Over the past few months, Amarillo friends and neighbors have been taking opposing sides of issues related to the ballpark vote, city leadership, and downtown revitalization. Regardless of the positions carved out, people on both sides have grown tired of the negativity. The Texas Panhandle is, by nature, a place built on a positive outlook. It’s a tough place to live. The hardy souls who first settled this area endured their early hardships because they saw opportunity. There’s no pioneering if you don’t see potential.
Today, our city is still built on potential. If you live here, it’s because you believe Amarillo is a great place to live, work and raise a family. The only reason we’ve become so passionate about issues related to our city’s future is because we truly care about Amarillo.
So we decided, with Christmas around the corner, it was time to focus on what we loved most about Amarillo: the people who call it home. Specifically, the people who are so passionate about Amarillo’s residents that they volunteer hours of their time every week to improve lives. We asked readers, colleagues, and friends to help us identify some of Amarillo’s most exemplary community volunteers. There were plenty of nominations, but these six truly inspired us.
On an ongoing basis, all six give of their time and talents to help the people of Amarillo reach their potential. Here are their stories. We hope they inspire you, too.
Area of Service: Children and the Disabled
After nearly two decades of executive positions with large insurance and investment companies, Jim Chen credits a recent career change with his passion for volunteering. “I’d always wanted to volunteer, but my career and family had taken priority,” he says. “I felt a little guilty about that.” A single dad sharing joint custody of his two daughters, he began working as an independent financial advisor and CPA in 2014. Now he fills his free time with volunteer positions for a variety of Amarillo organizations.
Chen is the new board president for Panhandle Promise Project, which mentors and serves children whose parents have been incarcerated. He’s also an active volunteer with The Children’s Home and the Southwest Chapter of AMBUCS™, a service organization focused on improving mobility and independence for people with disabilities. He also mentors homeless men as an advisory board member for the Amarillo chapter of The Salvation Army.
“I think we’re here to serve,” says Chen, the son of first-generation immigrants from Taiwan. “It doesn’t matter what your religious background is. We’re here to help other people, and I think that’s what life is about.”
That’s not a new perspective for him, but his previous career path left Chen with few opportunities to get involved. Until last year, Chen served as the president and CFO of Great Nation Insurance Group in Amarillo. Before that, he worked in New York City and Dallas for Maverick Capital, a privately held hedge fund.
When his time leading Great Nation came to an end, Chen decided it was time for a change. “I took a reflection of where I was and what I wanted to do,” he says. Long interested in philanthropy, he has dreamed of helping start a children’s home or launching a platform to help fund nonprofits. “I thought about going straight into philanthropy, but I felt I needed more experience. You’ve got to go with what your strengths are,” he says.
So between careers, he decided to involve himself with as many local charities as possible. “I volunteered at Eveline Rivers, at the food bank, and The Salvation Army,” he says. Those opportunities soon blossomed into additional roles and responsibilities, and before long organizations like Panhandle Promise Project were approaching Chen for board positions, eager to take advantage of his leadership skills and professional experience.
He decided he needed a career that allowed him the freedom to be involved whenever and wherever he was needed. “My career now really goes along with my volunteering,” he says of being an independent financial planner. “I view it as helping people, just in a different way.”
As a single dad, Chen works hard not to let his passion for volunteering compete with his parenting, often participating in events on weekends when his daughters, age 10 and 12, are with their mother. At other times, he brings them along with him. “It’s a hard balance,” he says. “But I try to involve my kids as much as possible. It’s just to show them how fortunate they are, to appreciate what they have and [the importance of] giving back to the community.”
One Saturday this fall, Chen participated in three volunteer endeavors over the course of a single day, working on an AMBUCS™ project and a Promise Project fundraiser before helping out with the local March of Dimes chapter’s Signature Chef event at the Civic Center. He spent the next weekend building handicap-accessible access ramps with the Texas Ramp Project, which installs them in homes for free.
Chen says he enjoys finding “one-off” activities like the ramp project, because they fill the space between larger events for AMBUCS™, Promise Project, and The Salvation Army.
