Lex Frieden Employment Awards - Past Winners
The Governor’s Trophy
Laura Warren (Austin)
Founder and Executive Director of Texas Parent to Parent, Laura Warren has played an instrumental role in educating and advancing peer support for parents of children with disabilities. Since 2001, she has demonstrated the importance of a parent’s voice and believes in focusing on the abilities of children. Fifteen years ago, she initiated a 2-day conference for the whole family with an attendance today of over 800. Laura has built robust collaborative relationships with state leadership. P2P has a national reputation as a leader in parent advocacy.
Martha Arbuckle Award
The University of Texas at Arlington’s Disability Programs
UTA has led the nation in helping students with disabilities gain access to educational opportunities since the late 1960s. Starting in 2013, four disability programs began collaborating to make UTA the model barrier-free campus in the state, region, and nation. UTA has the only disability history archives and the first Disabilities Studies Minor in the Southwest. UTA hosts two preeminent wheelchair basketball teams plus other intercollegiate adapted sports programs.
José H. Velasco is Vice-President of Products and Innovation and leads the SAP Autism at Work program in the Americas. Mr. Velasco participated as a panelist at the United Nations World Autism Awareness Day, testified before U.S. Congress on the “Global Challenge of Autism” and collaborated on the topic of Corporate Social Innovation at the World Economic Forum. He is a board member of The Arc and holds degrees in Technology Commercialization and Computer Science.
WinCo Foods (Denton)
The vision of WinCo Foods includes having people with disabilities in every department of their business model. Candidates complete a trial period, then become “owner operators.” Awareness training is given. There are currently 19 people with disabilities working in the Distribution Center offering fresh ideas for safety processes and changes to the overall work environment. “WinCo WINS” program stems from winning with inclusiveness and diversity.
Axium Solar (Plano)
Axium Solar was conceived when founder, Bob Kendrick, decided to build an eco-friendly home and saw an opportunity to educate others on renewable energy and provide solar solutions. With over twenty years’ experience in the industry, co-owners Derik and Mike Kendrick lead 12 out of 72 employees with disabilities. Axium Solar offers an all-inclusive environment hiring and working with people who are Deaf – employees either learn sign language or accommodations are provided.
Walgreens Store #6753 (El Paso)
Walgreens welcomes employees with disabilities into their company. Working with Workforce Solutions Borderplex’s Summer Earn and Learn program, Walgreens employed ten workers with disabilities in various service clerk positions. The partnership provided qualified youth paid work opportunities to gain valuable employment experience. Inclusion and diversity became the hallmarks of Walgreen’s participation in the program where they adopted the slogan “A DisAbled Person has Potential; Consider Unlocking the Opportunities” .
Hugs Café (McKinney)
Teammates are the inspiration and the very soul of Hugs Café. Founder Ruth Thompson believes in creating sustainable jobs for adults with disabilities and values purpose before profit. The entire media focus is showcasing what is possible. Every day the employees change hearts and minds as to what the community of people with disabilities can really achieve with support through uplifting personal stories. This employer’s goal is to change the world one hug at a time.
Entrepreneur of the Year
Austin Underwood (Fort Worth)
Austin Underwood attended a vocational rehabilitation program in New Mexico. He quickly mastered skills to become an outstanding prep chef. His love for food began Austin’s hunger to own his own restaurant. Fast forward 16 years, Austin is taking his show on the road and selling “Underdawg Hot Dogs” from the traveling Dawgmobile at community gatherings. He hopes to open more franchises employing people with disabilities and holds fundraising events to help his fellow man.
Kristi J. Avalos
The Governor's Trophy is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. This award recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level. GCPD is proud to honor Kristi Avalos, CEO of Accessology Too, LLC, as this year's Governor’s Trophy winner. Kristi is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities beginning her journey in 1977 when she worked at a convalescent home for children. She was later hired by American Airlines to implement the Air Carrier Access Act and in 1990 created Accessology to provide training and consulting services on ADA compliance to architects, contractors, designers, building owners, universities, municipalities, commercial lenders, attorneys, and others throughout the nation. For more than 30 years Kristi has provided onsite direction and expert technical support to bring state and local governments into compliance through their legally mandated Transition Plans. Her entire adult life is dedicated to removing barriers for people with disabilities and bridging the gap between what people with disabilities need/want and what business or agencies can provide. As a consultant for many large projects around the country, Kristi insists upon developing advisory boards made up of individuals with disabilities, giving each group a voice within their own community. Accessology Too is based in McKinney, Texas.
Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Texas Chapter
This award honors the most innovative local disability committee project and is presented in memory of Austin's long-time disability advocate, Martha Arbuckle. In 2017, the Texas Chapter PVA recognized the shortage of accessible parking places for people with disabilities due to the overuse of eligible Disabled Veteran (DV) license plate users, by people without a mobility disability. Working with the Texas Legislature over the past four years, following many sessions providing testimony and educating the legislature on this issue, SB 792 87th Legislature was signed into law by Governor Abbott, becoming effective January 1, 2022. This law will ensure better availability of accessible parking spaces across the state for anyone with a mobility disability and license plate that includes the international symbol of access or valid parking placard. PVA Texas is based in Crosby, Texas.
The Entrepreneurship Award
This award is presented to a living entrepreneur with a disability who has shown extraordinary ingenuity and drive in creating and sustaining a successful business. The Entrepreneur award is awarded posthumously to Gregory Stavinoha. Mr. Stavinoha was legally blind and successfully operated a business in the Mickey Leland Federal Building in Houston Texas through the Federal Randolph Sheppard program from 1996 until his recent passing in September 2021. The business included food service, vending and the production and sale of United States Passport photographs. Mr. Stavinoha was an outstanding business mentor to other aspiring entrepreneurs with disabilities wishing to achieve his same level of success.
Lockheed Martin (Fort Worth)
Lockheed Martin has been recognized as one of the best places to work for disability inclusion for the sixth straight year. This Fort Worth-based corporation received the top score on Disability:IN’s 2020 Disability Equality Index®, which recognizes employers for creating equitable and accessible opportunities for all potential employees. Their Able & Allies Business Resource Group continuously works to increase access and opportunity for employees with disabilities, developing strong partnerships with corporate allies who are committed to advancing disability inclusion and equality across their businesses in the United States and around the world. A commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace helps drive innovation at Lockheed Martin by ensuring a range of perspectives are represented.
Kumori Sushi & Teppanyaki (San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley)
GCPD recognizes Kumori as the 2021 Medium Employer of the Year (26 to 500 employees) for fostering a diverse and accessible workplace. Kumori is the first Modern Japanese restaurant and has 11 locations in South Texas. Kumori believes everyone deserves to excel in competitive employment and treats employees as if they were family with a strong commitment to see each employee succeeds. Currently over 10% of employees at Kumori have a disability and are employed in a range of positions from cooks to HR personnel and management.
ServiceMaster Commercial Cleaning by Legacy (El Paso)
GCPD recognizes Heidi Avedician, owner of Service Master by Legacy as the 2021 Small Employer of the Year (25 employees or less). This cleaning and disinfecting company boasts that 25% of staff are people with disabilities. The positions held by employees with disabilities are mainly, but not exclusively, operational support roles - the ones that the company could not succeed without.
Endeavors Unlimited (San Antonio)
GCPD recognizes Endeavors Unlimited. They believe that everyone deserves a chance to obtain and maintain gainful employment in a position that fits their skills and abilities. Approximately 75% of the employees have disabilities and Endeavors encourages all employees to grow and develop. They promote advancement by providing accessible training and learning opportunities at all levels. They have been recognized by the National Organization on Disability as a Leading Disability Employer in 2020 and 2021 due to the organization’s focus and policies towards individuals with disabilities.
Professor Brian Shannon, Texas Tech University School of Law
The Governor's Trophy is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. This award recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level. GCPD is proud to honor Professor Brian Shannon as this year's winner.
Professor Shannon has made significant contributions to disability rights across the broad spectrum of disability, but he is most known for his work at the intersection of mental health and the legal system. As noted in his nomination, his focus on destigmatizing and empowering people whose mental health diagnoses have led them to interface with the criminal justice system has been invaluable to countless individuals. Addressing this stigma is the first step toward realizing meaningful employment opportunities. Professor Shannon currently serves on the board of StarCare Specialty Health System, the Lubbock region's local mental health authority. He is also an appointee to the State of Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health. Respected by lawyers, clients, and the general public alike, his contributions to the disability field are commendable.
