Not Home for Christmas –The Holiday Experience for Children In Foster Care

For many, the holidays are a time of tradition, new memories sprinkled among old memories, and the comfort and certainty of family.  As we all know, 2020 and COVID-19 have thrown the holidays for a loop this year!  We are scrambling to alter or cancel plans for safety, figure out new ways to carry out old traditions and keep in touch when we can’t be face-to-face.   This admittedly feels chaotic, unwelcome, and out of our control. 

Even in a year when we aren’t facing a global pandemic, children in foster care experience sudden and drastic life changes that feel chaotic, unwelcome and out of their control.  Through no fault of their own, they are removed from their original family due to allegations of abuse or neglect, causing many facets of life as they knew it to suddenly shift.  In addition to the initial trauma of the abuse or neglect they may have experienced, they now may be placed with relatives, foster parents, or in a residential facility, possibly in another city, likely enrolled in a different school, away from friends and familiar faces.  Their life becomes inundated with new faces…caseworkers, attorneys, therapists, teachers, foster parents, or caregivers.  For many children in foster care, the only constant is change. 

If you pull this description into holiday time, you can see that it sets children and youth in foster care up for a holiday experience they didn’t bargain for.  Caseworkers work hard to set up holiday visits with families of origin, but they often do not fall on the holiday itself and, this year due to COVID, are likely virtual.   Some of this likely sounds familiar to a lot of us who have had our own holiday plans upended.  There is a string of similarity between those situations and the reality of children in foster care during the holidays.  It’s all in the interest of safety.  Safety for our health, safety for children. 

The hope in both situations is to be able to return to our prior norms in a safe manner. Just as we all look forward to the day when we can return to our routines without threat of COVID, the hope is always for children in foster care to be able to return to their family of origin, if it has been deemed safe.  As we experience this unique holiday season, may we remember the young members of our community in foster care and hope for their safety and wellbeing.

If you are interested in supporting the work that CASA does to serve children in this situation, consider becoming a CASA. You can learn more about it by visiting You can also give the gift of CASA this year by donating at

Though born and raised in Fredericksburg, Anna Futral has called Waco home for sixteen years. She is a graduate of Baylor University, where she received her Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and a Master of Taxation. She built her career as a Certified Public Accountant at JRBT, where she worked for over ten years, specializing in service to nonprofit clients, prior to joining CASA of McLennan County in May of 2017. In addition to her business acumen and administrative leadership skills, Anna brings to CASA a deep-seated passion for children in foster care. She and her husband, Trent, are former foster parents and adopted their three children from foster care in 2016. When she’s not busy leading CASA forward or chasing her kids, ages 5, 6, and 7, Anna enjoys reading, spending time with good people, and working with her husband on their 120-year-old house in the heart of Waco.

Vegetable of the month: Sweet potato

By Paula Solano

As the year 2020 comes to an end, many of us begin to think about New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions are often associated with nutrition, physical activity, spending more or less time doing something. Changing habits or behaviors can be challenging, but not impossible.

What are some of your New Year’s resolutions? Feel free to share! Honestly, I cannot recall the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Most of my resolutions become lifestyle changes, changes I adopt throughout the year.

One of my resolutions or lifestyle changes was self-care. Through this change, I make time to decompress, rest, and reflect. Then, I proceed with all my responsibilities, many of which revolve around my home, work, and school.

As I reflect on the past year and all the pieces that encompass my daily life, something that has changed in my household is preparing meals as a family and having meals at home. I’ve learned that a little effort and planning will save unnecessary trips to the grocery store, or we just have to get creative.

Similarly, I’ve observed how my daughters look forward to helping, and I hope their enthusiasm will continue. Our plan for the holiday festivities — keep it small, keeping those who have lost a loved one, their employment, or are struggling near and dear in our prayers.

During my time with the Family and Community Health unit of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in McLennan County, I’ve gained increased understanding related to various programs offered by FCH and have applied much into my daily life — nutrition education, food safety, and selecting and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables. I’ve learned that eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring or expensive.

The seasonal vegetable for this month’s Better Living for Texans blog post is the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes have a presence in Asian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Latino, Mediterranean, Pacific Island, and Southern foods. Add a twist to your meals with a yummy sweet potato, enjoy them grilled, in a salad, as a snack, or mashed.

Nutritional Facts and Health Claims
While many factors impact one’s health, let’s take a look at sweet potato health benefits. Did you know sweet potatoes are low in sodium, cholesterol free, fat free, saturated fat free, and a good source of fiber? Sweet potatoes are also high in vitamins A and C.

