Tag: local

What Starts Here… Really Changes the World

A Humanity First member working as a disaster relief volunteer.  Photo courtesy of Humanity First

A Humanity First member working as a disaster relief volunteer.
Photo courtesy of Humanity First

 

 

Anahita Pardiwalla, Fatima Puri, Shannon Smith

With hundreds of student-run humanitarian groups at the University of Texas to choose from, Irenla Bajrovic did not think she’d have trouble finding one that would be willing to help a cause close to her heart. Bajrovic, a natural-born Bosnian, wanted to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bosnian genocide by organizing a fundraiser. She did not anticipate finding her answer in the merely days old organization, Humanity First.

Coordinating a fundraising dinner is a feat for any organization, never mind a newborn one with just six members. Yet, founder and executive director, Usama Malik, was eager for Humanity First to make its grand debut. About $10,000 later, Malik and his peers were excited about the future of their new Texas Chapter.

A year later, 102 members stronger and with numerous successful events under its belt, Humanity First is more confident than ever. Under its motto “serving mankind” the international organization promotes peace and provides aid to victims of natural disasters and human conflicts.

Malik, however, has tailored the Texas Chapter to stand for more than just the humanitarian relief drafted in their motto.

“One that provides a platform for other organizations and other students to accomplish similar goals,” said Malik.

Through this idea of diversifying the Texas Chapter, the organization has been able to work for a number of different causes—all outside the traditional realm of Humanity First’s mission statement.

These causes have ranged from fundraising for victims of domestic violence to raising awareness of childhood cancer, from feeding the homeless to volunteering at elderly rehabilitation centers. Most recently, the organization assembled hygienic kits for homeless veterans.

 

A few of Humanity First's milestones. Photos courtesy of Google Images and Bosana Foundation

A few of Humanity First’s milestones.
Photos courtesy of Google Images and Bosana Foundation

The group’s scope is wide and limitless; and members are proud to be a part of an international organization that still maintains a local focus.

“You’re touching someone’s life, and it doesn’t matter how big the scale is, as long as you’re helping someone,” said member Marina Khaled.

Upcoming events include a charity fashion show and a culture appreciation night. Learn more at http://www.humanityfirsttx.org/.

 

Humanity First has worked for numerous causes since its birth last spring. Check out a timeline of some of their past events here:

 

Learn more about the Humanity First – Texas Chapter in the video below. The members of Humanity First made hygiene kits for homeless veterans and are currently in production for a fashion show in partnership with Voices Against Violence.

Johnson’s Backyard Garden: Keeping Austin Fresh

Filmed and Edited by: Alejandra Martinez, Kristen Hubby and Taylor Villarreal

Photos by: Alejandra Martinez, Kristen Hubby, Taylor Villarreal

Infographics by: Marysabel Cardozo

Story by: Taylor Villarreal and Marysabel Cardozo

 

Twelve years ago, a man named Brenton Johnson converted his family’s backyard garden in Austin’s East Side into a million dollar business.

“Pretty soon I was growing more produce than our family could eat, so I started selling at the Austin Farmers’ Market,” Johnson said in an interview with Find Farm Credit. “We didn’t even know what to charge the first time we were there.”

Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, who formerly served as the Program Administrator for the Water Conservation Field Services Program in Austin, and says he has always believed that “human energy consumption practices need some serious reconsideration.”

Inspired by a Japanese farm that fed its’ community through a prepaid service, Johnson set out to kickstart one of Texas’ first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations: Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

A CSA operation gives members of a community direct access to high quality, fresh produce grown locally by regional farmers. They are also often referred to as personalized box subscriptions.

To Johnson, CSA’s are “a relationship between the farmer and its customers. And essentially, the customers share in the risk of the farm by prepaying for a portion of the harvest.”

When you become a member of a CSA, you are purchasing a “share” of the crops. JBG offers CSA memberships in over ten major cities and suburbs across Texas. Austin members can pick up their food at one of 24 locations throughout the greater Austin area, and new pick-up sites are being added as needed.

“Through my work with JBG, I have aimed to strike a balance between these challenges and the resource-consuming aspects of food production,” Johnson says on his LinkedIn biography. “I continue to strive for constant improvement and community involvement through the most earth-friendly, biodynamic-conscious, organic farming methods.”

To date, JBG employs 20 workers, feeds over 1,000 consumers and grosses over $1 million in sales annually. The farm welcomes volunteers five days out of the week at either of their two locations, The Garfield Farm, where all of their produce is grown, or the Hergotz Packing Shed (better known as “The Barn”). A half-day of volunteering gets the workers one CSA share of seasonal vegetables.