Martha Arbuckle Award
The EPIC of Grand Prairie
This award honors the most innovative local disability committee project and is presented in memory of Austin's long-time disability advocate, Martha Arbuckle. The partnership between Grand Prairie's The EPIC and Grand Prairie ISD has created an environment where students and adults with disabilities can work to learn skills key to achieving competitive employment. Participants also learn valuable independent living skills that will allow them to lead more inclusive, self-directed lives. This partnership allows students graduating from GPISD to build relationships in their community that will follow them through their adult lives resulting in better post-secondary outcomes and quality of life.
The Entrepreneurship Award
Chris Landry and Ken Brown, Scan Mailboxes (Austin)
This award is presented to a living entrepreneur with a disability who has shown extraordinary ingenuity and drive in creating and sustaining a successful business. The 2020 award is shared between Chris Landry and Ken Brown, business partners and founders of Scan Mailboxes. Both men are profoundly deaf, and have used their business to help close the employment gap for other deaf individuals. Their business allows customers to create virtual mailboxes for their physical mail; all mail is delivered to the Scan Mailboxes address, scanned, and delivered to the customer's email address. The Scan Mailboxes offices provide an excellent example of accessibility; while all of the employees are deaf, computers are set up for communications like Video Relay Service (VRS) and the office is equipped with an alert system to let staff know when patrons come to the office.
Fidelity Investments (Westlake)
Consistently ranked as one of the best places to work for disability inclusion, Fidelity Investments has a workforce of 45,000 people and is constantly striving to become as accessible and inclusive as possible. Among the many notable innovations they've made to better recruit and retain employees with disabilities, they have completely changed how and who they hire. They recognize that the traditional hiring process can screen out qualified, talented applicants and have partnered with their regional providers to create a more inclusive screening process. The Fidelity BELONG Fellowship works to recruit interns with disabilities, while their Enable Employee Resource Group (ERG) provides important outlets for employees as well as things like disability etiquette training.
Weikel's Bakery and Store/Recipeasy (La Grange)
Weikel’s Store & Bakery provides work opportunities for students and adults with disabilities, English Language Learners, and others. Their locations have acted as work-based learning sites for Project Search students, allowing students and young adults with disabilities to learn the skills necessary to become bakers. The philosophy at Weikel's is "Everyone is capable of working with proper training"-- something reflected in the Recipeasy app created by Philip Weikel, which makes learning to bake accessible for people with disabilities. While they use the app to train staff in their stores, they've also taken their software and training to other bakeries, cafes, and restaurants to help these businesses employ people with disabilities.
Mr. Gatti's Pizza (Tyler)
Since opening in Tyler under the ownership of Lamar Wedell, Mr. Gatti's has worked closely with Texas Workforce Solutions, Community Rehabilitation Providers, and local school districts to provide a supportive and nurturing environment for students with disabilities to develop job skills. Students are provided with uniforms and treated as employees. Whenever possible, students trained at Mr. Gatti's are encouraged to apply and are often hired. In addition to hiring employees with disabilities, they hold a Sensory Sensitive Event with reduced lighting and sound levels to make their restaurant more inviting to people on the Autism spectrum and those with other sensory disabilities.
Goodwill Industries (Fort Worth)
Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth is committed to fostering, cultivating and preserving a culture of diversity and inclusion for employees and the people they serve throughout the community. The company mission is to empower people with disabilities, disadvantages, and other barriers to employment so they can achieve maximum independence. They have multiple ongoing initiatives aimed at hiring and training people with disabilities, including running the Summer Earn & Learn Program. Through Summer Earn & Learn, Goodwill Fort Worth served 160 students for the 2019 program. While their programs this year could not function in the same way, Goodwill was able to pivot and provide employment services by offering Pre-Employment Training Services and Camp Independence curriculum online.
Martha Arbuckle Award
El Paso Community Foundation (Every Little Blessing Preschool)
The Martha Arbuckle Award recognizes the most innovative local committee project. The 2019 winner is the El Paso Community Foundation, which created the city’s first preschool for children with special needs.
The McKee family is the driving force behind this project. When Eloise was born with Down syndrome, her parents quickly realized there were no options for her in their community. Dr. Kerry McKee and her parents—Dr. John and Lynn McKee—created a preschool for children with special needs out of nothing. Every Little Blessing Preschool provides early childhood development programs in an inclusive environment.
