement. The nominee ensures the sustainability of a program or a nonprofit organization by building service capacity, or by improving lives through direct service or capacity building.

Douglas Brown

Douglas Brown has been an active volunteer with the RSVP Senior Corps Program in Denton County since 2003. RSVP connects older adults with nonprofits and public agencies in need of skilled volunteers. A World War II veteran, Mr. Brown came to Texas by way of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and served 18 years with U.S. Army Intelligence. In 1997, desirous of a project to fill his time in retirement, Douglas taught himself how to use, refurbish, and repair computers. A chance interaction with a repairman, who casually mentioned he had to take his son to the library to use the computer, prompted Douglas to give the man a computer he had just refurbished. Through this simple exchange, he was inspired to continue repairing and donating computers and all at no cost to recipients. Today, at age 93, Douglas is still going strong and has donated over 1,000 computers.

Douglas acquires computers from many sources including anonymous donations left on his front porch. Each Friday morning, he volunteers at the Veterans Resource room at Texas Workforce Solutions in Denton. This center connects veterans with resume writing and job search skills, specifically helping them translate their military service into skills suitable for civilian employment. Douglas brings at least three computers with him each Friday to give to the veterans with whom he works — at no cost. While his primary focus is on giving computers to veterans, he also gives them away to others in need including low-income seniors, students, and nonprofits. Douglas also volunteers at several other organizations including Flower Mound Senior Center, the Military Veterans Peer Network (MVPN) Center, in Habitat for Humanity homes, and the Veterans Point Service Center. He and his wife Clare, dedicate at least one day a week to come to the MVPN Center to teach veterans the basics of website navigation as well as more complex software programs.

When asked by a friend preparing for retirement, what he should do with his free time, Doug replied, “Don’t retire, volunteer. The choice is volunteer or die!” Research on the health statistics of senior volunteers supports Doug’s point of view.

National Service “Make A Difference” Award – VISTA

This award recognizes the exemplary achievement of an AmeriCorps member who is currently serving or has served the State of Texas. The member has achieved extraordinary impact above and beyond the scope of their service requirement. The nominee ensures the sustainability of a program or a nonprofit organization by building service capacity. Members must have successfully completed or be on track to complete his/her term of service, minimum hours requirement, and all other service requirements to be eligible.

Katie Blair

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, Katie Blair volunteers in the Programs Department of Network of Community Ministries. Network’s mission is “caring, coaching and empowering our neighbors in need as they seek an improved quality of life.” The goal of Katie’s VISTA project has been to improve the overall client experience by creating, refining, and coordinating systems that promote smoother service delivery. Katie has played a huge role in a large-scale project that has fundamentally changed service delivery in Network’s Food Pantry and Clothing Closet.

In the past, clients were issued a limited number of food or clothing items with a significant amount of volunteer oversight involved in the selection process. Under the new program Katie helped to design, clients are issued a Network debit card and allotted a certain amount of “Network Cash” that they may shop with on a monthly basis in either the Food Pantry or Clothing Closet. The new system allows clients to make their own choices working within their allotted budget. This was a significant programmatic change requiring Katie to study the current processes, research other models, and learn about new technologies and point of sale systems. A complete remodeling and restructuring of the Food Pantry was required to make the area more “retail friendly.” Katie performed the necessary research to purchase new shelving and signs and refrigerators and freezers with glass doors, adding to the dignity of the client service experience.

Katie soon discovered that language barriers were causing difficulty when non-English speakers came in to access services. Almost 70 different languages are spoken in area schools. Katie created a series of laminated translator cards listing the most common items available in the Food Pantry and Clothing Closet written in the languages most frequently used by clients. To ensure the successful implementation of these new programs, Katie oversaw the training of over 200 volunteers! Katie’s VISTA service has truly made a difference not only for Network’s ongoing operations, but for all clients seeking services on their path toward self-sufficiency.


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Special Thanks to our Sponsors: Presenting Sponsor - CITGO, Phillips 66, LCRA

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Past Award Winners



Please click here to view the 2018 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.

Please click here to view the 2017 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.

Please click here to view the 2016 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.

Please click here to view the 2015 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.

Please click here to view the 2014 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.

Please click here to view the 2013 Governor's Volunteer Award Winners.