How can I help my child become school ready?

By Christina Helmick

Did you know that preparing your child for school starts before they even enter the classroom? School readiness is an essential part of the development of a child before, after, and during their years in school. A child’s success is a parent’s success, and there are many free resources to support the school readiness journey! Here are two free resources for you to check out:

Vroom is a free, bilingual tool that utilizes daily brain building activities that can be incorporated into a family’s daily routine. Activities are based on the child’s age and focus on parent-child engagement. Vroom, an initiative of the Bezos Family Foundation, was developed by a group of dedicated scientists, community leaders and trusted brands with input from community organizations and families like yours. Vroom is providing parents and caregivers with activities to boost early learning.

Literacy Kits are another great resource for both parents and children. Waco ISD early childhood experts worked with the library’s staff to make sure the items included are items that will help a child become school ready. These kits can be checked out for up to 21 days. The Literacy Kits are funded by Waco Rotary Club and are available at all Waco-McLennan County libraries.

The School Readiness Working Group includes more than 20 organizations across the community that are committed to improving school readiness outcomes. This Working Group meets each month to talk about aligning activities and reviews best practices to bring into the Waco community to make sure all students entering school are prepared for success. If you’d like to join this group, send an email to Jillian ( today!

The Working Group looks at data each meeting to make sure the strategies the group implements are addressing the outcomes the community agreed upon. In the 2016-2017 school year, 60% of students entering Kindergarten in Waco ISD were ready to learn, compared to 59% across the state.  Even more impressive is that in Waco ISD if the kindergartners attended a Texas Public ISD, they were 11% more prepared for school than the state average.

Beyond promoting free resources like Vroom and the Literacy Kits, early childhood leaders in our community have developed a list of 10 important activities to do with your child to encourage school readiness! Here they are:

  • Read to your child every day
  • Have purposeful conversation
  • Play, Talk, Read!
  • Explore through movement and play
  • Count, Group, Compare
  • Create a routine, such as bedtime or bath time
  • Take turns and share
  • Make and give choices
  • Limit access to technology
  • Create opportunities to be helpful, such as allowing your child to help wash dishes

Whether you’re a parent, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, cousin, caregiver, school teacher or a community member dedicated to making sure generations to come are successful in school, it is important to get involved and share activities about school readiness!

Want to learn more about Vroom or the library’s literacy kits? Check out The Work” page on the Prosper Waco website. If you’d like to engage with other parents and community leaders committed to making sure each child is prepared to enter school, join the School Readiness Working Group by sending an email to Jillian (

Christina is a graduate of Baylor University with a BA in Journalism, Public Relations & New Media and is currently pursuing a Masters of Business Administration through Tarleton State. She is originally from Washington, D.C., but is proud to call Waco her home. Christina sits on the Board of Directors for Waco Habitat for Humanity and serves as a community advisor for Junior League of Waco. She enjoys spending time with her family and watching Baylor football. Sic ’em Bears!

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.


Sisterhood of the Empowering Clothes

By Rachel E. Pate

Located on the Quinn Campus in the heart of east Waco, Esther’s Closet promotes empowerment, education and provides a much-needed resource to the women of the city.  Launched on March 29, 2016, Esther’s Closet is a self-sufficiency program that assists unemployed women in preparing for interviews and entering the workforce by providing no-cost, professional clothing.  Esther’s Closet clients are suited with a complete head-to-toe professional look for job interviews and 7 to 10 days of outfits for new employment.  Clients who maintain steady employment are eligible to receive two additional outfits quarterly.  Workwear options include business professional attire, medical scrubs and restaurant/retail clothing.  In addition to providing employment wear, the program also offers resume writing and job performance skills to help women.  To date, the program has assisted 334 women and provided 1,069 outfits.

As the Esther’s Closet Coordinator, I have a great deal of interaction with our clients.  Our program’s numbers are a testament to our impact in the community, however they do not reveal the many faces and testimonies of these wonderful women.  Some are single, proud moms, sole providers, just starting out, ready to start over, coming back, building up, etc.  I’ve shared in countless tearful moments with clients on my office sofa discussing the obstacles we have overcome and those we still face.  I’ve calmed the nervousness in the dressing room while helping someone prepare for a job interview in less than 30 minutes.  I even taught a client how to properly apply her makeup for the first time by doing a side-by-side tutorial in the mirror.  Being able to give my sincerest service and watching others’ confidence bloom before my eyes is a blessing to behold.

My passion is helping every client uncover her business fierceness; the ability to see herself be anything and do anything.  When clients visit our office for the first time, they’re never quite sure what to expect.  When they’re greeted by our professional staff, given a tour and shown to our boutique, their anxiety seems to subside a bit and is replaced with awe and excitement.

Our racks are filled with fashionable finds that make the suiting experience an easy one to get into.  I often take the time to act as a personal shopper; finding the right sizes, shades and shapes to flatter clients’ frames.  From baubles and belts to skirts and scrubs, Esther’s Closet has everything to send our clients out of our doors feeling empowered to take on the work world.  One client felt so great about her new outfit, she wore it out of our office to her interview and forgot her own clothes in our dressing room for a few days!