“Most people just want to know that people care about them. Just showing them that you care makes a huge difference in their lives,” he says. His thoughts return to last year’s career change. “For me, this job is really just to fund my life expenses. If I had the means to just be able to volunteer 100 percent of the time, I would.”
Area of Service: Youth
“People are always like, ‘Oh, you know Sam. Always on the run doing something,’” says Samantha Gines, a sophomore at Palo Duro High School. She laughs, admitting that the perception is true. “I never rest.”
At 15 years old, Gines already has an impressive résumé of community service. She’s an A-student and a member of the Air Force Junior ROTC program at Palo Duro. She plays clarinet for the concert band and was a member of the color guard during the marching band season. She’s a member of the Youth Advisory Committee within the United Way’s 79107 zip code Community Youth Development program, which has given her the opportunity to prepare food for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House. She has volunteered at Eveline Rivers Christmas Project as a member of the PDHS Key Club. And Gines is an active member of Dons Taking Action (DTA), a peer-led group that promotes awareness among the student body about social justice issues like human trafficking, bullying and relationship abuse.
“I want to reach out to kids and show them that they can make a difference,” she says after a busy day at school. “I have always loved helping. Even now that I’m older and have more opportunities, I am passionate about it. I love, love, love it.”
She means it. That drive to make a difference began with the example of Gines’ mother and aunt, both of whom are nurses working in hospice care. Gines is the oldest child in her family – she has three younger siblings – and was diagnosed with diabetes soon after birth. She endured multiple hospital stays as a child, and her memories of that time have given her the desire to pursue a career in the medical field. She wants to be a flight nurse for the U.S. Air Force.
“I really do love nursing and I can see how many people it helps,” she explains. “I love to see the smile on a kid’s face when you go see them at the hospital.” Last spring, with the Youth Advisory Committee, she spent time playing with children hospitalized at BSA. Remembering her own hospital experiences, she says, “It gets lonely in those hospitals. They monitor you and it’s a terrible feeling. You’re alone and when you have people come see you, it’s really cool.”
With DTA, she’s had the opportunity to serve as a peer mentor for classmates at Palo Duro. “I counsel and give ideas and we talk on a regular basis,” she says. “I help them figure out solutions to their problems and figure out what’s on their mind. I like being happy when things work out for my friends.”
While those particular friends definitely appreciate Gines’ friendship, she says others raise their eyebrows at her passion. She has become a tireless recruiter for DTA, and not everyone gets it. “My friends understand it, but sometimes I feel my peers don’t [understand] so much,” she says. “But I’m working on that and getting them all to understand why we do what we do. I tell them that I want to improve my community and be a good citizen. They look at me like, ‘Why?’, and I explain that I love to help people. This is how I do it.”
She hopes those efforts pay off. Gines believes young people are vital to improving a community, whether it’s in a school like Palo Duro or across Amarillo as a whole. “I feel like the youth now think they can’t [make a difference],” she says, listing a lack of parent involvement or academic struggles as potential excuses. “But we can rise above that and show people that we can improve our community. We are the next generation. We are the ones that decide if we improve our community or not.”
After graduating two years from now, Gines plans to pursue officer training through a university ROTC program, then see the world with the Air Force. “I’d like to go to Europe and Africa and Asia – more far-away places,” she says. “I want to try to make a difference in the world. I just really love to help people.”
Area of Service: Homelessness and Veterans
During the Depression, when Janie Hensley’s father was a young boy, the family moved to Clovis, N.M., in pursuit of a job opportunity. It was late in the year and the weather was turning colder. The work didn’t pan out. The family found themselves in an unfamiliar city with no food, shelter or money.
“There was no welfare or food stamps back then,” Hensley says, recalling stories her father told about his childhood. “There wasn’t anything to rely on except The Salvation Army and food lines. The Salvation Army took them in and made sure the kids had a good Christmas.”
Hensley says that was the only time her father’s family ever needed assistance, and those stories have stayed with her over the years. That’s why today she is a constant volunteer presence at the organization. “I love the Salvation Army and what it stands for,” she says. “It’s my second home.”