Lyndsie Decologero, a Post Production Manager, started at JBG three years ago as a volunteer at Garfield Farms where she planted and picked produce to be transported to The Barn. From there she was promoted to manage accounts with wholesale retailers, such as Wheatsville Co-Op and Whole Foods Market.

“My first day volunteering we were harvesting sweet potatoes and digging through the soil. By the end of the day I had dirt crammed so far into my fingernails,” Delcologero recalled. “It was such an amazing experience because people really don’t realize just how much work goes behind getting their food to the table. It was truly an amazing and inspiring moment for me, and I hope more people start to learn about what it means to buy locally and organically.”

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B-Cycle or B-Hit?

By Adam Beard, Juan Cortez, Heather Dyer, and Landon Pederson.

Red bikes with baskets are becoming a common sight along the city streets of Austin, Texas. The B-Cycle program, which launched in December of 2013, is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week bike-share program that has gone from 11 stations to 45 stations, doubled its first usage projections and set national records.

Four different stations surround the 40 Acres of the University of Texas, including two on Guadalupe Street. Photo by Landon Pederson.

Four different stations surround the 40 Acres of the University of Texas, including two on Guadalupe Street. Photo by Landon Pederson.

The main goal of the program is to bridge the transportation gap in public transit by providing a final-mile connector from the city’s mass transit system to their final destination and to reduce Austin’s traffic downtown.

However, many believe B-Cycle could be harming a different traffic problem – bicycle safety.

Cyclists interested in using B-cycle need a credit card to access the system. Once the card is swiped, cyclists can choose a bike from the rack and ride it to a station near their destination. Photo by Landon Pederson.

Cyclists interested in using B-cycle need a credit card to access the system. Once the card is swiped, cyclists can choose a bike from the rack and ride it to a station near their destination. Photo by Landon Pederson.

“I don’t really feel that safe as a bike rider myself,” said Bea Scott, a frequent bike rider in Austin. “A lot of times, a lot of people don’t really know what they’re supposed to do.”

Scott referred to both cyclers and drivers having confusion on the roads, which in turn, can cause a lot of accidents. In fact, the city of Austin has seen its bicycle accidents increase by 15 percent almost every year since 2007.

With the increase in bicycles due to the B-Cycle program, some are expecting this will only continue and perhaps get even worse.

“I’ve just heard such horror stories about people getting hit because there’s confusion as to who is turning or if the biker was going to go through a crosswalk,” Scott said. “Because of that confusion and also the fact that a lot of people don’t wear helmets, it’s really concerning.”

Although the number of bicycle accidents is increasing in Austin, the percent might be higher if all

Austin B-cycle was created to provide Austinites and locals another mode of transportation to explore downtown and the surrounding area. Photo by Landon Pederson.

Austin B-cycle was created to provide Austinites and locals another mode of transportation to explore downtown and the surrounding area. Photo by Landon Pederson.

accidents were reported. The Austin Police Department recently released a statement saying “people tend to only report a bicycle accident to the police when there is an injury or major damage. Most bicycle accidents go unreported by the parties involved.”

Despite all of the controversy, B-Cycle officials have yet to see a problem with its program.

“It hasn’t really been an issue for us,” said Elliott McFadden, the CEO of B-Cycle Austin. “Bike share systems have a stellar safety record throughout the world, and that is so far the case here.”

Austin resident Joy Messie does not see an issue either.

Austin Police Department recently released a statement saying unless an injury or major damage is involved, “most bicycle accidents go unreported by the parties involved.” Photo by Landon Pederson.

Austin Police Department recently released a statement saying unless an injury or major damage is involved, “most bicycle accidents go unreported by the parties involved.” Photo by Landon Pederson.

“I’ve moved around a lot, and this is definitely the city I’ve lived in that has the most bike lanes and most biker-friendly stuff,” Messie said. “Some of the drivers in the city I think could do a better job.”

The answer to the question of bicycle safety in Austin remains split, but there are people out there trying to improve the city’s conditions. Nathan Wilkes, an engineer with Austin’s Bicycle Program, said Austin is looking to create a plan that would make for a safer transportation system.

He also added that 39 percent of residents fall into the category of “interested but concerned” to ride a bicycle on the streets. Wilkes said he believes there are ways to make cycling a more appealing option.

                                                                                   One includes what was recently implemented on Guadalupe Street – a cycle track that is physically separated from motor vehicle traffic.

Nevertheless, there are still concerns for increasing bicycle accidents with the new B-Cycle program, especially because the program enables people to ride bikes that don’t normally use them on the city’s roads.

