Top 10: Reflections on Leadership Waco

Top 10  “Most Opened” Blog Posts of 2019: # 6

By Austin Meek

As someone who thought he knew a lot about this city before starting Leadership Waco, I finished the Greater Waco Chamber’s year-long training course with a more robust and nuanced view of the issues and opportunities facing Waco than I’d ever dreamed possible.

I’ve hosted “Downtown Depot,” my radio show and podcast that airs on 103.3 KWBU-FM, for almost three years. On the program, I interview the small business owners, civic leaders, and engaged citizens leading Waco’s revitalization. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours thinking about this community, both by myself and with other engaged parties, and did not expect to find much that I didn’t already know through Leadership Waco.

But, of course, as it has time and time again, Waco surprised me.

Before Leadership Waco, I never knew that Mars Wrigley, which operates a confectionery on Texas Central Parkway, is the single largest consumer of granulated sugar in the world, and 85-90 percent of Skittles, Starburst, and Snickers bars in North America are made right here in the heart of Texas.

Before Leadership Waco, I was unaware that historic Oakwood Cemetery, nationally known for its collection of angels adorning headstones, bears the remains of three Texas governors – Sul Ross, Richard Coke, and Pat Neff.

I’d never heard the incredible story of perseverance from Melissa Pardun of Maker’s Edge, a now-popular makerspace on 18th and Austin Avenue. After opening in January 2015, Melissa spent four months wondering why she’d followed this hair-brained dream before finally registering her first paying member in May. Despite the slow start, Maker’s Edge now serves between 100-120 members and employs six people.

Through Leadership Waco, I discovered a community that punches above its weight class in nearly every category. Whether it was the breadth and depth of the city’s non-profit network, or the quality of cultural offerings from the Waco Symphony Orchestra and Cultivate 712, or the millions of dollars poured into researching renewable technologies at the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative (BRIC), it’s clear that Waco is no longer just a sleepy town on the Brazos. It’s a rapidly developing metropolis with the resources, strategy, and ambition to become the next great Texas city.

Through its monthly gatherings focused on specific industries, Leadership Waco helped me to see a complete picture of our community. It also introduced me to contemporaries who have a similar vision for what Waco can become. I hope you’ll consider applying for Leadership Waco and watch as your understanding and admiration for this city grows.

The Waco Chamber is accepting applications for Leadership Waco Class XXXVI is until Friday, May 24. Please click here for more information.

Austin Meek is an entrepreneur based in Waco, Texas. For his media company, Waco Business News, he hosts the bi-monthly radio show and podcast, “Downtown Depot,” which first aired in September 2016 on 103.3 KWBU-FM. On “Downtown Depot,” he dialogues with the small business owners, civic leaders, and engaged citizens spearheading Waco’s revitalization. He also owns and operates Pokey O’s Cookies and Ice Cream in Waco and is developing real estate on Elm Avenue. Vox, Waco Business News

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.

United Way Impact: Who is ALICE?

By Madison Fraser

ALICE is someone you already know. They are your next-door neighbor, your cashier at the grocery store, your waiter, an office worker, and many of the other people who keep our economy running. ALICE cannot always pay the bills, has little or nothing in savings, and is forced to make tough choices such as deciding between quality child care or paying the rent. One unexpected car repair or medical bill can push these financially strapped families over the edge.

ALICE is employed at a job that does not pay enough to afford the basics of housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care. Their salaries and pay rates may be enough to barely get by if nothing ever goes wrong, but not enough to establish stability. There is little hope for financial resiliency for people at this income level.

“ALICE” stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” People in this situation are at the center of focus for United Ways, government agencies, nonprofits, and corporations. These kinds of organizations are starting to work together to evaluate current initiatives and discover innovative approaches that give ALICE a voice.  They are presenting data that can spark meaningful discussion, attract new partners, and ultimately inform strategies for positive change that can improve life for ALICE and the wider community.

Dr. Stephanie Hoopes, Ph.D., is the lead researcher, director, and author of the ALICE Reports. Dr. Hoopes began this effort with a pilot study of a more accurate way to measure financial hardship in Morris County, New Jersey in 2009. Since then, she has overseen its expansion into a broad-based, state-by-state research initiative. Her research on the ALICE population has garnered both state and national media attention. Dr. Hoopes joined United Way full time in 2015. Since then, the ALICE Project has grown to 17 participating states and over 3,000 counties.

Each ALICE Report uses standardized measurements to quantify the cost of a basic household budget in each county in each state, and to show how many households are struggling to afford it. The ALICE research team developed four ALICE measures to identify and assess financial hardship at a local level and to enhance existing local, state, and national poverty measures. The Household Survival Budget is a minimal estimate of the total cost to maintain a household. The ALICE Threshold represents the minimum income level necessary for survival for a household. The ALICE Income Assessment is a tool that measures how much income households need to reach the ALICE Threshold; how much they actually earn; how much public and nonprofit assistance is provided to help these households meet their basic needs; and the Unfilled Gap — how far these households remain from reaching the ALICE Threshold despite both income and assistance. The ALICE Housing Stock assessment calculates the number of housing units in a county that ALICE and poverty-level households can afford compared with the demand for affordable units. More information on ALICE Research and Methodology Overview.