A self-employed accountant, Hensley describes herself as a natural organizer and planner, and puts those skills to work planning activities for homeless veterans and families in the Salvation Army’s shelter. Just this fall, she coordinated the Randall High School girls basketball team to decorate the facility’s dining room for Halloween. She also planned a Halloween party for families at the shelter – something she does on an annual basis. “That started about four years ago when I realized the children do not get to go trick-or-treating,” she explains.
Hensley bakes more than a dozen sheet cakes for Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, arranges for the local high school choirs to perform Christmas music at the shelter, and works with Amarillo High School students to decorate the Salvation Army chapel for Christmas. After Thanksgiving, she met with the Bowie Middle School Student Council to decorate the shelter’s dining room for Christmas – including five Christmas trees. “I find decorations at thrift stores all year long,” she says, noting that she’s been coordinating this project with Bowie students for nearly 20 years.
She’s currently planning a big Christmas party on Dec. 12 for homeless children living at the shelter. “We’ll have Santa, a choir from Amarillo High School, and lots of gifts,” she says. An annual event for the past decade, the Christmas party is one of the highlights of Hensley’s year. “This party started after I talked to a little boy about 4 years old at the shelter. I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He said he didn’t think Santa was going to bring him anything this year.”
“Why not?” Hensley asked the boy.
“He said, ‘Santa doesn’t know where I am. I can’t go to the mall and tell him where I am.’”
The boy was homeless. “My heart was hurt,” Hensley says. “I just had not thought of these children’s situation. I called my core volunteers and we started the children’s party that year – with Santa.”
The holidays are a busy time, but Hensley’s efforts take place all year long. She’s thrown baby showers for homeless women, birthday parties for homeless children, and even a housewarming party for a woman who got placed in an apartment but had no furnishings or dishware. “I’m still in touch with that lady, and now she helps me with the parties at The Salvation Army,” says Hensley, who also helps run a Christmas shop for veterans and families at the Amarillo VA Hospital.
Why does she do it? For one thing, she’s good at it. “I know I’m supposed to do this. It takes a lot of work to call people and organize them and write thank-you notes and keep them involved, but I can do it.” Beyond that, Hensley describes her own childhood as difficult. “Our family was very poor and didn’t have enough to eat and our clothing wasn’t great,” she says. Having raised kids of her own – now grown – she still has a heart for children who are suffering. “They are teased at school and have a hard time.”
Hensley believes her constant volunteering is a way to honor her father, whom she describes as “a very giving person,” and a son who died when he was 29. “I’m not overly religious, but I think when I die and stand before God, I’ll have no excuses. I know I’m supposed to do this,” she says. “If I don’t, shame on me.”
Area of Service: The Elderly
“We are all going to be old one day,” says April Pierce. “If each of us would just see that.”
Pierce had her eyes opened when she began working at the memory care unit for patients with Alzheimer’s at Childers Place. Before taking the job, Pierce had been going through a period of transition. She had spent the previous six years as the music director at Pinnacle Community Church. “That season had ended,” she says, having left the workforce to help plan her daughter’s wedding in 2014. After the ceremony, Pierce returned to an empty nest.
After hearing of an opening for a dietary aide at Childers Place, she applied, got the job, and found herself in a brand-new environment. “This is all new to me,” says Pierce, an accomplished guitarist and singer. “I had no nutrition experience at all, but I like to cook and thought this would be different than anything I’d ever done.”
What she didn’t anticipate was how rewarding it would be. At Childers, Pierce helps prepare and serve food for individuals with age-related dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions requiring skilled nursing care. Her official responsibilities are related to food service and the pantry, but Pierce says her real job is to lavish attention on the residents. “For me, there’s no division between sacred and secular life,” she says. “I feel like God has given each of us certain gifts to use.” One of her gifts, she believes, is “being with these residents day in and day out, getting to know them and letting them know they are safe and cared for and loved. These are all the ingredients of a good home. For most of them, this is their final home. It’s a great responsibility to show them dignity and self-worth.”
