Prosper Waco: Waco’s Continued Commitment to Community Change

By Christina Helmick

Henry Ford once said “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Personally, I think that quote described the atmosphere during the 2017 Prosper Waco Annual Summit. On October 12, hundreds of community members gathered at the Waco Convention Center to celebrate the work our community has begun by working together.

The evening’s program focused on where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going. The night kicked off with opening remarks by Dr. Marcus Nelson, the superintendent for Waco ISD. There was such excitement in the room between those who were hearing him speak for the first time and those who knew how his words capture an audience. Following Dr. Nelson, our director of community engagement, Liz Ligawa, and a panel of grassroots community leaders took the stage to talk about why showing up and sharing your perspective is important to community change.

Next, Matthew Polk highlighted initiative efforts led by community partners that are currently being implemented such as Project Link, System of Care and the Community Loan Center. Then, a panel of seven community leaders took the stage to answer questions about efforts addressing education, health and financial security outcomes. Panelists answered questions about what data the organizations involved are tracking and how community members can get involved. With the event coming to a close, three speakers detailed efforts with big plans for 2018.  

At the end of the night, one of our goals was to ensure all people at the Summit understood there are ways to get involved starting that night. Each person can make a commitment to get involved by working together to improving overall quality of life in Waco. So, we asked people to complete a commitment card. The card highlighted the different opportunities people can take to become involved. We listed a few of the ways to become involved like mentoring and joining work happening at the neighborhood-level. Forty-four people committed to being involved and working together to achieve the community’s goals. Of the 44 people who made their commitment at the Summit:

  • 17 identified that they would like to be a mentor
  • 4 committed to recruiting mentors
  • 9 committed to hosting internships at his/her organization or company
  • 4 committed to identifying internship opportunities at local businesses
  • 17 want to attend a Prosper Waco 101 event
  • 18 want to join a Strong Neighborhood Team
  • 29 want to learn more about ways to get involved in the Prosper Waco initiative

If you weren’t able to attend the Summit or didn’t get to fill out a card, make your commitment by clicking here! Collectively, we can make our own contributions to achieving the goals our community has set. If you have any questions about the opportunities to get involved, reach out to Jillian Jones in our office ( or call 254-741-0081.

To download the feedback from participants, click here. If you missed the Summit and would like to watch the entire evening, you can click here.

Henry Ford was right—it’s by working together that we, as a community, will see success.

Christina Helmick is the director of communication at Prosper Waco. She is a recent graduate of Baylor University with a BA in Journalism, Public Relations & New Media. Originally she is from Washington, D.C., but has stayed in Waco post-graduation.  She is an active mentor at J.H. Hines Elementary School, 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.


Starry Night in Waco

In preparing for the Waco Walks “Slightly Spooky Halloween Walk” that will take place tonight, I took a closer look at the Starry Night mural on 10th street between Columbus and Washington. I wondered who came up with the idea and who created the beautiful mural.  I had enjoyed the murals on Elm Avenue, but this was one of the first ones I remember seeing on the “Downtown” side of the river.  A little Facebook sleuthing resulted in an answer. It was a project of one of Jenny Dougherty’s (now Jamison’s) art classes at Live Oak Classical School.  The building is owned by Thad & Loryn Hairston and their son Cullen Hairston was in Ms. Dougherty’s class in 2011.  I wrote to Jenny and she wrote me back.  I enjoyed her explanation so much, I thought I would share it with you all as a Halloween treat! – Ashley Bean Thornton

By Jenny Dougherty Jamison

Gosh, I loved that project.

This was before Waco was “cool” (though it’s always been cool to me).  Before Fixer Upper etc. etc.  I had a dream of making downtown Waco more beautiful.

My 5th grade students study Van Gogh – It’s  a pretty powerful subject, conversations about mental illness, the value of art, etc.  I looked for a wall all Summer leading up to that school year.  Called countless business owners.  Finally a parent at Live Oak said he owned a building on 10th.  So we went for it.

I had loved Starry Night since I was a kid – I painted it on the bathroom walls of my childhood home.  It also lends itself to be painted by middle schoolers and is striking from a distance.

Sherwin WIlliams generously donated the paints.  It was much more of an endeavor than I realized.  Painting a mural is a bigger project than I’d done before.  Not to mention supervising middle schoolers in the wild :).

They did a fantastic job – I’m tearing up writing this.  They really did shine in their painting and responsibility around the whole project.  My then boyfriend (now husband) and I painted the top third, as we were the only ones who could reach it.  John and Kate Sterchi also helped quite a bit and had classes help.

I love seeing this mural pop up in the backgrounds of people’s engagement photos and touristy Waco things.  I hope you guys enjoy your walk!

This project serves as a reminder to me that …

  1. There are really good people in Waco who want to help you succeed in your endeavors.
  2. Middle Schoolers are far more capable then we give them credit for.
  3. Even lawyers (my husband) can be taught to paint.

