Response: July/August 2020 Issue

Helping Children Thrive

United Community Centers in Fort Worth, Texas, gives children, youth and families the tools and encouragement to build brighter futures.

Helping Children Thrive
UMW Board of Directors member Cynthia Rives, center, and member Joanna Bittiker help with homework at United Community Centers.

United Community Centers, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution in Fort Worth, Texas, knows this well as it serves and advocates for its 14,000 participants. Its programs focus on educational enrichment for students, community meals and a food pantry, and assistance and advocacy.

“United Methodist Women connects to United Community Centers because its mission coincides with ours,” said Lynne Grandstaff, president of Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women and a member of the centers’ board. “UCC is a direct connection to children, youth and families.

“It’s a well-rounded resource,” Grandstaff continued. “Education and literacy fit right into the United Methodist Women emphases, as does its family health programs and its support of

and advocacy for working families. It helps keep kids safe before and after school and offers food and inexpensive clothing.”

Grandstaff has also served as a board member of Red Oak Schools.

“UCC has excellent education programs,” she said. “Education affects all parts of a person’s life. These programs don’t affect poverty alone. They reduce the probability that a young person will enter the prison pipeline. We’re trying to close that pipeline.”

The centers also work closely with Faith Community Nursing from Texas Health Resources to educate program participants on health issues. Asthma and other environmental diseases are prevalent in the community.

“Local children can be affected by issues associated with oil wells,” said United Methodist Women board member Cynthia Rives. “In Denton, where I live, on the Dallas-Fort Worth border, there are 58 wells that are close to schools, homes and businesses.”

Meeting changing needs

United Community Centers constantly modifies its programs to meet the community’s needs.

“One way to know whether something is alive is to see if it changes,” Rives said. “Looking at the growth of UCC’s literacy program, it is very obvious that UCC is alive.”

The centers’ literacy program has recently exploded, which focuses on grades 1-3 in its three different locations in Fort Worth, where only 34 percent of third graders read at grade level. Among third graders at the centers, 72 percent read at grade level.

“And one concern leads to another,” said Rives. “Fort Worth has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country. This health problem comes from the poverty. UCC’s focus on mothers leads to the entire family.”

The average poverty rate in the United States is 11.8 percent. The poverty rate in Fort Worth is 16 percent. The neighborhood of Polytechnic Heights is one of the lower income neighborhoods in the city, where the average median household income in 2016 was around $25,000, compared to the $56,000 average for Fort Worth as a whole. Known as Poly, it has more than twice the population density than Fort Worth, lower education levels and less access to food. The struggles for a living wage profoundly affect the community.

The centers’ participants reflect the ethnic composition of the neighborhood. There are many new immigrants who speak English as a second language.

“UCC doesn’t have programs to serve specifically immigrants,” Rives explained. “Their programs are for the community. And the community is primarily immigrant.”

Jonathon Juarez was 12 years old when he began attending Poly Center. That experience transformed his life. After his father left, his mother, Susan Hernandez, was left to raise Juarez and his three siblings alone. At one point the family was living in a homeless shelter.

With the help of his pastor, Juarez found his way to United Community Centers. He flourished in the program. Today he is a Texas A&M University graduate and works as an engineer in Austin.

“He needed to allow himself to be smart,” said Celia Esparza, president and CEO of United Community Centers. “He needed to break from the influences of his environment. He came from an impoverished neighborhood to work as an engineer. His world has changed totally.”

United Community Centers “provides encouragement, not just services,” said Linda Hutchings, former president of Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women. “It’s very important that they offer the kids activities and a safe place to be. And they give them food. But, more than anything, they give them the encouragement to succeed.”

United Methodist Women connection

Every month, between 50 and 100 United Methodist Women members volunteer to help with the literacy program or its food and clothing program. Since 2000, between 3,000 and 5,000 United Methodist Women members have volunteered.

“Our relationship with United Methodist Women is very open,” said Esparza. “United Methodist Women members are very loving. They are generous, and they are always there for us. They do their best to respond when we inform them of a special need.”

Grandstaff explained, “UCC has a very special place for United Methodist Women. It was United Methodist Women that first proposed starting Wesley, one of its locations. And the ties and respect remain very strong.”

The centers serve 250 children during the school year and 450 over the summer.

“Literacy is a major project for us during the school year as well as during the summer,” Esparza explained. During the summer of 2019, we offered sessions in four schools as well as our three campuses.”

The emphasis on the most vulnerable children perfectly fits United Community Centers’ mission. It helps create a brighter future for those for whom it could be most dark.

Richard Lord is a photojournalist based in Ivy, Virginia, and New York City and frequent contributor to response.

Posted or updated: 7/6/2020 12:00:00 AM