 

 

Rubber Duckies Raise Funds for the Boys & Girls Club of Austin

By Jamie Balli, Breanna Luna, Briana Franklin and Silvana Di Ravenna

It was a cold, Saturday morning as rain covered the empty streets of downtown Austin. The city seemed to be sleeping but under Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, commonly referred to as “The Bat Bridge” by Austinites, the very first Austin Duck Derby was taking place.

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A boat filled with VIP spectators awaits the start of the Austin Duck Derby 2014 . The event Benefitted the Boys & Girls Club Foundation. Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna.

At the event, several people walked around sporting yellow duck-beak whistles while others were dressed in duck-themed attire. The event also featured a duck mascot available for pictures, dancing, and entertainment.

The Austin Duck Derby, held on Nov.15, launched a mass of more than 10,000 yellow rubber ducks into Lady Bird Lake. The ducks raced to the finish line to win prizes for their adopters. The ducks, which were bombarded into the water from the top of the bridge, marveled the kids and parents that happily awaited near the shore, bundled in hats and furry coats.

Besides the colorful spectacle that the event provided, which also included face painting, hula hoopers and live music, the purpose of the race had a serious goal in mind: to raise much needed fundings for the Boys and Girls Club Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports and provides assistance to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Austin Area.

Every year, over 12,000 kids (and over 1,700 each day) are nurtured and taken care of in 22 welcoming Austin locations, which provide hope and opportunity to children ages 6 to 18. The centers offer various classes and activities including leadership development, arts, health and recreational sports. The club relies on volunteers who offer their time as coaches, tutors and activities assistants.

 

Kelly St. Julien, the East Austin Boys & Girls Club Director, said that all the funds for the Austin Duck Derby go to the Boys & Girls Club Foundation of Austin. They use funds to support programs in the clubs and to cover the large amount of expenses.

“At clubs, our biggest expense is payroll of staff and supplies. We have a lot of overhead in terms of consumables like paint, crayons, pencils, paper, basketballs, jump-ropes, and everything you can think of that kids like to play with. There are a lot of kind people in Austin who donate, but we need things on a regular basis,” St. Julien said.

At the Boys & Girls Club in East Austin, funds raised go towards drum sets, pool tables, ping pong tables, marbles, basketballs, and school supplies for classes taught by instructors. When they are not in class learning, children are able to play sports and games with other children.

11-year-old Sanoya, a member of the East Austin club, said that her favorite part of going to the Boys & Girls Club is the extracurricular activities.

“I like playing ping pong when I come to the club because it’s really fun,” Sanoya said.

Gina Hill, the Special Events Chair for the Boys and Girls Club Foundation, mentioned at the event that this was the first time the Duck Derby has benefitted the Boys and Girls Club of Austin. The Duck Derby races, which have been going on for 26 years, have been used during similar fundraisers across the nation in other cities for the Special Olympics and food banks.

A dancing duck was at the event to groove to the music. Several attendees took pictures and danced with the duck. Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna.

“We are very excited to have raised 10,000 ducks and about $50,000 total in this effort today. This money goes into the programs that help the clubs kids. We hope that the event also helps raise awareness for the Boys and Girls Club of Austin,” she said.

The event was sponsored by more than 35 local national and local business, which provided prizes for the race. Sponsors included Amy’s Ice Cream, Whole Foods and the Austin Fire Department.

Participants had the opportunity to “adopt” a racing rubber duck for $5 dollars with the chance of winning anything from a round of golf at Palmer Lakeside Golf Course to a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta.

Andrew Garvin, who used to attend the Boys and Girls Club during his youth and currently does PR and Consulting on his own, became this year’s official promoter and face of The Austin Duck Derby.

He decided to participate in the race when Gina Hill herself invited him to join in at a different event. He said that the experience was the perfect opportunity to give back to an organization that did so much for him.

Andrew Garvin, the official promoter and face of the Austin Duck Derby, stands near the duck race and takes observations of the event’s success. Garvin used to attend the Boys & Girls Club during his youth and hopes to give back as much as possible to the organization in order to help other children who are in similar situations that he faced growing up. Photo by Silvana Di Ravenna.

“If it wasn’t for the Boys and Girls Club I wouldn’t be where I am today. I lived in a low-income house and we didn’t have a basketball court or gym equipment, computers, assistance nor tutoring. The club gave us a place to be and it was a good social setting for kids that didn’t have that opportunity outside of class or outside school,” Garvin said.

According to St. Julien, the Austin Duck Derby is a way to get the entire community involved while informing them of what the club does. It is also a fun event that is easy to take part in.