To provide a better understanding of ALICE in Texas, United Ways throughout Texas are sharing an ALICE report.  This 135-page report is based on years of research and data from Texas households. It shows that 28 percent of Texas families are ALICE. Combined with households in poverty, this means that 42 percent of Texas families do not earn enough money to meet the Household Survival Budget that uses conservative estimates on monthly expenses. Low-wage jobs are prevalent in Texas, with 62 percent of all jobs paying less than $20 per hour. As contract work and on-demand jobs have increased, job instability has increased, making it difficult for ALICE workers to meet regular monthly expenses or to establish savings.

Adriana Cuellar Rojas, President and CEO of United Ways of Texas, says that a goal in releasing this report is to inform Texas communities, policy makers, funders, coalitions, and organizations in order to more effectively help the ALICEs of our state. The data may help guide public policy or, as in the instance of another state’s ALICE report, inform federal agencies, like FEMA, in their response to ALICE families impacted by disasters. Read the full Texas ALICE Report.

ALICE in McLennan County

Twenty-seven percent of McLennan County households are walking a financial tightrope, unable to keep and grow assets, and are only one emergency away from falling into crisis. Even higher than the already startling 42 percent combined percentage at the state level, 17 percent of families are living below the federal poverty line and 45 percent of households are unable to make ends meet here in McLennan County. As the number of households below the ALICE Threshold changes over time, families will continue to move in and out of poverty and ALICE status as their circumstances improve or worsen. Conditions have improved for some families, but with rising costs, many still find themselves struggling.

In 2016, the annual salary for survival budget for a McLennan County family with two adults and two children was $51,660 – more than double the federally recognized family poverty level of $24,300. The Household Survival Budget reflects the bare minimum that a household needs to live and work today. It does not include savings for emergencies or future goals like college or retirement. In comparison, the stability budget for the same family would need to be $92,748 annually to establish those goals as realistic opportunities. View data about ALICE in McLennan County.

The way Americans live is changing, especially here in McLennan County. Our population is rapidly increasing with a 7 percent growth rate per year since the last census in 2010, as well as housing costs and the decrease of affordable housing as a result of reconstruction and additions to the city landscape. There are more family and living combinations that are different than ever before, including more adults living alone, with roommates, or with their parents. Families with children are changing. There are more non-married cohabiting parents and blended families with remarried parents. The number of senior households is also increasing. Yet all types of households continue to struggle. ALICE and poverty-level households exist across all of these living arrangements in our community.

 The ALICE report is about far more than poverty. It reveals that almost half of us are struggling to make ends meet. It reveals profound changes in the structure of Texas’ communities and jobs, as well as in our local community. It also reveals that hardworking families and individuals often are unseen, unknown, and are at-risk almost every day. The lack of accurate information about the number of people who are “poor” distorts the identification of problems related to poverty, misguides policy solutions, and raises questions of equality, transparency, and fairness.

United Way of Waco-McLennan County, in partnership with United Ways of Texas, is taking an active role in addressing these issues. We encourage McLennan County residents and community members to read the ALICE Report and to collectively and collaboratively consider ways to improve the lives of ALICE families in our community. Together, we can all fight for ALICE.

Madison Fraser is a recent graduate of Baylor University where she earned her BA in journalism in 2018. Currently she serves as the Campaign and Communications Coordinator at United Way of Waco-McLennan County where she discovered her passion of community building and advocacy through the work of nonprofits.

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.

United Ways of Texas, United Way of Greater Houston, United Way of Northern New Jersey

Our Community Our Future: Collaborating to serve the mental health needs of young people in our community

By Kelli McAdams

The Heart of Texas Region system of care, “Our Community Our Future (OCOF),” was created in the Fall of 2015 when a committee of community stakeholders came together to look at the mental health needs of children and adolescents in our community. The intention of the “system of care” is to create new opportunities for collaboration, to discover new revenue streams and to braid funding across agencies, in an effort to identify and fill gaps in services for children, youth, and young adults in our community.

OCOF’s overall mission is “Collaborating with and connecting families through a shared community vision to provide a culturally responsive continuum of care so children, youth and young adults are supported in becoming healthy and successful in the Heart of Texas region.” Since 2015, through continued and new collaborations with community partners, OCOF has helped to establish new programs in three major area: School Based Mental Health services, Transition Age Youth services, and Youth Crisis Respite services.