Recognizing the importance of accessible support and education, they knew it was vital the school have a “pay as you can” policy. In order to raise the funds to make this a reality, they did as any good Texan would—they held a BBQ. The annual “Whole Hog BBQ” has raised more than $415,000 in the past three years. The work of the El Paso Community Foundation and the success of the Every Little Blessing Preschool stands out as a model for communities throughout the state.
Stor and Lok, GRO Investments (Abilene)
GRO Investments Stor & Lok is a small family-owned business committed to hiring individuals with disabilities. They have four employees, all of whom have disabilities working in all levels of the company. Two of their employees are veterans with a disability. Anytime they have a vacancy they reach out to Texas Veterans Commission staff for assistance with recruitment. Stor & Lok fully integrates employees with disabilities in their workplace through the accommodation of flexible scheduling as well as providing any needed assistive or adaptive devices. The company recently purchased a motorized cart for approximately $2000, to assist the staff with disabilities in transiting the business property more efficiently. Their company value is “everyone deserves an opportunity for employment.”
Chick-fil-A (The Coop, East Main St., Allen; Niel Brown- Operator)
Niel Brown and Laura Castillo operate two multi-million dollar Chick-fil-a stores in North Texas. Together they have created “Launching Leaders,” a vision and values course that focuses on employee growth. Person-centered planning is the watchword for Laura and Niel—if someone seeks a position with their company and has a strong desire to work, they will surround them with the supports they need to be successful.
Niel and Laura exemplify the ideals of servant leadership; they work with their employees to determine their goals, and then develop a plan to help them achieve those goals. Beyond this, they have provided $150,000 in college scholarships, as well as created paid internship programs with area colleges.
Everyone is capable of success with the right supports. Many of the accommodations Laura and Niel have developed—such as illustrated rather than written instructions—are now used by all employees. As their motto states, “when something helps one, it helps all.”
Pride Industries (Fort Worth)
PRIDE Industries creates paths to employment for people with disabilities through person-centered job coaching, training, and placement. Their cultivation of relationships with the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Veterans Commission, and military support groups enables them to expand career opportunities for people with disabilities. Through contracts with the Department of Defense at Fort Bliss, they employ more than 300 people with disabilities across the state-- including service-disabled veterans.
PRIDE is a leader in promoting accessibility and inclusivity. They provide specialized training and instruction by job coaches fluent in American Sign Language; offer flexible work schedules, extra breaks, and job carving; and provide assistive technology to employees.
PRIDE exists to support people during every step of their job search. With their support, workers with disabilities are empowered to lead productive independent lives. Employees have gone on to hold a variety of positions in many skilled trades, and use the skills honed with PRIDE to advance in their careers.
H-E-B (San Antonio)
H-E-B is a grocery store chain that believes in investing in people—all people. They understand the importance of supporting employees both at work and at home. Tina James, H-E-B’s Chief People Officer, and her team are exemplars of this; she brings in experts to speak to employees who have a family member diagnosed with autism, going above and beyond the call of duty.
Tina had a vision—to support all employees with disabilities—and built a program to actualize that goal. Bridges is run by Jenn Byron Ross and a team of people whose goal is to better understand, support, and recruit new employees to H-E-B. It takes a holistic approach, identifying the accommodations the employee needs to be successful while also empowering their co-workers and managers to support them through training. It is clear Tina James and the team at H-E-B believe in all their employees, and will help the company continue to be leaders in hiring and empowering employees with disabilities.
Gordon Hartman (Morgan’s Wonderland)
Gordon Hartman is the visionary creator of Morgan’s Wonderland theme park and its sister splash park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island. The unique, ultra-accessible parks were designed with the disability community in mind, and built for everyone’s enjoyment. Mr. Hartman’s commitment to the special needs community has not wavered since he first established The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation nearly 15 years ago. He and his wife Maggie have committed millions of dollars to their accessible parks, and have successfully urged other individuals, corporations, foundations, and organizations to invest in inclusion.
Gordon’s daughter Morgan is his lodestar. She was born with physical and cognitive challenges, and the Hartman’s are driven by a desire to create an inclusive, accessible world for Morgan and her peers. Inclusion is Gordon’s guide, and his diligent work to bring together those with and without disabilities to foster greater understanding is an example to us all.