I often speak from my heart and share my own testimony with my clients.  I can relate to what it’s like to search for a new opportunity in life, only to be met with socioeconomic setbacks and hardships.  As a new mom, some time ago, I found myself walking through the doors of my first post-partum interview, and I had no idea how ill-prepared I was with my outfit.  I wore a comfortable blouse with dark denim slacks and my lucky, leather Chuck Taylor’s…  Most employers might’ve interviewed me and never called back, but fortunately this interviewer pointed out that I wasn’t very professionally dressed.  That moment changed my perception.  That sincere observation and audacious statement helped me realize the invaluable importance of dressing for a successful first business impression.  I decided then that if the company ever called me back, I would most assuredly show them just how professional I could be.  A little over a month I received a call back, and I seized my opportunity.  That same interviewer was highly impressed with my charm, knowledge and experience.  This was all while I was wearing a tailored black suit with pumps and carrying a briefcase.  I’d discovered my own business fierce, and I landed the job.

There’s just something about helping one another that appeals to the very best parts of our nature.  It gives you an outlet for love and an inlet for hope.  Every day I walk through the doors of Esther’s Closet, I’m granted with yet another opportunity to see how empowering someone else makes me and the nature and soul of our community much more hopeful- one outfit at a time.

Rachel E. Pate is a native Wacoan and University High School alum. She currently works as the Public Relations person for the Cen-Tex African American Chamber of Commerce and serves as Coordinator for the Esther’s Closet program for women. She’s also a proud mom of one, lifelong member of Toliver Chapel (TCMBC) Church, graduate of the LeadershipPlenty Institute, lover of the great outdoors, an avid basketball fan and a dedicated wearer of Converse’s Chuck Taylor shoes.

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.






Legacy Square and the Legacy of R. L. Smith

By Allison Abel

New construction at Legacy Square

I work at a local, non-profit organization called NeighborWorks Waco.  Our primary mission is to build stronger neighborhoods. Developing affordable homes in neighborhoods that are good candidates for revitalization is one of our main programs.  Our newest project is a small subdivision located on Hood and Turner streets in East Waco, across from East Waco Park. Four homes have already been built and are already occupied by wonderful homeowners.  Four additional homes are currently under construction, and another four homes are planned for future development.  We named this new subdivision, “Legacy Square.”

When we chose the name “Legacy Square,” we had no idea what a powerful legacy this little piece of land already represented. We chose the name “Legacy Square” for the legacy our clients wish to leave to their children. With the help of a little research, however, the name “Legacy Square” has taken on an additional rich level of meaning for us.

old R.L. Smith School building before it was torn down

Before Legacy Square was filled with smiling families and welcoming front porches… before the bricks, beams, and nails of construction… before the land was cleared, and even before the idea of a new housing addition was developed – it was the location of a dilapidated building: The R.L. Smith School.  Some of our readers may remember this school. Some may have even personally attended R.L. Smith. This building, erected in 1913, went by different names and served the community in a variety of capacities over the last century.

Robert Lloyd Smith

Our focus, though, is not on the school itself, but on its namesake – R.L. Smith. Unless you are a historian, you may not have heard this name. Once you hear a little more about this amazing man’s legacy, you’ll understand why we are so excited to share in this bit of history.

Robert Lloyd Smith was born in 1861 a free black man in Charleston, South Carolina. He was well-educated.  He attended the public schools available in Charleston. Then he attended the University of South Carolina, planning to major in mathematics. However, during his time at USC, legislature closed the university to African-Americans. Smith transferred to Atlanta University, acquired a bachelor’s degree, and began a career of teaching.

Eventually, R. L. Smith left South Carolina for Oakland, Texas, a small cotton farming community about halfway between Houston and San Antonio. Smith quickly realized that a sizable African-American population lived in Oakland. He also discovered that only a small portion of this population owned their own homes and all were living with very few municipal services available to them.

Group photo of the Farmers Improvement Society

After identifying this social issue, he went to work, seeking solutions for the African-Americans living in Texas. Eventually, he discovered an article entitled “Youth’s Companion.” The author presented a case study of how a self-improvement society in New England changed the lives of its participants. Smith thought to himself “how much more necessary [a self-improvement society] was for a people who had just come out of the house of bondage.” That same year, he established the Farmers Improvement Society.

Hopefully, we haven’t lost you in this story yet because you have just made it to the best part – the incredible change that ensued following the creation of Smith’s society. The Village Improvement Society began first with a goal of beautifying their homes and neighborhoods. In short, Smith singlehandedly created a group that would transform the “black side” of Oakland.

Roofs? Repaired.

Houses? Repainted.

Landscaping? Planted.

Fences? Rebuilt.

Farmer’s Improvement Bank on Bridge Street (Current location of the Waco Convention Center)

More than community beautification, though, Smith also established a school, a bank, and other services specifically for the African-American population. The Farmers’ Improvement Bank was right here in Waco – on Bridge Street, where the Convention Center now stands.