Hypertension & Sodium: Since sweet potatoes are low in sodium, they can reduce the risk of high blood pressure when part of a low-sodium diet.

Coronary Heart Disease & Dietary Saturated Fat: A diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat can reduce the risk of coronary disease.

Cancer & Fiber Containing Grain Products, Fruits, and Vegetables: A low-fat diet containing fiber in grain products, fruits, and vegetables may reduce risk of some types of cancer.

High Blood Pressure/Stroke & Potassium: A diet containing a good source of
potassium could reduce the risk of blood pressure and stroke.

Shopping & Storage: 
When shopping for fresh sweet potatoes, select those that are firm,
with smooth skin. Avoid those that have cracks, soft spots, or blemishes.
Sweet potatoes are also conveniently available frozen and in a can.
Store sweet potatoes in a cool, dark space for use within 3-5 weeks.

Get the Facts:
Wash your hands as recommended by the CDC, and clean contact surfaces often. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate provides recipes, tips, and resources to guide you in creating a healthy eating plan. 

Start simple, download the MyPlate App, an easy-to-use app that will help guide you and track your progress.

Lentil Minestrone (source: MyPlate Recipe)

Cook Time: 80 minutes

Serving: 6 

Lentil Minestrone


  • 1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 yellow onion (peeled and chopped)
  • 2 cloves garlic (peeled and minced)
  • 3 carrots (scrubbed and diced into 1/4-inch pieces)
  • 1 celery stalk (diced into 1/4-inch pieces)
  • 1 sweet potato (scrubbed and diced into 1/4-inch pieces)
  • 1 zucchini (diced into 1/4-inch pieces or 1 cup of frozen zucchini)
  • 2 cups canned low-sodium, diced tomatoes (including liquid or fresh tomatoes)
  • 1/2 cup lentils (brown or red)
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 cube low-sodium chicken bouillon
  • 4 cups kale (washed and chopped into 1/4-1/2-inch pieces)


  • Put a soup pot on the stove over medium-high heat. When the pot is hot, add the oil. Add onion and garlic and cook about 7 minutes until golden.
  • Add carrots, celery, sweet potato, and zucchini and cook about 10 minutes until slightly tender.
  • Add tomatoes, lentils, water, and chicken bouillon cube and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down to low, cover and cook 40 minutes.
  • Add the kale and cook an additional 20 minutes. Serve right away or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. 

Mock Southern Sweet Potato Pie (source: Choose MyPlate)

Prep Time: Approximately 1.5 hours

Servings: 16 portions

Bake Time: 60 minutes

Mock Southern Sweet Potato Pie



  • 1 1/4 cups flour (all purpose)
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/3 cup milk, non-fat
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil


  • 1/4 cup sugar (white)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 egg (large, beaten)
  • 1/4 cup evaporated milk, non-fat (canned)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups sweet potatoes, cooked, skin removed and mashed


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


  • Combine the flour and sugar in a bowl.
  • Add milk and oil to the flour mixture.
  • Stir with fork until well mixed and then form pastry into a smooth ball with your hands.
  • Roll the ball between two 12-inch squares of waxed paper using short, brisk, strokes until pastry reaches edge of paper.
  • Peel off top paper and invert crust into pie plate.


  • Combine sugars, salt, spices and eggs.
  • Add milk and vanilla. Stir.
  • Add sweet potatoes and mix well.
  • Pour mixture into pie shell.
  • Bake for 60 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
  • Cool and cut into 16 slices.
  • Source:

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Heart Healthy Home Cooking African American Style, p.24-25

Share your favorite sweet potato recipes with us.


Paula Solano is a Master in Public Health student at Baylor University, certified Community Health Worker, and volunteering at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. A Waco native, Solano is passionate about serving her community, particularly underserved and underrepresented citizens. 

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 for more information.