“We really wanted to make our fundraising more accessible to everyone. Only so many people can attend our Boys and Girls Club spring luncheon, our fall gala, and our golf tournament. The duck derby serves a dual purpose of getting the word out about who we are to people who might not know us while allowing people to support us, and culminate that in a fun way,” St. Julien added.

Duck Derby Video from Briana Franklin on Vimeo.

 

 

Austin Yogis Unite at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival

By Silvana Di Ravenna, Emma Ledford and Andrew Masi

If you’re looking to unwind after a long and stressful week, going to a 4-day-long festival in the heart of downtown Austin probably isn’t at the top on your list – but you might rethink that after hearing about Wanderlust.

From Nov. 6-9, the Wanderlust Yoga Festival brought Austin yogis to 4th Street and Brazos for four days of diverse yoga classes, music, art and community. Beginner, intermediate and expert yogis alike found classes that fostered physical, mental and spiritual growth and relaxation in a healthy and welcoming environment.

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A group of attendees at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival take part in a class. Festival activities were spread out over four days. Photo by Andrew Masi.

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Zoe Mantarakis shows off one of her favorite yoga positions. Mantarakis led several different classes at the festival. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Zoe Mantarakis has been teaching yoga in Austin for 14 years. She led five very different classes at Wanderlust Austin this year, embodying the wide spectrum of yoga the festival offered.

She started with a self-empowerment class on Friday morning called “Nectar Within” and a meditative class called “Om Shanti Bliss-out.” Later that evening, she switched gears and led “Boom Boom Pow Black Light,” a collaboration with musician DJ Manny that she called a “party on your yoga mat.” She also taught a class on Saturday on her style of yoga rooted in ancient Sanskrit philosophy, “Yoga Illumined,” and a class on Sunday about self-discipline called “Tapas: Fire Within.”

Though her classes were very different from each other, they were “all on the same spectrum,” Mantarakis said, because they focused on creating community.

“Yoga is about bringing a community together and creating a tribe. So there’s many ways to accomplish that, and all of those ways are yoga,” she said. “So if it’s just sitting still and meditating, that’s yoga. If it’s having a party where we’re conscious and we’re all coming together, that’s yoga.”

Newcomers and expert yogis alike found Wanderlust classes that suited their needs. Festivalgoer Stephan Mazerand has been practicing yoga for about three months. His first love is running, and he discovered yoga as a way to help him stretch better.

Though he’s still a beginner, he was able to find classes at the festival that worked for him and helped him grow.

“The problem is I’m a runner, so I can’t straighten out properly,” Mazerand said. “There’s a bunch of poses. I’m not very good at them, and so the instructor was helping me out a little bit, you know.”

In an effort to get festivalgoers out of their comfort zone, Austin yoga teacher Dani Whitehead hosted an open-to-everyone acroyoga “jam” session. She hoped to get people to try acroyoga for the first time, but also provide an opportunity for advanced yogis to “come out and show off.”

“Acroyoga is kind of like dancing. There’s ballroom, there’s hip-hop, there’s contemporary, there’s ballet,” she said. “It can be for fun, it can be for performance, it can be as a workout, it can be to make friends. You can do anything you want.”

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Dani Whitehead demonstrates her strength in a partnered acroyoga session. Whitehead teaches acrobatic partner yoga in Austin, and feats like this draw students to her classes. Photo by Andrew Masi.

Whitehead has been practicing acroyoga for about three years. Though it is more vigorous than traditional yoga, she hopes to get more people into it and grow the community.

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Everyone was invited to participate in the acroyoga play session, as long as they did so safely. Photo by Andrew Masi.

“It is such an amazing practice to do with your friend, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, your children – and I am all about supporting that coming together and bringing people in, but also staying safe and taking care of each other,” Whitehead said.

Austin yogi Elizabeth Davis led hiking classes at Wanderlust to help people to “take their Austin outside,” expand their consciousness and find the magic in every moment. She urged her hikers to do self-inquiry work and have “authentic conversations” about their negative or shameful thoughts so that they could move past them and appreciate the present.

“Every moment is truly a gift. It’s a gift that we’re even together as human beings,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of this amazing experience and community. It just reaffirms why I’m in the yoga community and why I do what I do. And I just couldn’t be more happy.”

Austin’s festival is just one of the many annual Wanderlust Yoga Festivals held across the U.S. and around the globe, including Canada and Australia. The festivals help grow and connect the many yoga communities across the world, Mantarakis said.

“To me Wanderlust Festival is all about tribe. And that’s essentially what it is. It’s a traveling group of yogis that grows at each spot and cultivates community within a certain location but then also across boundaries,” she said. “Once we’re connected, we’re a tribe. Across state lines, across country lines.”