Smith strongly believed in and encouraged the philosophy of economic self-sufficiency, especially in the African-American community.  He believed the greatest traits achievable were thrift, industry, and economy.

R.L. Smith’s legacy touched many people around the country. At its high point in 1911, the Farmers’ Improvement Society claimed 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.  Although we only recently discovered the story of R.L. Smith, after we had already named Legacy Square, we are proud to carry on the legacy of this great and influential man.

Today, Smith’s legacy – one of growth and development – continues to flourish! NeighborWorks Waco strives toward many of the same principles R.L. Smith encouraged over 100 years ago – economic self-sufficiency, neighborhood beautification, and the growth of East Waco. Our hope is that through the development and construction of Legacy Square, the rehabilitation of houses in the area, and the spurring of economic development, NeighborWorks Waco is living into the legacy of Robert Lloyd Smith.

This Act Locally Waco blog post was written by Allison Abel. Allison is the Homeownership Center Manager at NeighborWorks Waco. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Studies from Baylor University and is currently working on a Master’s in Public Administration. A Waco native, Allison enjoys life by connecting with family and friends, reading any novel she can find, and enjoying downtown Waco with her pup, Ollie.

 NeighborWorks Waco is not for profit organization focused on building stronger neighborhoods through homeownership, quality rental housing and community-building initiatives. NeighborWorks Waco’s vision is that through NeighborWorks Waco and its collaborations, the Central Texas area is filled with vibrant, thriving communities. Online:



“EnAbled for College” program Helps Students Make the Move to College

(This piece was first published on the Baylor School of Education blog “Instant Impact.” – ALW)

by Taylor Ward

Results from the first three years of the Baylor School of Education’s EnAbled for College program show that high-school students working with trained mentors are reaching the next level of education.

Research has proven that at-risk and disabled high school students are less likely to pursue a post-secondary education. And without that education, many continue to live below the poverty line.

The Baylor School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology is working to change that with a grant from the AT&T Foundation. Through the EnAbled for College mentorship program, now in its fourth year, Baylor graduate students mentor high-school students in the greater Waco community.

EnAbled for College serves about 50 high schoolers each year, and 100 percent of the program participants who graduated in May 2017 applied to a post-secondary educational institution. Of those seniors who applied, 97 percent were accepted to college.

The project began in 2014, modeled after the AT&T Foundation Building a Grad Nation campaign. In its first three years, the EnAbled for College program served:

  • 151 students in McLennan County in Central Texas
  • 48 percent of those students had a disability,
  • 71 percent were from low socioeconomic homes, and
  • 74 percent were first generation students.

Baylor’s Dr. Tamara Hodges spearheads the project as a co-principal investigator for the AT&T grant. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Psychology, a licensed psychologist and a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology.

“These kids couldn’t see past high school,” Hodges said. “I think the crux and the heart of this program is watching people’s lives change — knowing the significant obstacles facing some of these kids and now knowing that they are in college? That’s success.”

During the program’s first three years, mentors were spread across six different high school campuses. For the 2017-2018 school year, the EnAbled for College program is focused on two local high schools in McGregor ISD and Waco ISD.

The program seeks to serve:

  • Low-Income Students
  • Minority Students
  • Students with Disabilities
  • English Language Learners
  • Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools

Dr. Terrill Saxon, Interim Dean for the School of Education, is co-principal investigator and has worked with EnAbled for College since its inception.

“These kids are viewed by their teachers, principals and counselors as having great academic potential, but they need additional resources in order to make their post-secondary dreams a reality,” Saxon said. “It has been a wonderful experience seeing it grow into a project that directly benefits local high-school students.”

Mentors are the heart of the program because of the relationships they build with their students. Each mentor works with 10 to 20 students, and they meet with them in one-on-one sessions as well as in group settings at least once a week. They discuss everything from how to fill out a college application to how to deal with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“Like many of the students I mentor, I didn’t have the available resources to guide me toward pursuing post-secondary education,” said student mentor Crystal Posada, a master’s student in Educational Psychology. “As a first-generation student, I was clueless about college and everything it had to offer. I am excited to be that someone for these students and help them see a future past their high school graduation.”

The mentors benefit from the EnAbled for College program as well. Through the AT&T grant program, 22 graduate students in the Department of Educational Psychology have worked as mentors.

“Mentoring has highlighted the challenges that many of my students face, but it has also shown me just how capable, motivated and deserving they are,” said mentor Jacy Latta, a graduate student pursuing an Educational Specialist degree in School Psychology. “Walking alongside them as they prepare for their future has changed my life, and hopefully it’s empowering them to be seekers of positive change for themselves and for their communities.”

And Dr. Hodges is determined to see the success of the program.

“The way out of poverty is through education,” she said.

Taylor Ward is a senior journalism, public relations major at Baylor University. Taylor is a United States Air Force military brat and has lived in six different places while growing up until her father retired to Cibolo, TX where she graduated high school.