What sets Pierce apart from her coworkers is her unwillingness to divide her work life from her private life – in much the same way she refuses to put the sacred and secular into separate categories. After spending a 40-hour workweek with these residents, she has been known to come in on her days off just to sit with them, talk to them, and sing and play guitar. She’s a member of Four and a Quarter, a local rock, blues and country band, and often brings band mates along with her to entertain the residents.
“You see them come alive when you sing,” she says of the dementia and Alzheimer’s residents. “Most of the songs that I sing are old hymns, from their generation. You see tears of joy and you know they’re remembering their past. It’s just a blessing to be able to play and sing for them and share that gift with them.”
Pierce wonders if it might offer the residents a physical blessing in addition to the emotional one. “I’ve read that musical aptitude and appreciation of music are two of the last remaining abilities people with dementia experience,” she says. “It helps them to recall memories and emotion. If they’re stressed, it helps calm them down. It engages them to remember a certain time in their life. It gets them to expand their lungs if they’re singing with you and they tap their feet and clap their hands. It’s good mentally and physically.”
Driven by her strong Christian faith and passion for music, Pierce downplays her volunteer efforts. “The Golden Rule. It’s just loving people and showing kindness,” she says. Her mother taught her to play guitar when Pierce was in fourth grade, and music has been part of her life ever since. “It’s just a vital part of who I am. If I’m not playing, I feel like I’m dying inside. I’ve got to play. It’s part of my DNA to be a part of music.”
Plenty of musicians might say something similar in regard to performing, but very few would find satisfaction in a weekly nursing-home concert for dementia patients. It’s not the most rock-and-roll of gigs. Pierce shrugs it off. “It doesn’t matter whether they can dialogue with you or not. They may not know your name, but they know you. And the smiles – there’s one [resident] who will just smile the whole time, and it lightens my heart,” she says.
Pierce’s work – both paid and volunteer – has also made her passionate about the plight of the elderly. “Often times they’re overlooked,” she says of our aging population. “[People] think they have nothing to contribute. That is totally wrong. Each person matters. There is a story there and they have a history and they have wisdom they can pass on. Every person, to me, is important. I think they are precious.”
Area of Service: Domestic Violence
Sometimes, all it takes is being in the right place at the right time. A long-time makeup artist who grew up in Lubbock, Becky Robinson has worked as the cosmetics manager at Amarillo’s Dillard’s location for 14 years. It’s a job she believes in because “we are in the business of making women feel good about themselves.”
A couple of years ago, a volunteer approached Becky on a typical day in the department store’s sprawling cosmetics area. The woman had a simple request: Could Dillard’s donate any makeup samples or products for women at a domestic violence shelter?
Becky Robinson was the perfect person to receive that request. For years, she had been thinking about volunteering her time toward organizations that help abused women. Why? Because she faced domestic violence herself – and escaped it.
“My dad was not a good person at all,” she says. “He was very physically and emotionally abusive to my mom. She was a very strong woman, and after putting up with him beating her for years, when he became abusive towards me and my sister she knew it was time to leave.”
Robinson was 4 years old when she, her sister, and mother found their way to a Lubbock domestic violence shelter. She retains just a few memories of the experience: a cavernous shelter, rows and rows of cots, and a palpable sense of fear. “I was very scared that I was going to be taken away from my mom,” she says. However, “the people there were so loving and let us know they were there to help. That included helping my mom get daycare so she could find a job, and transportation to get all of us where we needed to go.”
That volunteer’s initial request for makeup samples came on behalf of Family Support Services, a nonprofit, multi-service agency that serves victims of sexual assault and family violence. “I always knew I wanted to get involved but wasn’t sure of the steps to do it,” she says. That conversation set Robinson down the path toward volunteering, and today she’s as involved as anyone could possibly be.
Now a member of the Family Support Services board of directors, she has built a powerful partnership between her Dillard’s store and the organization. Dillard’s regularly raises money for FSS through cosmetics department or even store-wide events, including Scentsational, an all-day winter carnival on Dec. 12, which offers makeovers, makeup tutorials, and an auction for Christmas shoppers. “It’s a big party in cosmetics,” she explains. “We ask our customers to bring in donations, and they can pamper themselves at the same time.”