Wanderlust Yoga Festivals Across the World (map created by Emma Ledford)
Wanderlust Yoga Festivals are held in multiple locations across the U.S. (including Hawaii), Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Click here for the schedule.

A Budding Artist

By: Claire Edwards, Madison Hamilton, Helen Fernandez, Melinda Billingsley and Jonny Cramer

Michelangelo used a 50-foot ladder to reach the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Picasso required a vast color palette to coat his geometric shapes. Banksy operates through complete secrecy. Shannon Donaldson needs a little water and a well-lit room to keep her art alive.

Shannon Donaldson, founder of Flowers on the Fly, prepares succulents on her ice cream bike. Photo by Helen Fernandez

Shannon Donaldson, founder of Flowers on the Fly, prepares succulents on her ice cream bike. Photo by Helen Fernandez

After graduating in 2006 with a degree in sculpting from Stephen F. Austin University, Donaldson didn’t know in what direction to take her artistic abilities.

“I never knew where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to do,” she says. “Finally I found this little niche of succulent plants.”

Donaldson says she sees each succulent as a sculpture in itself. She creates arrangements by focusing on different textures and colors. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Donaldson says she sees each succulent as a sculpture in itself. She creates arrangements by focusing on different textures and colors. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

In 2012 she founded Flowers on the Fly with an ice cream bike and a few dozen succulent plants. Her business flourished – no pun intended – when she started pairing the cactus-like plants with funky vases, pots and sculptures that she purchased from local shops.

After securing her three spots: South Congress, The Drag, and downtown Austin – Donaldson became the go-to succulent vendor around town.

University of Texas at Austin student, Leigh Brown has started working with Donaldson to personalize her purchases.

“I buy succulents from here every three or four months,” says Brown. “I design a setup with her and she’ll go and get the plants for me.”

Not only do UT Austin students enjoy sprucing up their dorm with stylish succulents, the local art community has praised Donaldson for her innovation. RAW, “the natural born” art show hosted at The Belmont in downtown Austin, invited Donaldson to showcase her work. Her setup ranged from succulents sprouting out of glimmering black skulls with lit up eyes to blue dinosaurs with plants growing out of their back. The creativity and attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed – her cart was placed on the first floor, directly across from the main stage, where RAW attendees crowded around in admiration.

“My favorite thing is the succulent gasp – it’s the moment when people see my cart and they’re like ‘Ah that is so cute!’”

Donaldson had to create a job to use her art degree, she says she wasn't able to go out and find one. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Donaldson had to create a job to use her art degree. She says she wasn’t able to go out and find one. Photo by Helen Fernandez.

Even though her succulents have been in high demand among the art community and UT students alike, Donaldson doesn’t have any desire to raise prices. Ranging from $4 to $25, her succulents are cheaper than most art – and plants in the area. An appreciation for high-quality, reasonably priced art was a key component when creating Flowers on the Fly.

Starting a business was a big risk for Donaldson but it paid off – proving to her family and self that unconventional paths can be successful.

A Budding Artist from Claire Edwards on Vimeo.

Inaugural Stargayzer Fest Celebrates Austin Queer Community

By Anna Daugherty, Emma Ledford and Alex Vickery

More than 100 LGBTQIA musicians, artists, drag performers and comedians from around the world took the stage for the inaugural Stargayzer Festival on Sept. 12-14 at Pine Street Station.

Zahira Gutierrez of Houston band Wild Moccasins sings during their Saturday set. Photo by Alex Vickery

Zahira Gutierrez of Houston band Wild Moccasins sings during their Saturday set. Photo by Alex Vickery

Despite the rainy weather, Austinites of all ages and orientations turned out to support the diverse range of talent within the queer community.

“We’ve got comedians and drag and performance art and we even have yoga and visual artists,” festival organizer Brett Hornsby said. “I think a lot of other pride events just kind of focus on one area alone, and so we just wanted to be as diverse as we could and show the broad spectrum that is being offered.”

Stargayzer has been years in the making, Hornsby said. Over the last five years, he was inspired by the diverse range of queer artists he met while touring with performer Christeene Vale.

“I think by [touring] I discovered how much incredible queer talent there is all over the world and how it’s kind of being overlooked,” Hornsby said. “I wanted to bring everyone together and make something that’s focused just on that.”

Photo by Alex Vickery

Two festivalgoers skip around puddles after the rain clears at Stargayzer Festival at Pine Street Station. Photo by Alex Vickery

Scheduling Stargayzer for the weekend before Austin Pride Week wasn’t intentional, Hornsby said, but it was good timing. The weather, though, was less than ideal, as rain soaked the festival grounds all day Friday and part of Saturday.