The Governor’s Trophy
Larry P. Johnson, retired (San Antonio)
The Governor’s Trophy is the Governor's Committee's highest honor and is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. The Governor's Trophy recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level.
Larry Johnson, author, disability advocate, and motivational speaker has been advancing the empowerment and employment of people with and without disabilities by his example and leadership for more than 60 years. Mr. Johnson has been a passionate advocate for people with disabilities for decades, never letting blindness slow him down or determine his path. He has worked with the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature where his professionalism and his vast knowledge on the issues that people with disabilities face in the workplace became obvious. His collaborative, congenial demeanor and the way he moves others to action with his leadership are admirable to all who know him.
Most recently, Larry advocated for the passage of House Bill 62 and Senate Bill 1693 during the 85th Legislative Session. He worked closely with legislative staff as the bills made their way through the legislative process, and his work was helpful in the ultimate passage of both bills. His work didn’t end there, however. S.B. 1693 established a task force under the Aging Texas Well Advisory Council, and he will present at the initial meeting of the task force on coordinated services for seniors losing their vision.
James Parker, Shredding on the Go (Houston)
The Entrepreneurship Award is awarded to a living entrepreneur with a disability who has shown extraordinary ingenuity and drive to create and sustain a successful business that has created jobs and accessible services.
In 2010, James Parker gathered with a group of his closest friends and family to plan his life after high school. After discussing his interests, abilities and passions, they ultimately launched Shredding on the Go. James is the face of the business and works five days a week shredding documents for residential and business companies and attending business meetings and marketing events.
Large Employer Award
Maximus (San Antonio)
The Large Employer Award (more than 500 employees) recognizes employers in Texas who have fostered a diverse and accessible workplace and who have developed innovative ways to integrate people with disabilities into the workplace.
MAXIMUS transforms lives and strengthens communities through their passion for innovation in serving health and human services programs. In partnering with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services, MAXIMUS participates in many job fairs with the goal of hiring individuals with disabilities. They offer a full range of workplace capabilities including skills assessment and training, career planning, and job placement to Disabled Veterans and individuals with disabilities.
Medium Employer Award
FCI Bureau of Prisons (Bastrop)
The Medium Employer Award (26 to 500 employees) recognizes employers in Texas who have fostered a diverse and accessible workplace and who have developed innovative ways to integrate people with disabilities into the workplace.
Approximately 27% of the FCI Bastrop’s employees have disabilities, including 75 Disabled Veterans who have been integrated into a variety of positions in fields such as Correctional Services, Dental, Facilities and Food Service, Health Services and Support/Administration. Work environments are changed to enable an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.
Small Employer Award
Crepe Crazy (Austin)
The Small employer Award (25 or fewer employees) recognizes employers in Texas who have fostered a diverse and accessible workplace and who have developed innovative ways to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce.
Crepe Crazy is a successful café owned and run entirely by employees who are Deaf. The owners strive to make sure everyone feels good at the workplace and makes sure employees’ voices are being heard. Because most customers are not deaf, the communication barrier between employees and customers is minimized through accommodations such as a Boogie Board to capture information, sign language, or text messaging.
Food Bank of Corpus Christi
The Non-Profit Award recognizes employers in Texas who have fostered a diverse and accessible workplace and who have developed innovative ways to integrate people with disabilities into the workplace.
Since 1982, the Food Bank of Corpus Christi has been fighting hunger in the 11-county Coastal Bend area by providing food and personal care products to various charity and service agencies. The Food Bank currently feeds 7,800 people, conducts 27 mobile pantry drops each week, and operates seven programs. The organization firmly believes every employee is a valuable resource and everyone is capable of learning and being productive.
Martha Arbuckle Award for for Exemplary Community Project
Houston Commission on Disabilities
The Martha Arbuckle Award recognizes the most innovative local committee project and is presented in memory of Austin’s long-time disability advocate Martha Arbuckle.
The Houston Commission on Disabilities serves as a strong advocacy voice and recently played a vital role in Houston’s emergency response and recovery from Hurricane Harvey.
Many hours were spent problem solving and creating on-demand systems to respond in real time as the emergency unfolded. As the region moves into recovery, the Commission continues to advocate for accessible housing, improved transitional sheltering, and other services and supports that assist people with disabilities to return to their community.