At the event, accepted donations include clothing, sheets and bedding, toiletry items, and even toothbrushes – anything a family escaping domestic violence might need. Beyond organizing events like these and participating in other Family Support Services fundraisers, Robinson regularly advocates in local media to raise awareness for victims of domestic violence.
“People think it’s only a low-income problem, but it’s not,” she says. “It hits families of all types and economic status.” Robinson says people often blame the victim without knowing the circumstances. “I even hear from women that somehow the women deserve it or should do more to fix it. That she shouldn’t have picked that man. Instant blame,” Robinson says. The reality is often much more complicated, as she herself can attest. “I see why women have a hard time leaving. If you don’t have family, you feel like a burden. We didn’t have family support. [My mom] thought she would lose us if she ever went to get help.”
Now that she’s working with an organization dedicated to offering that help, Robinson has discovered both fulfillment and healing from the fears and scars of her childhood. “It sounds so cliché, but I feel like it has freed me of my past. It was something I have felt very ashamed of and I feel now that I am free from that,” she says. “Being involved and making a difference not only helps the community and the world around you, but it has been the most rewarding thing for me.”
Area of Service: Education
“We never considered ourselves poor, but we actually were,” says Tina Sisneros at the end of a long day at Caprock High School, where she is the parent involvement community liaison. Tina’s father passed away before she was born, and she grew up the youngest of eight siblings in the only Hispanic-Catholic family in her small Utah hometown.
Despite the modest upbringing, she and two of her siblings went on to attend college – her sister and older brother even completed master’s degrees. “I know I wouldn’t be as blessed as I am today,” she says, had she not followed those two to West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M), where Sisneros earned a degree in social work.
When she joined the Caprock staff in 2003, Principal Becky Harrison suggested that Sisneros get involved with a community organization in order to meet parents and advocate for their involvement at school. Sisneros joined the Los Barrios de Amarillo, a nonprofit organization at Wesley Community Center that promotes success beyond high school for students. Los Barrios meets every Wednesday and often features speakers from the community. In the 12 years since she joined, Sisneros has rarely missed a meeting.
“It’s a small organization, but we have one of our highest number of memberships presently,” she says, noting that this year’s roster numbers around 60 students. “I like hearing from the local community about what’s available to promote education, and what resources are out there for families to better our community.”
Having grown up isolated from other Hispanic families, she has also enjoyed reconnecting with Amarillo’s Spanish-speaking families and learning more about her own culture. “I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. All my friends were Caucasian,” Sisneros says. At Los Barrios, she felt immediately at home. “I felt valued and appreciated.”
Now the organization’s treasurer, she has spent more than a decade serving on the planning committee for Los Barrios’ annual Step Up to Success conferences for high school and middle school students. These reach more than a thousand students every year, inviting professionals to share about their careers and motivate students to pursue education beyond high school. Sisneros has been in charge of recruiting speakers and facilitators for the event.
In addition, Sisneros organizes volunteers for a fundraising racquetball tournament, helps plan an annual banquet for graduates, and helps the community center organize a regular La Frontera block party. On weekends, she is a fixture in the church nursery at St. Thomas the Apostle. All this community service occurs in addition to her work at Caprock, which regularly requires participation in events outside of school.
Looking back, she is grateful for that initial push from Harrison, saying she has discovered deep fulfillment in using her strengths in service to others. “I think everybody can find their niche and I realize one of my strengths is in organizing and trying to build upon things,” says Sisneros. “When I see something happen and come into play, I ask ‘how can we improve this or make it better?’”
Even more satisfying is the fact that so many of her students and Los Barrios members over the years have graduated and entered college – then returned to the Wesley Community Center and begun to give back. “We try to cultivate them so they’ll be the future leaders [at Los Barrios] and serve on our committees and be able to take over certain jobs,” she says.
At this year’s Hispanic Heritage luncheon, Sisneros received the Heart of the Barrio Award for her community service. She appreciates the recognition, but doesn’t yet feel her work is done. “I just keep coming back and try to serve the needs where I can.”
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.