Due to the continued spread of COVID-19 and the challenges it poses to communities across Texas, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and many others continue to practice public health recommendations. Whether we are communicating online or face-to-face know that program content will always be research-backed to help individuals navigate decisions for themselves and their families. For information on resources, ideas, and programs for yourself and family visit Texas A&M AgriLife’s HUB

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. This material was funded by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP. To learn more about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or to apply for benefits, visit 


Fruits & Veggies (2020) Sweet Potato. Retrieved from: 

Fruits and Veggies (2020) Top 10 Ways to Enjoy Sweet Potatoes. Retrieved from: 

Green Resolutions for the New Year 2021

By Anna Dunbar

2020 is drawing to a close. Whew! What a year. Time to start thinking about a new year, a new start, and new resolutions for a greener year!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Recycle that live Christmas Tree! Keep Waco Beautiful is hosting its annual “Chipping of the Green” Christmas tree recycling event on January 9th at Paul Tyson Field from 10-3pm. Bring your tree and watch how Waco Parks and Recreation mulches the tree.
  1. Live Christmas trees can also be left at residential curbside during green weeks in January for collection and mulching. Green weeks in January are the 4th-8th and 19th-22nd.
  1. Start recycling at curbside! Waco residents with cart residential trash service can request one or two blue recycling and/or green yard waste carts for no extra charge! Complete a request form on or our smartphone app Waco Curbside Services. You can also call (254) 299-2612.
  1. Recycle right! Please do not put Styrofoam, glass, plastic bags, plastics 3-7, or take-out food containers in your blue cart! Got questions? Check out the free smartphone app Waco Curbside Services.
  1. Speaking of Styrofoam, on December 12 there will be a Styrofoam recycling drop-off event by Waco Friends of Climate.

TIME: 9 AM until 1 PM

LOCATION:  parking lot in front of Ocean Buffet, at the corner of Valley Mills and Waco Drives. 

NOTES: Please wear masks and stay in your vehicle; volunteers will remove the material from trunk and back seats.  Styrofoam cups and food containers are accepted, as well as larger blocks and molded pieces. Peanuts cannot be accepted.  Please clean the Styrofoam and place small pieces in a bag.  Please arrive early, as our truck may reach capacity. The service is free. Questions: .    

  1. Go to the Cobbs Center! Many people have a lot of extra recycling during the holidays. Boxes, glass or plastic bottles and aluminum cans abound during the holidays! Waco residents can also recycle big items (such as electronics and appliances) at the Cobbs Recycle Center. The Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 AM until 5 PM and closed on Sunday and Monday. Go to or call (254) 751-8536 to ask questions.
  1. Remember “Only Rain Down the Drain!” Please avoid putting anything (leaves, grass clippings, litter) into storm drains.
  1. Properly dispose of cooking oil! Small quantities of cooking oil can be mixed with kitty litter, doubled bagged, and placed in your trash cart. Please do not pour cooking oil or grease down the drain. You can also properly dispose of the cooking oil or grease at 5 stations located around the city; one location is at the Cobbs Center. For more information go to or call 299-CITY (2489) between 7:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  1. Join the Litter Challenge!  If each person picks up and throws away just one piece of litter a day, they will have put 45 pounds of litter in its place by the end of the year.
  1. Check the solid waste calendar! Don’t forget the blue carts and green carts go at the curb on alternating weeks, never together! If you have questions, call (254) 299-2612.
  1. Take gently used items to resale or thrift stores instead of just throwing them away. Or, have a garage sale! Don’t forget to get a city permit!
  1. Finally, get involved in organizations that “do good” in our city! The wonderful organizations, clean litter, collect donations, recycle and more! Together we can do more!

Anna Dunbar is the solid waste administrator for the City of Waco Solid Waste Services. She is responsible for informing Waco residents and businesses about recycling and waste reduction opportunities as well as solid waste services in Waco. Her husband is a Baylor professor and her daughter is a Baylor University alum who works at Horizon Environmental Services, Inc. Anna is an active member of Keep Waco Beautiful and The Central Texas Audubon Society.

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 for more information.

Teacher training draws $2.2 million to Waco area

WACO — Waco will receive grants to strengthen the current teacher workforce and improve the pipeline of qualified teachers with the support of a $2.2 million grant over three years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The first initiative, University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation, supports universities in the transformation of their program to financially sustainable, year-long residencies. Coalition member include Texas Tech University and Tarleton State University – both building and scaling a year-long residency that will produce well-prepared teachers in the Waco region in partnership with local school districts.

An Opportunity Culture grant will fund a creative staffing model that focuses on supporting sustainable residencies that are affordable for candidates at Waco and La Vega school districts. It also calls for creation of Greater Waco Teacher Community of Practice, a coalition of decision makers and stakeholders who will improve equity and quality for the teacher pipeline for all school districts in McLennan County.

Finally, the Center for Transforming Alternative Preparation Pathways (CTAPP), will provide support to McLennan Community College as it is innovating to improve its alternative teacher certification program.