Pegzilla, from Toronto, poses with her "baby." Photo by Alex Vickery

Pegzilla, from Toronto, poses with her “baby.” Photo by Alex Vickery

The festival atmosphere, however, was anything but gloomy. Austin-based comedic drag performer Rebecca Havemeyer embraced the unexpected weather.

“I like how we have rain. We never have rain in Austin,” Havemeyer said. “The grass is growing and the ants are crawling.”

Tamara Hoover and Maggie Lea, co-owners of queer-friendly bar Cheer Up Charlie’s, said that Hornsby came to them with the idea for Stargayzer about six months ago. They jumped at the opportunity to see the Cheer Up community in a different element and location.

“Overall, this community has come out no matter what weather parameters they were given,” Hoover said. “It’s been a really awesome display of how supportive our Austin community is for each other.”

Lea agreed, adding that many festivalgoers didn’t just come for the headliners, but to support the lesser-known local bands and the Austin queer community as a whole.

When Hornsby began booking for the festival, he started with the better-known artists. He ended up getting so many submissions that he had to start turning people down.

“We discovered, on top of everything else, how much crazy stuff was out there, so going through it was really fun,” Hornsby said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you booked all the gay artists in the world!’ But that’s not true at all. There’s so many more.”

Regina The Gentlelady and her band Light Fires traveled all the way from Toronto for the festival. They played pride festivals before, but were attracted to Stargayzer because of the quality and diversity of the talent.

“It’s just a nice showcase of queer talent, and a really broad range of things,” she said. “There’s drag queens and then there’s bands that you wouldn’t even necessarily know are queer, or don’t have a queer agenda or anything, but they just are.”

"Have you ever seen a hairy bagel?" L.A. comedian Brad Loekle entertains a crowd on the main stage between musical performances.

“Have you ever seen a hairy bagel?” L.A. comedian Brad Loekle entertains a crowd on the main stage between musical performances. Photo by Alex Vickery

Though it had its share of challenges, Hornsby hopes the first Stargayzer Festival will create a foundation for the event to happen again next year.

“There’s a lot of groups to juggle and shuffle, but they’ve all been patient and really excited to be a part of something like this,” he said. “We want to make this happen. And whatever happens, happens.”

Austin Gets Exotic with Local Pet Store

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

A chameleon hangs from a stick in its tank at ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in North Austin.

By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg

“There’s something magical about a pet shop.”

Daniel Keeper sits in his office, walls lined with artifacts and oddities like dinosaur eggs, metal antlers, and a plastic monkey head that starts screeching as it senses the wave of his hand. Outside his office door a fluffy black chicken runs around his store, ZooKeeper Exotic Pets, clucking as children laugh. One couple looks adoringly at their Swoop, their five-week old yellow bird, and another girl smiles as her pet chameleon climbs up her arm and attaches itself to her sweater. Most pet stores are magical, but this one is more. It’s exotic.

Daniel Keeper opened ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in 1988, the first exclusively exotic store in the state. The current location, his fourth, is located on the corner of U.S. 183 and Burnet Road in North Austin.

At the store, Keeper and his staff care for and sell many different types of exotic animals including snakes, tropical frogs, scorpions, hedgehogs, bearded-dragon lizards, a bird-eating spider and Sophia, a two-toed sloth who hangs out in an enclosure near the door.

Even though his passion for animals was always present, Keeper didn’t begin his professional life in the pet business at all.

“I grew up and became interested in other things as well and tried to make a vocation of conventional things, so I ended up as a service manager at a rental car company in Austin,” Keeper said. “But after ten years of employment I realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and I started thinking ‘I wonder if I can make a go of my interests.’”

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

ZooKeeper owner Daniel Keeper in in his office.

So he looked around Austin and realized there was only one pet store that carried exotics, and only in a small closet in the back of the store, Keeper decided to “make an entire store of that closet” and open his own store for $80 a month in rent.

Originally, Keeper maintained his conventional job from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and operated his store from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but decided after a few years to go all in.

“My wife was so scared because we had a mortgage and a kid, but I told her it’s kind of like going off the high board for the first time,” he said. “Once you’re up there you just hold your breath and go. You do the best research you can do, you just go and put your head down and start working and don’t look back up until you’re sure it’s safe again. And that’s what I did.”

Keeper describes his store as primarily service oriented and hires only staff members who he thinks will get along with others and contribute to the store’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere.

