With economic troubles perhaps hitting home this summer, many are electing to forgo a family vacation and entertain themselves right here. That’s great news for a group of volunteer Houstonians just waiting to take them on an adventure around Houston.
Called the Houston Greeters, the non-profit organization was founded by Susan Borches in 2005. Susan, who had worked in communications at Shell Oil, envisioned locals with expertise in unique areas of Houston sharing their passion about the city.
In contrast with a typical tour, these “greeters” would meet with, at most, one family at a time to share information and guide conversation. By 2006, Susan had lined up dozens of volunteer greeters.
“I wanted a way for people of different cultures to connect in the context of tourism and have intentional conversations,” she explained. “We have many Houstonians who are passionate about and proud of our city and want to show it off to visitors.”
What Susan found was that locals also wanted tours. And so, in addition to tourists, many of our own residents are meeting with greeters.
More than 80 volunteers now show more than 73 different tours, or “greets,” as they are called. And anyone can request a free greet at destinations like art galleries, the downtown tunnel system or Montrose by signing up online at the Houston Greeters website, www.houstongreeters.org.
The volunteer greeters choose their own area of passion and expertise. For example, Susan gives greets at Rice Village and Rice University, where she likes to point out the architecture.
Meera Buck, a private pilot for more than 15 years, volunteers to give the most exciting tour of all – by private airplane. It is the only greet for which a fee – $130 – is charged to cover the cost of the small airplane, which flies out of Houston Southwest Airport in Arcola.
“Seeing Houston from an airplane brings the city to life,” Meera said. “It is a quick way of seeing how diverse our landscape is as I fly along the gulf coast. After the big buildings downtown, it becomes very green as you fly down the coast. There is the industrial side with the refineries, and then the beaches as we go into Galveston and then, further along, Port Aransas. It is very pretty, and the tourist gets to see our many different forms of landscape.”
In the spring, Meera likes flying into the Hill Country, as the wildflowers and greenery make for a beautiful view. She says her volunteer efforts allow her to show her love of the area, while doing something she loves, flying airplanes.
Ken Steinhardt is a retired chemist who is available during the day for a popular greet of the downtown tunnel system.
“There are seven miles of tunnels downtown, and each individual building owns the property in the tunnel, so the décor changes as you go from building to building,” Ken said. “I tailor each greet to a person’s wishes – if they are a visitor from outside of Houston and they want to see downtown from the inside of the tunnels and then outside, I do that. If they are from Houston but never have seen the downtown tunnel system, then I just show them that.”
Ken said visitors always are shocked at how quiet and empty the tunnels and the downtown streets are on his greets. They all expect a busy, crowded place.
“That is because I take them around 9:30 in the morning when everyone is already in their office working, and I explain that,” Ken laughs.
A former human-resources executive, Paul Wear has been a docent of the new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart downtown since it opened, and he decided to become a Houston greeter there as well.
“It is an interesting, neo-classic structure, and it has lots of marble and lovely statues, so visitors are always impressed,” Paul said.
Another greet is given by a local artist, Sandi Seltzer Bryant. She brings Houstonians and visitors to Gallery Row, a series of private art galleries at Kirby and Colquitt.
“A lot of people are not connected to the arts, or they fear just walking into galleries to look at the art,” Sandi explained. “It’s fun to expose people who have a desire to see art and had no idea how accessible, available and friendly gallery owners are to having people come in to look.”
Other greets include the museum district, the Art Car Museum and a biking tour. Isn’t it time we discovered the places beyond our backyards?