by Gretchen Eichenberg
Last spring, a most unlikely group of fans never missed one of my daughter’s Lake Air Little League softball games. In my 10 years of sitting in those stands, I had never seen this group of softball enthusiasts before. I knew they hadn’t come to see my daughter — and for most of the season, I wasn’t sure whom they were there to cheer on. There were five to six middle-aged men —all with different intellectual and developmental disabilities — and they watched the game intently and commented on the plays just as if they were at a Rangers game.
Each brought with him a 79-cent bag of Tom’s brand popcorn, probably purchased at a convenient store on the way to the fields. And they enjoyed every crunchy bite of that popcorn about as much as they enjoyed the game. I noticed a kind, gentle and patient man who was always present, but also gave the men their space. Several nights a week, he loaded up a van and brought the men to be part of the cheering crowd — and they helped fill the stands and create an exciting atmosphere for our girls.
Their friend, Morris, seemed truly happy to be taking these guys out for a fun night at the ballpark. It was evident by the way he interacted with them and talked with them. I overheard conversations where Morris gave advice on basic things like how to keep your money safe while you’re taking a shower. A couple of the men had more physical challenges than the others, but Morris was always patient and spoke genuinely in a soft voice as they walked, sometimes painstakingly slowly, to and from the van together. Never did I see Morris acting impatient or hurrying anyone along. He treated each man with kindness and dignity and then took them back home to a red brick house on a street lined with cottonwood trees, where they live together under Morris’ and others’ round-the-clock care.
I don’t know any of these men or their stories personally. Maybe they have family close by or perhaps their parents died years ago. Maybe they never had the support of a loving family. I have learned they are part of a Community Based Waiver program of the Heart of Texas Mental Health Mental Retardation Center. The Center serves more than 800 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in Central Texas — all with their own stories and sets of circumstances. Some are still seeking the right environment to meet their needs and allow them to experience a fulfilling life. Many live in ranch style homes in ordinary neighborhoods with professional care provided through state and federal programs. The lucky ones get a second family in people like Morris.
At the last game of the season, when I found out his name was Morris and that he worked for Heart of Texas MHMR, I also learned that Morris had been bringing these men to watch his granddaughter play ball. I don’t know if they knew her personally or even realized they were there to see her. But on Tuesday, Thursday and sometimes Friday nights, Morris entwined his life with theirs, treating them like, well, family. His granddaughter later told me that Morris often provides activities that give these men the experience of family living. He isn’t just a worker on the clock; he’s a caring human being. And I can’t think of any better example of service.
Morris is an asset to our community and I’m so glad he chose Lake Air Little League as one of his regular outings. If only all of us could be so compassionate and patient toward our fellow man — the world would surely be a better place.
Gretchen Eichenberg is a life-long Wacoan and local high school newspaper and yearbook adviser. There’s nothing she’d rather be doing more than cheering on her favorite softball player or jamming to the tunes of her son’s band. Her family includes husband, Alex, and kids George, 14, and Brigitte, 11, and an energetic Lab named Luke, who thinks he rules the HOT Dog Park. Gretchen mistakenly believes the Eagles are the greatest rock and roll band ever. (Gretchen! What about the Beatles?!)
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When my 13-year-old son came home from school one day last year and told me he and some friends had formed a rock band, I was skeptical. We had tried violin lessons in third grade and guitar lessons a few years later — and bought all the equipment that goes with it. But it wasn’t until he found his own path to music with friends that he started having fun and wanting to spend his spare time practicing his instrument.
The band is made up of Jackson Anderson (lead guitar), Spencer Davis (keyboard), Analisa Villarreal (lead vocals), George Eichenberg (bass) and John Paul Bustamante (drums). They have taken the name “26th Street” because they practice in John Paul’s grandparents’ garage on 26th Street in Waco. They play everything from classic rock to modern to country.
With the birth of 26th Street, I started to see less TV time and more creativity flowing — and with that I saw a sense of accomplishment, pride and a love of something all his own. He was excited to show me the more complicated bass line of “Hotel California,” which he had spent hours perfecting. And I was hearing the same from the other parents.
They began playing at some friends’ birthday parties and at a local yogurt shop, where they had a friend willing to let them play on the patio for tips.
As they worked and got better, crowds of cheering friends and family showed up to watch them play. Eventually even folks who weren’t there just to be nice started showing up. Then, they started getting paid gigs at places like El Chico, who promoted them with posters and emails. People started asking them for photos, business cards and Facebook page, which they now have. They are making money, coordinating their own schedules, working with business owners and learning to be responsible and deliver a quality product: their music. Their summer is sprinkled with gigs that include everything from a quinceanera to a museum fundraiser — and they love contributing to the local music scene.
One of the best parts is that the Waco community has been very welcoming. The band has played at El Chico, Slippery Minnow, Valley Mills Vineyard, The Gin in Belton and other parties and events. In May, they were named the Music Association of Central Texas’ “Horizon” award winner for up and coming artists.
The band practices once a week in the garage on 26th street, and I think the kids look forward to this time together, creating, collaborating, and making music. As a parent, I can’t think of anything I’d rather my kid be doing. And the funny thing is, it was all their idea, not ours. The parents provide support – sometimes lots of support – but the kids and their music are in the driver’s seat.
The other 26th Street parents and I are proud of our kids. As Erin Davis, mom of Spencer Davis, the keyboard player, says. “It’s deeply rewarding to see our kids work so hard and be recognized in the local music scene.” They are building up a sense of responsibility and self-worth. They are taking risks. They are making a personal investment in something they care about. They are learning habits and skills that will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives. One of the most important skills they are learning is how to make their own fun!
Waco and other towns our size can sometimes suffer from a general misperception, especially regarding young people, that “there’s nothing to do.” One thing that 26th Street can teach all of us is that there is always something to do if you know how to make your own fun. In fact, the fun you make yourself can be better, and better for you, than the fun that is delivered ready-made. Imagine how much more fun our kids are having being in a band than they would ever have just by paying to go see bands. Imagine how much more benefit they are getting from this experience.
Whether it’s music or something else, there are lots of things kids can do in Waco to have fun, get involved in the community, make friends, learn crucial life skills and even in some cases earn some money: start a band, start a business, find some regular volunteer “employment.” Parents, this will take some subtlety on your part, but try not to buy in if you hear your kids saying, “there’s nothing to do.” Find a subtle way to suggest, inspire and encourage something – and let them run with it. Then – when they are running – cheer like crazy and invite your friends and the whole community to do the same.
Gretchen Eichenberg is a life-long Wacoan and local high school newspaper and yearbook adviser. There’s nothing she’d rather be doing more than cheering on her favorite softball player or jamming to the tunes of her son’s band. Her family includes husband, Alex, and kids George, 14, and Brigitte, 11, and an energetic Lab named Luke, who thinks he rules the HOT Dog Park.