“COVID-19 has put stress and demands on every school in Waco,” said Suzii Paynter March, CEO of Prosper Waco. “The strength and resiliency of the teaching profession is also under duress, and as a community we are using these opportunities to rally support for teachers of today and to recruit and grow strong teachers for tomorrow.

“The Greater Waco Teacher Community of Practice will be a forum of education leaders for discussion and innovation as we consider the entire teacher workforce landscape in our region,” March said.

The Opportunity Culture grant is designed to “leverage high-performing teachers in a multi-classroom leadership model,” Pereira said. In other words, it seeks to build on the excellence of the most effective teachers and will do that in conjunction with Texas Tech’s teacher residency program in Waco.

“One of the challenges that Waco ISD faces is a higher teacher turnover rate than many other districts,” said Susan Kincannon, Waco ISD superintendent. “We hope that the Opportunity Culture model will help retain our best teachers by offering them new opportunities to grow as educational leaders and better prepare the new teachers who will follow them in the classroom.”

“La Vega ISD is thrilled about the opportunity to participate in the Opportunity Culture grant,” said Sharon Shields, La Vega ISD superintendent. “The OC objectives support and expand on existing efforts in La Vega. The impact of OC in LVISD is unlimited. The potential and opportunity to replicate our most effective teachers will further improve our instructional programs leading to student success.”

US PREP, based in Lubbock, will work with the two universities – Texas Tech and Tarleton – in implementing sustainable, year-long residencies.

Public Impact, out of Chapel Hill, N.C., will work with the two school districts in implementing the Opportunity Culture program. The grant will fund a coordinator position at each district.

The second grant brings CTAPP to Waco. CTAPP, established in the Houston area, provides technical assistance to alternative teacher certification (ACP) programs, like the one already in existence at MCC.

“Most public school teachers in Texas pursue certification through the traditional route of earning a bachelor’s degree in teaching,” said Pereira. “But many people seek teacher certification after earning a degree in another academic area and working outside of education.

“This grant will bring specific expertise to Waco that enhances the alternative certification process for those who want to teach but do not have a teaching degree,” Pereira said.

Frank Graves, dean of workforce and public service at MCC, said: “McLennan Community College’s Alternative Teacher Education Program is excited about the partnership with CTAPP. The technical assistance and resources will enhance our program delivery and increase our teacher preparation mentoring process’s effectiveness.”

As part of the grant, CTAPP’s two employees became a part of the Prosper Waco staff in September — Chris Reid, director, and Mia O’Suji, director of content development and programming.

Reid and O’Suji have worked closely with Kristi Patton, MCC’s Alternative Teacher Program director, and her team to create a comprehensive plan, Graves said. “The result will be more highly trained teachers entering our local school districts.”

Reid noted that there is a teacher shortage in Texas and there also is a lack of quality teacher candidates. The state has created an environment for creation of ACPs to meet the training need. By partnering with ACPs, like the one at MCC, CTAPP provides “high-quality technical assistance to support the implementation of a rigorous, equitable teacher preparation model aimed at improving the quality of educators in classrooms.”

The Greater Waco Teacher Community of Practice is “designed to study the teacher pipeline in McLennan County with the intention of making improvements to the pipeline as a community,” Pereira said. “The pandemic has exposed areas of improvement in the field of education, and we are seeing that no one institution can do it alone. Together we must make the necessary improvements in order to have the teacher workforce needed for the future of our community.”

Churches working together to help Transformation Waco families

Several Waco churches are working to address specific needs of families associated with Transformation Waco schools. The churches are collecting goods and funds through Dec. 13 for the Christmas Family Resource Pantry.

Grassroots Community Development is coordinating the effort. Grassroots and Prosper Waco set up a Family Resource Pantry this past summer to help Transformation Waco school families suffering from the economic effects of the coronavirus. 

“As we’ve begun to hear of specific needs of family from friends at Transformation Waco, we’ve decided to bring back the FRP to provide families with some of those needs over the Christmas break,” said Josh Caballero, a community organizer with Grassroots.

Transformation Waco is a nonprofit working within Waco Independent School District to manage and operate five schools and supporting the communities associated with those schools. The schools are Alta Vista Elementary, Brook Avenue Elementary, J.H. Hines Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle, and Indian Spring Middle.

For more information on the Christmas Family Resource Pantry contact Caballero at

The following items are being collected:

  • Toilet paper
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Bath soap
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Bleach
  • Dish soap
  • Disposable masks
  • Feminine products
  • $25 gift card