Awardees were selected for engaging in volunteer service that effectively addresses a critical need, makes a sustained positive impact on the community, and inspires others to get involved in their cause or community.
This year, the Governor’s Volunteer Awards introduced three new categories to address the ever-evolving volunteer landscape: Innovation in Volunteerism, Excellence in Disaster Volunteering, and Volunteer Family of the Year. These new award categories highlight the resilience and adaptability of volunteers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Texans truly are generous by nature,” said Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott. “I am so inspired by the generosity and selfless dedication demonstrated by volunteers across this great state over this past year. Now more than ever, we need to embrace our communities, and I am thrilled to recognize this year’s 11 outstanding awardees for leading the way.”
“All of this year’s awardees have exhibited an enduring commitment to service in even the most extraordinary circumstances,” said Chris Bugbee, OneStar President, and CEO. “They have persevered in spite of the pandemic and have risen to the challenge of meeting this year’s exceptional community needs. We are grateful to these incredible awardees for making a difference in the lives of so many Texans.”
Awardees will be honored at an online awards ceremony hosted by the Honorary Chair of the Governor’s Volunteer Awards, Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott.
The recipients of the 2021 Governor’s Volunteer Awards are:
Chuck & Gena Norris (Navasota): Governor’s Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award
Known as an actor and martial arts legend, Chuck Norris, alongside his wife Gena, has channeled his skills and celebrity into helping youth develop the mental and physical strength to deal with life’s challenges. Chuck launched Kickstart Kids in 1992 with the goal that students will develop character, create stronger school and family connections, strive for higher academic and social success, and become productive members of their community. The program engages students, often from vulnerable communities, with a healthy peer group and the positive influence of a strong role model and mentor in their instructor. More than 110,000 students have benefitted from this life-changing program since its inception. In addition to their ongoing leadership of Kickstart Kids, the Norris’ volunteer efforts also include visiting hospitalized and active troops, serving as a spokesperson for United Way, and serving on the board of the Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and Rachel’s Challenge. Additionally, Gena serves on the Advisory Board for the Council for Life and Board of Reference on the Christian Film and Television Commission.
Cindy Brinker Simmons (Dallas/Fort Worth): Governor’s Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award
Cindy Brinker Simmons has devoted her life to uplifting the lives of pediatric cancer patients throughout Texas and supporting those battling illness, hopelessness, or isolation fostered by this disease. Since Cindy established Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer (WOKC) in 1980, it has grown to be one of Dallas’ largest pediatric cancer organizations, providing critical seed money for childhood cancer research, supplying comfort items to young cancer patients during hospital stays, and offering year-round social events and programs designed to encourage these brave heroes and their families. She has proven to be a powerhouse fundraiser while also personally engaging with young “WOKC Warriors” and their resilient families battling pediatric cancer.
Betty Ann Taylor (Houston): Governor’s Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award
For 24 years, Betty Ann Taylor has run the Year-Round Manna Ministry, a program of Chapelwood United Methodist Church that builds a bridge of hope for families in crisis in the Houston community. What started as a Christmas giving campaign has evolved under her leadership to provide basic necessities—rent, utilities, food, and clothing—to more than 3,600 families. By working with the Spring Branch Independent School District and Communities in Schools social workers on school campuses, Betty Ann has created a sustainable system for serving the most vulnerable families in the community, even throughout the past pandemic year.
Hannah Guan (San Antonio): First Lady’s Rising Star Volunteer Award
At age 11, Hannah Guan founded San Antonio Math Include (SaMi) to offer greater access to STEM education to all students from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultural perspectives. In four years, Hannah has grown SaMi into an international network connecting more than 36,000 students to tutors, principals, counselors, teachers, and after-school program coordinators in hundreds of schools across the world. SaMi offers free classes, develops curriculum, and awards scholarships to close the digital divide for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Through partnerships with the United Nations Major Group of Children & Youth and the Global Youth Constituency for Quality Education, SaMi’s online curriculum programs are accessible to more than 300,000 students around the world. As a leading member of the Texas Student Bill Demands and vice-chair of San Antonio Youth Commission, Hannah leads the AI Closing the Digital Divide Move to introduce artificial intelligence and provide training to teachers in all high schools in San Antonio.
Madan G. Luthra (Houston): Volunteer of the Year Award
Since COVID-19 hit the Houston community, Madan G. Luthra has volunteered more than 30 hours a week to support families in distress through Sewa International’s Family Services program. In addition to answering calls on the nonprofit’s helpline and connecting families to groceries, supplies, funeral arrangements, and other social services, Madan actively volunteers with local food and COVID-19 vaccination drives organized in collaboration with local faith-based and community organizations. As a retired research scientist, Madan has spearheaded the creation of a donor registry website that connects plasma donors with COVID-19 patients undergoing convalescent plasma therapy. Madan was honored by the Hindus of Greater Houston with the 2020 Akhil Chopra Unsung Heroes Award and was featured for his efforts in Houston Chronicle’s “Heroes of the Front Line” series and in Alumni Magazine of University of Leeds UK, where he received his doctorate education.
