Waller Creek Conservancy gets things done in Austin

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 Lifestyle
Two of the biggest guns at the Waller Creek event: Gary Farmer and State Sen. Kirk Watson. Contributed by David Brendan Hall

It was like drifting from one waking dream to another.

I first encountered that certain fantastical aspect of the Waller Creek Conservancy, which plans a series of high-design parks along a neglected stretch of downtown waterway, at a large dinner party in the Four Seasons penthouse of Tom and Lynn Meredith. All sorts of important and influential Austinites were present on that fateful and whimsical night. Despite the mammoth scale of the proposed project, I sensed that those gathered in the room high above the creek, which included fellow Conservancy visionaries Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley, could get it done.

Over the next few years, a series of magical benefit parties and concerts were staged with the help of Lonesome Dove chef Tim Love and C3 partner Charles Attal at the Stubb’s complex right on the banks of the creek. This month, there was something tangible to celebrate: The group had broken ground on its Waterloo Park segment with the generous help of a $15 million grant from Ross Moody and the Moody Foundation.

BACKGROUND: Grant to fund Waterloo Park makeover

Well, this year’s dinner was like walking on a cloud. Everybody, including Conservancy CEO Peter Mullan and his gracious wife, Melanie Mullan, a strategic advisor, fairly glowed with felicity. Melanie led a group of her lively friends in a conversation at our table that could, from my perspective, have gone on all night. But then there was a concert by alt-pop duo Oh Wonder waiting just outside the door of the events room.

Victor Emanuel Conservation Awards

Mickey Burleson wanted to set the record straight.

She did not plant Blackland Prairie seeds by moonlight at her ranch with her late husband, Bob Burleson, because of some nebulous spiritual reasons. The pair, credited with restoring some of the last remnants of a critical and highly endangered ecosystem, simply broadcast the carefully collected grains after the end of long days because the seeds would have turned too hot if stored with other remnants from their old-fashioned grass seed harvester.

In probably the most thoughtful charity swag ever, guests at the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award luncheon, which benefits Travis Audubon, each received a small “Ecosystem in a Bag” of more than 1,000 grains from Native American Seed company. Some of the seeds in the Blackland Prairie Mix were descendants of those collected by the Burlesons.

Heaven on Earth.

Mickey Burleson accepted this year’s award from from Valerie Bristol, the chief warrior on the Balcones Canyonlands preservation. She was last year’s honoree. I’ve doted on everyone who has received this prize, including its namesake, Victor Emanuel, the nature guide who sat next to me during the luncheon. Consider the rest of the honor roll: Bob Ayres, Georgean Kyle, Paul Kyle, J. David Bamberger, Carter Smith and Andy Sansom.

Gateway Awards

You’d need a heart of stone to turn away from the stories generated by American Gateways, the group that provides legal services to immigrants who can’t afford them. The staff in Austin, San Antonio and Waco, along with an army of pro bono attorneys, deal with heartbreaking cases every day.

They don’t need to be told that our immigration system is broken. They are on the front lines.

The second annual Gateway Awards were distributed during a taco dinner at the new AFS event room at its complex in the Linc center. The entertainment at the banquet was pretty amazing, too, starting with the New Generation Children’s Choir, made up of African refugees, and ending with San Antonio-based, all-female Mariachi Las Coronelas, who know how to get an audience going.

Juan Belman, a dreamer and the University of Texas graduate who famously confronted President Barack Obama at the Paramount Theatre then later met with him, picked up the Social Justice Award. Lawyer Valerie Barker of Baker Botts, LLP, was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year. Charismatic Jae Kim from Chi’Lantro Korean barbecue acclaim, won the Immigrant of Achievement Award.

Makes me proud that American Gateways is based right here in Austin.

Texas Citizen of the Year

Earlier this month in Galveston, Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar, accepted the Texas Citizen of the Year Award from the National Association of Social Workers. Later that week at the AISD Performing Arts Center, Hinsley gave a brief pre-concert talk about what makes his nonprofit a nationwide model for arts-based community service.

We asked him to share his thoughts about the intersection of music and such activities that many ascribe to the domain of social workers.

RELATED: Austin Classical Guitar honors the plight of refugees

“In music school, in the most wonderful ways, I was taught to refine my musicianship,” Hinsley says. “Most everything at my core today — my work ethic, my sense of authenticity, my appreciation for individual strengths and weaknesses, my tenacity — has its roots in my relationship to guitar and the mentors who shaped me.”

His journey as a public servant through music began 21 years ago in Austin.

“In some ways — the obvious ones — that service grew directly out of my training,” Hinsley says. “In other ways — perhaps less obvious — work in service stretched me from the very beginning and has never stopped. Because the myth for many young artists is that if you just get good enough at what you do, the world will come to you and watch you do it. But that notion is rooted in fallacy because it is rooted in a model of the universe with oneself at the center. And that is not how the universe works.”

He believes that, as a public servant, he most constantly look at his community and ask who is being served and how can they be served better?

“It demands flexibility in every aspect,” he says. “It has led us to realizations that music can heal and engage so many people in such profound ways, but not perhaps the ways we thought we knew. So if it’s developing classroom-based systems for guitar education, or a Braille-adapted curriculum for students at Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, or the Lullaby Project at Travis County Jail, or musical puppet shows for kids in Austin Public Library branches, we live and flourish in this irony that, while the world may not revolve around that which we have, it most certainly can interact in beautiful and mysterious ways with that which we can be.”

So an award from the National Association of Social Workers makes some special sense.

“It represents a vote of confidence that we have at least begun to leverage the great art we are so fortunate to have roots in toward something that is reaching diverse people in unexpected ways,” Hinsley says. “What excites me most, is that each day when something new happens, we are made aware of just how many more opportunities for meaningful connection there are yet to explore.”

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