“The average person that comes in here is happy to be here. They’re excited,” he said. “It’s not like going to the dentist; there are fun things in here. So when someone comes in its easy to strike up a conversation with them, because you have something in common.”

With such unfamiliar animals housed within its walls, ZooKeeper staff attracts a wide variety of customers and seeks to educate them while providing a fun experience, especially the children.

“Sometimes we’ll take them to the back where we are feeding the baby animals or take them to the incubators and show them that,” Keeper said. “If you’re a parent there is nothing better than walking into a place and having somebody treat your kid like they are a little person. I remember being a kid and people didn’t treat me as a human. So I try to get down on their level, and some of them are really smart, it’s just amazing to them.”

While Keeper says he enjoys educating all customers about the creatures in his store, owning an exotic pet can be a tough task.

“I’m good about helping people look into the future and get past just being excited about the animals they’re interested in and trying to show them the high points and the low points,” Keeper said. “We want them to be successful, and we want it to be a good fit for both [the animal and the owner]. We always try to show them the ups and the downs of everything.”

For some animals require exotic diets, nontraditional living quarters, or expensive regimens, Keeper said he has had to intervene in the sale of the animal.

“There’s a fine line in the pet industry about making decisions for people. When I was up and coming consumer in the pet store, I didn’t want somebody telling me I wasn’t fit for an animal. I didn’t want someone making that decision for me,” he said. “Now that I’m on this side of the counter I try to find the right animal for the right person. In a few circumstances I’ll put my foot down and say this is not the right animal for you and I’ll try to make something that’s a better fit.”

As Austin has gained popularity as a host for movies and television shows, Keeper has received callers with strange requests that might not be a good fit for the average consumer.

“We’ll get a call out of the blue saying they need 10,000 roaches or something like that. A lot of the time they’ll also need a wrangler, or someone to manage the animals while on the shoot,” he said.

The store has provided roaches and scorpions to the television show Fear Factor, and had National Geographic photograph their animals for a series on arachnophobia, or “fear of spiders.”

“We just ask that we get some legal promise that our name will get mentioned in the credits,” Keeper said. “Usually that’s what we’d like, some acknowledgement and a little PR for our efforts.”

Last year, ZooKeeper was approached with an offer for its own reality television show highlighting the culture of the store, its customers, and the exotic pet “lifestyle.”

Keeper and his staff met with the prospective producers, who also work with the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. The staff got a contract from New York and shared tales of store pranks and fun times, but ultimately decided against participating.

“A lot of my staff was freaked out about being on camera, and every customer that came in (about 100-200 daily) would be required to sign a legal agreement to be on film,” Keeper explained. “It seemed like a lot of hassle for not much money.”

zookeeper-15

Spiders like this one are bred in the store. Some spiders will hatch up to 1,500 eggs at one time, each needing its own separate food and habitat.

Along with just selling animals, the store also has its own breeding program. Keeper began breeding animals before he opened up at his first location. Currently, the store is incubating eggs for a batch of red-bearded dragons and tortoises.

“The breeding just came out of an interest in seeing if I could be successful in it,” Keeper said. “Most of the time when animals feel comfortable enough to breed its because you’ve done a good job making them feel comfortable. If you get something to breed its kind of an assurance that you’ve done something right.”

While most of the pet breeding is just for fun, the store also breeds “food animals,” such as crickets, worms, and mice, to help supplement the store’s income. Breeding these animals in-house allows Keeper to avoid relying on vendors for the mass quantities of these animals sold. On average the store sells 500 to 1,000 mice (many of which are frozen into what employees call “Mice Pops”) and between 20 thousand and 50 thousand crickets weekly.

Whether it’s to buy some of these food animals or to just browse, there are always people poking in and out of ZooKeeper. And they like it that way.

“I think our enthusiasm for what we do is contagious,” Keeper said. “My favorite thing is dealing with kids of all ages–not necessarily just physiological kids– you can just tell when someone has that ‘Wow!’ when you see that whole amazement of having a close-up one on one experience with nature. “

What exotic pet would you want to own?

Bold beauties show off their tattooed bodies in burlesque performance

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 1.57.41 PM Bethany Summersizzle performs an aerial act in the Ink and Smile: Tales of Tattoos From the Inked Ladies of Burlesque at the North Door on Saturday, Jan. 25. Photo By Angela Buenrostro

By: Chelsea Bass, Angela Buenrostro, Joanie Ferguson and Rachel Hill

When the average adult thinks of women who take off their clothes for a living, it often brings forth thoughts of poles and grungy dollar bills. These women use props too, but with a theme and flair. The Burlesque production Ink and a Smile, Saturday Jan. 25 at the North Door, featured a variety of experienced burlesque performers who used their tattoos to tell a story.