Richard & Linda Zoll (Houston): Volunteer Family of the Year
Richard and Linda have served with SEARCH Homeless Services for over 20 years — from preparing and serving meals to essentially adopting one of the sites at which SEARCH’s clients reside. Every month, the Zolls visit the Temenos apartments to create connections and celebrate milestones with those making the emotional transition from homelessness to housing. They host BINGO games with birthday celebrations and lead field trips, allowing residents to integrate more fully into the community. They also verified and assisted with voter registration for all 115 residents at Temenos.
Diamondback Energy, Inc. (Midland/Permian Basin): Corporate Volunteering Champion Award
Diamondback Energy, Inc. understands the importance of building a culture of giving back and has channeled this into support for local public schools. With the Permian Basin’s growing population of English as a Second Language learners, the company encourages employees as well as other local groups to get involved and has implemented literacy and STEM programs at school campuses and other youth nonprofits. In addition, Diamondback Energy leaders and employees are encouraged to actively serve on boards that support the work of educating students, providing adequate facilities, technology, and safety for public schools, and building up the local workforce. In addition to their support of education, the Diamondback Energy team also assists local nonprofit Keep Midland Beautiful with efforts to keep the city growing and green. Since the start of 2020, the company has contributed about 430 hours of service and over $5.2 million dollars to the Permian Basin community.
The Edinburg High School Chapter of the National Honor Society (Edinburg): Service-Learning Champion Award
The Edinburg High School Chapter of the National Honor Society has been a major asset in helping the South Texas Literacy Coalition with community outreach. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the group was instrumental in setting up and preparing for drive-by distributions and handed out more than 10,000 free books to students whose families are financially challenged. In addition, they have developed literacy activities, presented bilingual online book readings, and are presently hosting a virtual book club with the goal of helping students develop a love for reading and writing. Many of the members also serve with South Texas Literacy Coalition as interns, helping to manage the office and organize literacy resources. In addition to these efforts, the members of the Edinburg Chapter of the National Honor Society assist other nonprofits in the South Texas Region, including the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, Ronald McDonald House, Greater Gold Foundation, Capable Kids Foundation, and Kiwanis International.
Hookset Brothers Combat Recovery 501c3 (Bullard): Innovation in Volunteerism Award
Hookset Brothers Combat Recovery 501c3 provides free hunting and fishing trips to aid veterans recovering from combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Founded by wounded soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this small East Texas nonprofit engages volunteers to support more than 100 combat veterans and their families each year. In addition to reaffirming the outdoors to veterans who are struggling with PTSD or suicidal thoughts, the organization provides Gold Star Families with hunting and fishing excursions while serving as male role models to help youths heal during their time of need. Beyond the outdoor programs, Hookset Brothers Combat Recovery has raised funds for funerals of fallen servicemen and women and host holiday celebrations for military families. They also volunteer as boat captains for high school fishing teams and as youth sports coaches within their community.
Somebody Cares America (Houston): Excellence in Disaster Volunteerism Award
During times of disaster, Somebody Cares America (SCA) mobilizes local churches and partner organizations to serve communities by providing financial and material resources along with training, manpower, leadership, and expertise. As a result, churches and their members become a volunteer army equipped to meet the needs of their neighborhoods. In every region of Texas and following every major disaster, SCA partner volunteers have distributed meals, supplies, and resources and assisted survivors with property repair and clean-up. Following Winter Storm Uri, SCA distributed plumbing supplies to address problems created by the freezing cold and provided nearly $100,000 in community grants and individual assistance to those impacted. In response to COVID-19, SCA supplied thousands of N-95 masks to first responders, medical professionals, and others throughout Texas. In the greater Houston area alone, SCA gave out $280,000 in funding as well as valuable in-kind gifts through dozens of partner churches and ministries to assist with hardships caused by the pandemic.
Nuria A. Diallo Padro (San Antonio): National Service “Make a Difference” Award
As an AmeriCorps member with Communities In Schools of San Antonio, Nuria A. Diallo Padro was innovative in the programming and outreach she provided to empower middle school students to excel academically, grow in their social-emotional learning, and explore future aspirations. Through a combination of trusting relationships and strategic execution, Nuria was able to effectively respond to the needs of families during the COVID-19 pandemic and Winter Storm Uri. In the midst of disaster, Nuria worked systematically to compile and share resources and outreach to disproportionately affected families. Responding to the urgent need for sustained food assistance, Nuria raised emergency funds to deliver grocery gift cards, and she partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank and the local school district to host a Mobile Food Pantry at her campus. As an AmeriCorps VISTA alumnus, Nuria used the skills from her VISTA experience to promote a food distribution event that engaged local community pantries and provided food support to 450 families.