School Based Mental Health services address mental health needs within the educational system. This is done by placing a counselor and case manager at individual school sites to serve the most intensive mental health needs of the children and adolescents at that school. These in-school mental health professionals make it possible for children and adolescents to receive the care they need with minimal disruption to their school day. Having the mental health professionals in the school provides for quick and easy access to a counselor or case manager during times of crisis and allows for collaboration with school staff to best meet the student’s needs. At the end of 2018, the School-Based Mental Health program had 18 mental health staff at 40 campuses across 10 school districts. The program has become a model for the area, with nearby school districts taking notice and requesting information. Multiple school districts have also demonstrated confidence in the program through financial contribution to maintain sustainability.

Transition Age Youth (TAY) services support youth and young adults, between the ages of 18-22, who are transitioning into adulthood. TAY services connect these young people to mental health services that help them to obtain stable housing, to establish healthy adult relationships, and to achieve education and employment goals. The program’s Case Manager, Supported Education and Employment Specialist, and Program Manager were also recently trained in the unique developmental needs of transition age youth, strategies to support engagement with this population, and the adapted Individual Placement and Support (IPS) model of supported employment. The TAY program currently has a caseload of approximately 30 individuals, and consistently remains at capacity.

The Youth Crisis Respite House (YCRH) is a six-bed, short-term, living-room model, respite facility for youth between the ages of 13-17 who are experiencing a mental health or behavioral health crisis. The intention is to provide respite service within our community in order to reduce the number unnecessary out-of-home placements such as juvenile placement, CPS placement, or psychiatric hospitalization. After many months of preparations and creative funding, the YCRH recently received the approval by The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to open the facility and begin serving youth. Since opening its doors in late March, the house has successfully served five youth and continues to receive referrals.

In addition to these services, the OCOF includes family advocates who work to make sure families have a voice in the system of care. Family partners and family representatives work alongside and support families in their journeys, and OCOF created a Parent Cafe which provides a space for parents and caregivers to gather together, share information, and support one another.

OCOF’s current community partners include:

  • Bill Logue Juvenile Justice
  • Central Texas Youth Services
  • China Spring ISD
  • The Cove
  • Connally ISD
  • DFPS – Child Protective Services
  • Education Service Center Region 12
  • Hill County Juvenile Probation Department
  • Hillsboro ISD
  • Klaras Center for Families – Heart of Texas Region MHMR
  • LaVega ISD
  • Lorena ISD
  • Marlin ISD
  • Midway ISD
  • NAMI Waco
  • Prosper Waco
  • Robinson ISD
  • Starry Counseling
  • Unbound
  • Waco ISD
  • Waco Center for Youth
  • Whitney ISD
  • VASA / Voice

Kelli McAdams, LCSW, is the Program Director for Youth Crisis Respite House at the Heart of Texas Region MHMR. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has a master’s degree of Science in Social Work with a concentration in mental health as well as a bachelor’s degree in Social Work, both from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Salvation Army and Art Center of Waco team up to showcase works by homeless artists

The Salvation Army of Waco and The Art Center of Waco have teamed up for the HeART of the Homeless initiative. This program is funded by City Center Waco and Creative Waco to provide for expressions of art to be created by the homeless and others who are served at The Salvation Army Community Kitchen. 

Twice a week, during the dinner rush, an Art Center of Waco teaching artist prepares for evening art projects outside in the kitchen courtyard. The kitchen serves anyone in need of a meal and the art program provides the same – Anyone in need of some time to enjoy a moment of creative comfort or friendly conversation with other participants. Art projects range from expressive painting, found, donated and/or recycled items crafted into pictures or sculpture, or donated and personal items decorated with tie dye or fabric paints. A variety of art options are always available with the intention of being accessible to all ages and interests.  

Art participants are always appreciative to have the opportunity to build their art experience. It is not uncommon to hear “I really needed that, thank you!” or “I made a special trip to join today.” When told artwork was going to be presented to the public, many participants became more engaged and enjoyed the idea that the public would have the opportunity to see their artwork. Please take a moment to join us to enjoy each piece and know that someone’s heart was put into their work. We can all be connected by art and the HeART of the Homeless program has drawn a creative community to the Salvation Army of Waco Community Kitchen to appreciate each other’s unique voices and experiences, inclusive of all of life’s circumstance. 

To celebrate this collaboration, there will be a free public Art Exhibit Wednesday, May 15th from 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM in both the newly refreshed outdoor courtyard behind the Salvation Army of Waco Community Kitchen, and in the Art Center of Waco Mobile Art Gallery parked in the front visitor’s lot. Address for both exhibits is 300 Webster Ave., Waco, TX.

Additional viewing dates and times will be Thursday, May 16th through Sunday, May 19th from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. Both exhibits are free and will both be open for self-guided viewing. 

For questions/details, please contact either Claire Sexton at the Art Center of Waco (254) 752-4371 or Diana Barrett, at The Salvation Army (254) 756-7271.