That necessity breeds invention is never more true than in today's world, with regular Joes and Janes inventing creative measures to help their neighbors navigate the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution process. And the results have been nothing short of "heavenly."
Tarrytown resident Barbara Ritchie placed her name on five different COVID-19 vaccine lists. She qualifies for phase 1B—older individuals and those with chronic health conditions—in the vaccine distribution effort as designated by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Group 1A consists of first responders and healthcare workers.
As with many other Austinites seeking a vaccine within the state's inadequate supply, Ritchie became frustrated searching for a time slot to get the vaccine, hitting "refresh" and "next" on websites for an hour and a half, with no luck. While on her community's Nextdoor site, she found someone who helped her get a vaccine jab earlier this month. But she noticed numerous Nextdoor members asking for help to navigate the vaccine application process while others offered advice, a system she called "disorganized" and "haphazard." Ritchie was determined to find a more efficient way.
"I thought, 'Here are people who need help and here are people who are willing to help, why not try to put together a list of (those) people?'" she said.
Barbara Ritchie coined the name "Scheduling Angels" after being helped by someone to schedule a vaccine appointment. (Barbara Ritchie)
A former IT project manager, Ritchie coordinated a database of contact information for community members who needed assistance finding a vaccine appointment as well as those offering to help, focusing on West Austin and Travis County neighborhoods including Rollingwood, West Lake Hills, Lost Creek, Tarrytown, Pemberton Heights and Balcones.
"The woman who helped me, when she got the appointment, I said to her, 'You are such an angel,'" she recalled. "That's how I felt. I started calling (the helpers) Scheduling Angels. Now everybody calls them that."
On Feb. 5, Ritchie posted the list on Nextdoor, along with three simple rules for communication, nearly tripling the number of "angels" on the list in less than a week. This week, she has up to 40 angels on her list.
"Some of them have children at home and jobs, they have lives, but they still find time, even if it's one or two people, to help," she said of the group's volunteers. "They do it out of the goodness of their heart."
With the program up and running—Nextdoor/General/Update-SchedulingAngels—Ritchie receives about 100 emails per day. Although she's online to respond to questions and provide updates, she leaves the scheduling up to the "angels."
"Unfortunately, because there's so much more demand than there are people available to help, schedules are filling up fast," Ritchie said. "Still, it's clear that there's a need for this kind of help for people and, particularly, for people over 70 (years old) because they didn't grow up with technology."
As with Ritchie, Rosedale residents Jim Robinson, 74, and his wife, Lana Norwood, 68, were among many Austinites who are frustrated trying to find COVID-19 vaccine openings in Central Texas's limited supply.
The couple took to social media and one of several Nextdoor sites seeking help on access to a shot. The method proved successful, with Robinson hastily hopping on his computer once news of a vaccine clinic posted. Both have now received their vaccines.
"Because of (the) post, we were able to get to the computer quick enough to get a couple of appointments," Robinson said. "I've seen a block of appointments go within 20 or 30 minutes. If a post is 30 or 40 minutes old, you might as well forget it."
Nextdoor has been outlet for vaccine news and helpers in the midst of a rocky rollout.
South Austin resident Raji Parameswaran said she's voluntarily spent the past few weeks helping others get vaccine appointments. Her "clients" have ranged from a local college professor to a retired judge who performs drive-through wedding ceremonies. She established six 200-member WhatsApp groups to disseminate news of vaccine openings and created vaccine hub accounts for seniors, sometimes making appointments for them.
"This has become my day job," Parameswaran said. A consultant by trade, she said that work has fallen by the wayside in light of the 10-12 hours per day she spends helping others get access to what could be lifesaving measures.
After assisting her elderly mother and father get their vaccines, she spread word of her success to friends who had parents in town, inundating her with others also hoping to nab a spot. Parameswaran's calendar soon filled up—solely by word of mouth—and she enlisted a few "amazing" friends to join her team to help, Parameswaran said.
"They feel very alone, very scared and anxious," she said of the seniors she helps. "All of these people, they're just delightful people. Everyone has a story."
As the proprietor of a company involved in ticketing concerts and large scale events put on hold during the pandemic, Bee Cave's Kendra Wright turned to her software and organizational skills to create a COVID-19 vaccine resource spreadsheet and 1,000-person email list. She updates those tools as she tracks changes in the distribution process. Like Parameswaran, she uses WhatsApp to communicate vaccine availability in real time.
"It's just one of the more rewarding things I've ever done in my life," Wright said.
After her parents, one of whom lives in an assisted living facility, received COVID-19 vaccines last month, Wright said she felt a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders and "wanted everyone to feel this feeling." Initially, she reached out to help seven acquaintances who qualified for the vaccine, researching the best route to find shots for them. Then she assisted 11 more applicants. Soon, she was texting with numerous vaccine groups at a time and currently has about 40 volunteers on board, none of whom Wright met prior to the endeavor.
"It just got so big so fast," Wright said. "It's gone viral and we've helped now thousands of people get vaccines."
She's instituted a "100 Club" within her network to acknowledge volunteers who have found at least 100 vaccines for individuals, adding that its membership includes "quite a few people."
Although the program began in the West Austin suburbs, through her volunteers, Wright has reached out to East Austin schools and churches to assist vulnerable communities. The most affected ZIP codes of COVID-19 have been on or straddle the east side of town, and residents may lack a computer to access online registration systems or the time to do so.
"I'm trying to give people hope," Wright said. "I'm trying to help them sort out the complexities of finding a vaccine."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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