“They are experienced, high-quality performers,” event coordinator and founder of The Burlesquerie, Roxie Moxie said.

The theme for Ink and a Smile was developed by Roxie Moxie, which coincided with the annual tattoo revival being held that same weekend. Each of the 11 women who performed had different props related to their tattoos and the story they wanted to convey, which, for some, included aerial rings, ropes and lots of easily removable corsets. The emcee encouraged audience members to cheer whenever the women began to do anything provocative, mainly when they showed any skin as it is a burlesque tradition.

The performers went from a full costume, in conjunction with whatever theme they represented, to a G-string and pasties placed over their nipples, making them a thin strip of cloth away from being nude.

Burlesque shows have been around as early as the 17th century in Britain and eventually were picked up by Americans and revamped as American burlesque in New York. The American version differed from the English genre by focusing more on female nudity. It went from women showing just a little skin to a full strip tease.

Women who participate in burlesque in this day and age describe it as a form of empowerment for women while also having a strong feminist overtone. The average woman has the opportunity to partake in the rich history of burlesque in Austin in the Burlesque academy for beginners, and other local troupes such as Jigglewatts and Black Widow Burlesque, of which some of the dancers in Ink and a Smile were already members.

Although the art of burlesque is still considered provocative, those who attended Ink and a Smile couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised by the eroticism mixed in with acrobatics and entertaining stories.

How many tattoos do you have?

Austin Poetry Slam: The Spoken Word Revolution

By Jasmine Alexander, Jessica Duong, Kaine Korzekwa and Joan Vinson

Sam Sax reads in the Austin Poetry Slam at Spider House Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Sam Sax competes in the Austin Poetry Slam at Spider House Ballroom on Tuesday, Jan. 28. The venue hosts the slam every Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The rhymes made during the Austin Poetry Slam won’t be heard in any high school English class.

It’s not like a typical poetry performance, where artists recite their work to an applauding audience. Instead, an audience with randomly selected judges decides which poets leave with a $100 prize. Hearing the poets cry, scream, laugh, dance, wail or flail during their passionate performances is almost guaranteed.

The result is a poetry competition like no other.

“[Slamming is] kind of like theater or art,” said Victoria Murray, a slam poet. “Once you start going on a regular basis you can’t stop doing it even if you take a hiatus from coming. You’re still always writing, you’re still always thinking about things or performances or lines. Once you love something you can’t just let it stop flowing out of you.”

The Spider House Ballroom hosts the Austin Poetry Slam every Tuesday at 8 p.m. with a $5 admission. Murray fell in love with slamming the first time she attended one in the spring of 2011. Two years later, Murray, who works at a bank, began slamming.

“It’s the modern-day storytelling of our time,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of that, I think, over the years, especially with social media. People come up here and tell their stories and they tell exactly how they’re feeling, and sometimes a poem can really move you to the point of tears or laughter, or to where you just want to go hug a person, even though you don’t know them.”

The act of “slamming” is relatively new in the world of poetry. Marc Smith is credited with throwing the first poetry slam in Chicago in 1987. According to his website, from then on the poetry slam movement spread across America and the globe — there are poetry slams in Greece, Latvia and Madagascar, to name a few.

Many members of the Austin Poetry Slam see writing poetry and slamming as an outlet for expression. Chris Formey, a poetry slam contestant, uses poetry to help deal with his bipolar disorder and schizophrenic episodes.

“I’ve actually been writing [poetry] since I was in fourth grade,” said Formey, 22. “I’ve always been a writer. It’s been an outlet for me. Sometimes, not having someone to talk to, I can just talk to myself on a page. I try to speak about as many uplifting things as I possibly can. Everyday, I kind of see life as like a boxing match.”

Des Grosshuesch, another slam poet, finds inspiration in everyday activities. She said she got into slams because she likes to read aloud what she writes.

“I spend a lot of time just going and getting on the train, riding it back and forth and talking to people and getting stories from them,” she said. “Mostly people just talk about their lives and they become sort of characters that I talk about.”

Austin Poetry Slam is just one of the weekly spoken word shows in Austin. Neo-Soul, at Mr. Catfish & More, and Kick Butt Poetry, at the Kick Butt Coffee on Airport Boulevard, also attract top slam poets of the area. Check out the map below to see how close you live to a poetry slam.

“In general, it’s a family,” said Murray. “We fight and we get annoyed with each other, but we all still drop everything and give you the shirt off our backs. We all come from so many different backgrounds, [yet] we can all meld together so well.”