Our Fantastic Young People!
By Kenneth Moerbe
“I have a ‘business card’ that has the usual info, my name, contact information, etc., while in the place where most folks indicate their business, vocation, etc., I simply have the word “Volunteer”. I’ve been blessed to be able to volunteer in our community throughout my almost two decades of being a Waco resident, especially since I retired from my last job at Caritas of Waco. Last week (5/19-5/22) was one of the most fabulous weeks of my volunteering experience, and not at all because of any time, energy, and gifts that I, as a volunteer, was able to give to our community, but because of the encouragement, delight and just plain human joy that I was able to derive from being with just a few of the remarkable children and youth living in our community!
This rewarding week began with a brief conversation with a fellow member of the Waco Kiwanis Club, who is the chairperson of the our club’s Kiwanis Foundation’s Board, which annually provides college scholarships to students in local high schools. In that conversation I learned that one of the recipients of our scholarships was the President of the Kiwanis Key Club at A.J. Moore/University High, whom I had met last fall while attending a meeting of this very active Key Club. We establish Key Clubs in high schools to encourage students to give their volunteer time and gifts to community efforts to improve the lives of children and youth. In a recent conversation with this student leader, I learned some of the specifics of the community service of this group, probably also the most active community service organizations at University High in terms of hours volunteered in community service. Examples of volunteer service this past school year included: collaborating with Communities in Schools to mentor and tutor students at South Waco Elementary and West Elementary schools, volunteering to help serve and clean up at the Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, park and recreational area clean-ups, participating in the Race for the Cure, etc., etc., etc.!
On Tuesday, as a member of the Mission Waco/Mission World Board, I spent some very enjoyable moments with some of our African American youth who were involved in Mission Waco Youth’s Wellspring Awards Banquet. This annual event usually involves some high school graduating seniors receiving scholarships. This program began some years ago when an anonymous couple, who believed in Mission Waco’s ministry among youth living in poverty and in the potential for urban youth to overcome the scourge of poverty in their lives through education. This couple made a significant donation to Mission Waco to establish this Wellspring Scholarship Program. However, this year there being no graduating high school seniors in this youth ministry, a group of youth from the 3rd grade through the 8th grade, were brought together and affirmed for their achievements that included spiritual growth, as well as growth in other qualities while taking part in this youth ministry. As Jimmy Dorrell talked briefly with them about the theme of this ministry expressed in the words, “You are Capable”, and they introduced themselves and shared their hopes and dreams, it was very apparent that they were not only high achievers in the Mission Waco program, but in their families, neighborhoods, schools and probably congregations. I left the experience incredibly thankful that I had been invited to experience and interact with these fantastic kids!
The next day I attended the Permanent Housing Task Force, a small and energetic group of professionals in several local agencies involved in trying to end chronic homelessness, increasing housing stability among our residents, and implementing the Almost Home Waco Campaign. One of the reports related to these efforts was specifically about the hundreds of youth in Waco ISD who ‘lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This is the language of the McKinney-Vento Act which tries to insure that children and youth have some educational stability as they experience a form of homelessness. In recent years as many as 10% (1500 students) of Waco ISD students are classified as ‘unaccompanied youth’ as they live in motels, hotels, campgrounds, wherever they can find temporary housing, or children where primary nighttime residence is not used as a regular sleeping accommodation. As we approach a time of graduation from high school in our community, Cheryl Pooler, our homeless liaison staff person, reported that 40+ of these youth were graduating from high school this year, and that both Waco High and University High had at least one of these graduates in the top ten members of the senior class. In the last few years I’ve heard wonderful stories of these ‘unaccompanied youth’ completing graduation requirements while living in very unstable and constantly changing circumstances. I remain more than impressed with the resiliency, character and determination of these youth!
Finally, I have, for a number of years, served on the A.J. Moore Academy/University High Business Advisory Board. My specific responsibility in recent times has involved serving in leadership of the Fundraising-Scholarship Committee. As we approach the time of awarding these scholarships to seniors I’m involved, along with others on the Advisory Board, in the evaluation of these written applications. Also, last Friday, as part of this process we interviewed the top fifteen of these applicants. Again, it was the most amazing experience to listen as these brilliant, talented, creative, hardworking and articulate scholars talk about their lives and their hopes and plans for continuing their educations in a college or technical school, leading to a variety of careers. Most of these students had at least one part-time job, not only to hopefully be able to save money for their future education, but several of them held these jobs to assist and support their families to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
One of these students, who was ranked near the top of the fifteen finalists, particularly captured my attention as the student shared that they worked at three part-time jobs, and also provides for much of the ‘parental care’ of the student’s two younger sisters. This student was brought by her parents to Texas when she was six years of age, and on several occasions during the interview when programs which might assist this student were referred to, the student simply said that they could take advantage of this program “because I am not a citizen of this county.” All that I could think of to say to this student as they left the interview was “I’m so glad you are here in this country”. I’m proud to live in this community with these remarkable kids. We are truly blessed!
This post was written by Kenneth Moerbe. Kenneth is a Lutheran minister and the former executive director of Caritas. He has participated on just about every committee and task force in town that has anything at all to do with increasing food security or reducing poverty. When he and his wife, Paula, are not gallivanting all over the world on one of their many travels, they are busy serving on various boards, delivering Meals on Wheels and generally being two of the finest and most fun folks in Waco.
The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.