'Accidental genius' helped create The Woodlands' sense of community
Don Gebert builds communities. He has built them in the jungles of Guyana, in the inner cities of America, and in a fledgling township in Texas. He has broken down socio-economic barriers and bridged racial and religious gaps. His "accidental genius" ideas, as he calls them, played a crucial role in ensuring The Woodlands became more than just another undistinguished suburb.
After graduating college with a degree in finance, Gebert, also an ordained Lutheran minister, began work restoring gang-ravaged inner-city Philadelphia. He convinced big-monied bankers to fund programs to get gang members off the streets and unite community residents. Later, he was called upon to to train missionaries in Guyana in South America.
"Then I got a phone call one day about a new town in Texas. I'd never been to Texas," Gebert said. "This was 1974."
Gebert was asked by the early founders of The Woodlands to move his family from Philadelphia to a new community 20 miles north of Houston that, at the time, had little hope of ever succeeding. So Gebert brought his wife, Barbara, and their five children to The Woodlands, where in 1975 he was tasked with building a community, particularly a religious community, that Mitchell saw as imperative to the success of The Woodlands.
With little direction and less money, Gebert's first action was another of his accidental genius ideas.
"I decided I was going to visit everyone who lived here," he said. "So, I went to everyone's house. I knew that if we were going to build a decent community, we've got to work together."
Gebert got to know all 70 residents of The Woodlands and learned their needs and what the community lacked. He quickly realized the new development needed a lot: child care facilities, senior citizen services, support groups, community centers and faith organizations.
"I knew everything about everyone who moved to The Woodlands," Gebert said. "I ended up visiting over 1,000 families in the first five years."
Through the contacts he established, relationships he formed with the monied community leaders and innovative capital-raising programs, the much-needed services and facilities began to take shape. He established Interfaith, the largest and most successful community service organization in the 40-year history of The Woodlands, by bringing together leaders from six different religious denominations.
His stroke of accidental genius struck again when, after visiting each family in The Woodlands, he compiled a four-page directory of residents. The directory listed names, addresses, phone numbers, ages and even birth dates of every Woodlands resident. It was coded by neighborhood, so, Gebert said, if a mother of a 3-year-old wanted to know if another 3-year-old her child could play with lived in her neighborhood, she could find out by checking the directory. What would become the Interfaith directory was one of the key components of the early success of The Woodlands and its sense of community.
"I've always had a sense of community," Gebert said. "What we were doing with Interfaith was getting people to peek across the fence. We built a more loving and caring community."