The Driving Force behind Houston Children’s Charity
By: Connie Kwan-Wong
“Need never takes a vacation.” – Laura Ward
Laura Ward has been the driving force behind Houston Children’s Charity (HCC) and the work it has done for over 300 agencies and 3,000,000 children for the past 21 years. The nonprofit is dedicated to improving the quality of life for Greater Houston’s underprivileged, abused, and disabled children who would otherwise have been left behind.
As part of a large family, Ward learned the value of sharing early and developed a nurturing spirit as a young child. She began volunteering in earnest while raising her three children. It all started with a fundraiser for Ward’s own children’s school—a spaghetti dinner costing $5 a head held in the high school gym of a private Christian school. Thirty years later, Ward has raised over $40 million to help the children of Houston. This places her among the top executive directors of children’s charities.
HCC was conceived in 1996. Since then, the nonprofit has developed a number of outstanding programs to meet the various needs of Houston’s children: "Chariots for Children" provides safe efficient transportation to families of disabled and/or wheelchair-bound children by providing handicapped-accessible vans; "HCC Closet" allows families in need to shop with dignity, in a boutique setting, for items of clothing at no cost; "Back2School" has helped 20,000 under-served children across five counties achieve success in school since 2005 by providing them with backpacks filled with all the supplies they need on day one; "A Better Night’s Sleep" distributes beds to those without one and has provided 11,000 since the program’s inception in 2007; since 2010, "Kool Kids" has provided air conditioners to 98 families and counting allowing them the ability to stay cool during Houston’s hottest months.
Ward has served as the executive director of HCC since its inception and was elected president and CEO in 2016. She has also contributed her time and expertise to innumerable charitable events while working with various philanthropic organizations in the city. In appreciation of her remarkable achievements, Ward has received numerous honors, including: being named Outstanding Fundraising Professional by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Houston Chapter (2010); being named Forward Mover for CancerForward in its inaugural year (2010); being named by The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) as one of its Women of Distinction (2011); being honored at the René Moawad Foundation Gala (2012); being inducted into the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame (2015); being named one of Houston’s 50 Most Influential Women of 2015 by Houston Woman Magazine (2015); being honored with the Leiv Platou Crime Stoppers Award (2016); and being named one of 2016’s Women Who Mean Business by Houston Business Journal. As one would expect, for someone who has accomplished so much in the service of children, Ward has received many other deserving awards and honors, but they are too many to mention here.
CKW Luxe had the privilege of speaking with Laura Ward about HCC and what drives her to work so hard for the children of Houston.
CKW Luxe: You began volunteering as a young mother and have worked hard for the Houston community ever since. Please tell our readers what initially motivated you to give back.
Laura Ward: Initially, I didn’t think of it as giving back. Initially, when I helped with fundraising at my children’s private school in North Houston to raise money for blinds in the school cafeteria, a new sidewalk in the playground, playground equipment . . . I just thought I was doing my parental duty. I thought I was doing what parents were supposed to do. I didn’t consider it giving back. I thought of it as paying my dues, because my kids were in this great private school and I was so grateful. Later, when I decided to become a fulltime volunteer as the executive director of a local charity, I did it because I knew I had found something I enjoyed, and I knew it had to be with children. That was the conduit into what I’m still doing today.
CKW: You began Houston Children’s Charity (HCC) in 1996. What was your hope for it at that time, and how has that hope been exceeded?
LW: In 1996, there were seven of us: myself and six gentlemen from the community who were a part of an existing Houston charity. But it had a national outreach and a national umbrella governing the operation in the community. We decided that too much was being left unaddressed. There are so many worthwhile needs every day in Houston that go unanswered, we decided we wanted to find the gaps in the system, and the children falling through the cracks, and address their needs. If there are other organizations meeting a need, we don’t infringe, but refer clients to them.
As far as exceeding our expectations, we could never in a million years have thought we would be doing what we are doing today, as far as the volume of children we help on a weekly basis. At Christmas alone, we provide for 20,000 children. We never had a vision that so many children could be falling through the cracks, but they are, every day.
CKW: HCC has developed a number of essential programs to improve the lives of Houston’s children. How does the organization pinpoint specific needs and conceive the programs to meet them?
LW: We listen. The parents tell us what the needs are. In 2007, for instance, we didn’t have a bed program, but year after year, when I would answer the phone at Christmas, parents, mothers especially, would ask for beds for their children. That was what the children wanted. They didn’t expect toys, they just wanted beds to sleep in. Each year I would tell them we didn’t have a program that addressed that need. After about the third or fourth year, the light went on, and I thought, “Well, why don’t we have a program, because evidently no one else does either, or they wouldn’t be calling us.” Beginning and implementing a bed program was a difficult process. Most of our clients couldn’t provide their own transportation or get to a distribution center. We had growing pains figuring out how to actually get these beds to children’s homes for about two and a half years. Now, in 2017, however, we have it figured out. Last year we gave away about 2,000 beds.
CKW: The momentum with which you began only seems to have increased. Please tell us what has driven you over the 21 years since you began Houston Children’s Charity and what you find are the most rewarding aspects of being part of HCC.
LW: Our momentum is provided by our donors; they continue to make contributions exceeding our expectations. In return, we believe we satisfy their needs as donors, because they keep coming back to us. We are blessed with a continuing donor base that changes little annually. In most charities, there is a lot of attrition each year and many losses. We are fortunate at HCC that many of our largest donors are the same donors we had in 1996. Also, a number of our board members have been with us since our inception. That provides our momentum: the generosity of Houstonians. Charity Navigator just named Houston the most charitable city in the United States for the second year in a row. That’s our momentum.
What has driven me is meeting the children. I’ve always tried to be hands on, and I continue to be to the degree that I can. Because the job has gotten so enormous, I’m not always able to be in the warehouse with the kids or at a distribution. The most rewarding part is meeting the families and the thank you notes from children and parents thanking us for what we do. Because truly, the greatest reward is doing something for a child, but doing something that is not available anywhere else in the fourth largest city in America for a child, then we know we are really doing something for a child.
CKW: Can you tell our readers if there are any new programs in the offing, and if so, what they might be, as well as any other plans HCC has for the future?
LW: Absolutely. We started a new initiative just about six months ago. Since our inception, we have given away wheelchair-accessible vans to organizations that provide for children who have hardships. We just decided six months ago that we didn’t have the money, and we have known we didn’t have enough funds for several years now, to allocate to this program to provide for all the children so we don’t have a wait list every year. Historically, we give away 8 to 10 vans a year. But we have 8 to 10, maybe 20, children on the wait list who have to wait a whole year. This year we decided to ask the public to help us. We are giving away 13 vans on June 07 and all 13 have been sponsored at this point. So the community is actually paying for the cost of these vans. Now we have additional monies so that over the second half of the year we will go into the wait list and we’ll give more children vans.
Hopefully, by the beginning of next year, we won’t have any children who have been waiting for over a year for a van. And we need help. We would love the assistance from any Houstonian who wants to ease the hardship of a family with a wheelchair-bound child.
It takes passion to find your mission and see it through. Laura Ward has that passion. She understands need will always be there. As long as it is, Ward will also be there to meet it head on and diminish it by serving those who require her help. As a testament to her dedication, Ward’s expanding circle of loyal supporters still includes many who participated in that spaghetti dinner 30 years ago.