By Christina Autry
Sonja Gee brings a passion for asset-based community building and an entrepreneurial spirit into her new leadership role at Memorial Assistance Ministries. Stepping into the role of President and CEO at this Spring Branch non-profit, Gee has eagerly taken the reigns to continue serving the community with an emphasis on empowerment.
“It’s great to work in an organization that is so established in the community,” says Gee. Memorial Assistance Ministries was founded in the 1980s, when local churches sought to respond to the financial downturn that cost thousands of people their employment. Churches banded together and pooled their resources to provide food, rental assistance and clothing for local families. This initiative spurred the formation of “Zip Code Assistance Ministries,” as churches volunteered to serve specific zip codes, to efficiently address needs around the city.
Out of this effort came Memorial Assistance Ministries, which has grown from a small food pantry to a 501(c)(3) that serves a huge diversity of needs. “Every piece of MAM is important. There is a lot of value in the fact that families can have multiple needs addressed at one location,” says Gee. “Clients know we have their best interests in mind, and we understand the complexity of their situations,” she explains. Having this home-base for social services saves families the hassle of locating and traveling between multiple disconnected service-providers.
With partners such as Spring Branch ISD, Communities in Schools, healthcare providers, and many more, MAM welcomes the support of the Spring Branch and the Houston community to holistically serve people seeking assistance. This is a perspective that Gee wants to continue permeating throughout MAM. “Non-profits can easily have more of a transactional approach, because focusing on community engagement to find true solutions takes a lot of hard work and investment,” Gee says. “But it is essential,” she concludes. “MAM is highly respected and trusted, and people know they will be treated with dignity rather than a charity case.”
The Spring Branch Management District proudly partners with MAM, as with their recent $25,0000 contribution to the MAM Back to School program, which provided thousands of students with new uniforms for the first day of school. In 2018, financial support from corporations, congregations, individuals, foundations and grants was used for the benefit of 9,000 families.
With over 2,000 volunteers serving at MAM throughout the year, the organization remains a positive place for individuals and groups to invest their time and skills, with the assurance that they are making a difference. Gee describes these community partnerships as the heartbeat of MAM.
Community has been a core value for Gee throughout her life. Gee was born and raised in the Westchase area by her father who immigrated from China, and her mother who immigrated from Germany. Gee cherishes the diversity of culture and thought that she experienced within her family. “When I was growing up, being biracial was not as common,” she remembers. “Living in a multicultural family keeps me open to new ideas, innovation, and recognizing that there are multiple paths to take,” she says.
“Two things were at the forefront of my parents’ values: family, and education,” she states. Inter-community support has served a vital role in supporting families and individuals from abroad who are starting lives in Houston. Networking among relatives and friends can provide access to opportunities for newly arrived immigrants, which continues as families establish themselves in the city. Gee was able to attend Rice University, graduating with a degree in Sociology, and go on to earn a Master of Education from Stanford University. “MAM holds many of the same values that I grew up with,” says Gee.
“My personal experience with my family has connected me with the MAM mission, and I see a lot of myself reflected in it,” she says. In her initial months on the job at MAM, one of Gee’s primary goals is to gain a deeper understanding of Spring Branch. “I’m not simply looking at what we need. I’m looking at what assets we have,” she affirms. Meetings, driving tours, lunches at Spring Branch’s delicious restaurants, and doing a great deal of listening are some of the important work she will be engaged in.
“As a Houstonian who loves this city, being part of helping Houston thrive has become my passion,” she states. “MAM is a perfect fit for me,” she says enthusiastically.