Jenny (Dougherty) Jamison was an Art Teacher at Live Oak Classical School from 2006-2012. She now lives in Austin with her husband Ryan and son Callaghan. She enjoys painting portraits, making bread and growing vegetables. Most days you can find her and Cal hiking the green belt or in the kitchen. Waco (and Live Oak) will always have a piece of her heart.

EKPHRASIS 2017: Doors

(Last year the Central Texas Artist Collective (CTAC) organized an exhibit downtown called EKPHRASIS. It was an exhibit of art and words.  Local poets and artists were paired up to create art and poetry together that was then placed on exhibit in downtown Waco. 

This year the EKPHRASIS theme is An Exploration of Mind, Body, Soul.  It takes a deeper look at mental health and illness, grief and loss, trauma, recovery, and healing. The hope for this mental health exhibition is to encourage dialogue stimulated by the 19 Artists and Writer’s ekphrastic displays, to destigmatize misconceptions, and to cultivate an empathic understanding of one another. 

In today’s blog post, our blogger, Becky Charles shares her thoughts as a visual artist participating in EKPHRASIS. – ALW)

By Becky Charles

Last year wandering around downtown Waco I came across the EKPHRASIS exhibit by chance.

I was just taking a walk after dinner and saw all the beautiful art and poetry that was created by our community and I was in awe.  I never imagined I would participate in this type of event.

This spring a friend asked for people to sign up for EKPHRASIS as a birthday gift to her.  I thought it was a wonderful birthday wish and I signed up!

I know Jamie Graham through my friendship with her daughter who I met over 25 years ago.  She found out I was participating she suggested we collaborate.  EEEEE!! I was so excited to create something with her because she is such a creative and amazing person, but I had zero ideas on WHAT to create.  My mind was blank.

I might have panicked a little and had a “what was I thinking signing up for this?!?!” moment.  I’ve never created art for public viewing nor collaborated with another artist in this way.  I’m more of a background volunteer type of person who helps set up, clean up, anything needed to help an event run smoothly.  I make art all the time at home to keep or give away as gifts but don’t consider myself an “artist;” it’s just for fun.

Jamie and I met for lunch and there I sat with a brain full of empty.  Jamie said she could write a poem inspired by my artwork or I could create art inspired by one of her poems.  Since my mind was literally a blank canvas at that point I asked if she could write first and I would create whatever her writing inspired me to.  She had a piece she was working on and prefaced it with a very personal story.

I’ve known Jamie most of my life as my friend’s mom, someone to look up to, a mentor, an influence on my development from a teenager to a grown woman, a mother to not only her daughter but to all of us who spent time in her house growing up.   She began reading her poem and in that moment I saw her on even ground.  At this point in life we are both mothers.  In her story of life struggles and her poetry, I saw parts of myself…a woman/mother/person who just wants a moment of peace so she hides in a bathroom behind a locked door.  How doors can become barriers or we can open them to freedom.  How comforting it can be to isolate yourself at times but then how quickly that isolation can feel like you’re trapped.  That we hold the key to the doors we create for ourselves. As Jamie read her poem to me in that restaurant, I saw the art come to life.  I was moved to tears by her words and what I envisioned for the art to go with them.

Our creation is simply titled “Doors.”  I saw parts of myself in her poem and if you look closely, you will see part of yourself in the art inspired by her words.

Becky Charles is a Waco native who works for a local mental health clinic.  She enjoys spending time with her family, volunteering together for community events, and supporting local businesses, artists, and musicians.  She creates many forms of art in her spare time for family and friends but this is her first time to have art on public display.






Ira Watkins: On Progress and Waco

(Ira Watkins is an artist from Waco.  In 2005, he painted a mural of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the old pier that used to support the Interurban Railroad bridge.  Now the old pier with its beautiful mural. serves as an observation deck overlooking the Brazos near the East end of the Suspension Bridge.  Mr. Watkins lives in San Francisco, but has family in Waco and still visits frequently.  Sarah Frank interviewed him by telephone from his home in California.  – ALW)  

By Sarah Frank

A few weeks ago I took some time out of my lunch break to visit the Suspension Bridge and take a walk through the park. I stopped for a moment to admire one of my favorite Waco murals, that of Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands.

As the daughter of a black man I was raised to know African American history. I know all the names by heart, from Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth, to Emmett Till and Jesse Washington. When I told my dad I was going to school in Waco, I remember him asking “Do you know what happened there?” At the time, I had never put it together that the Waco in which the lynching of Washington occurred was the same Waco I was moving to. I spent the rest of the night searching for other lynchings and racist acts in the Waco area, questioning my own judgement to move there. I had passed through Klan country before and in my terrified state I imagined Waco would be the same.

Four years later, I’m still here and I love Waco more now than ever.

Acts of love and peace like the painting of the MLK mural give me and the rest of the community a sense of hope, which was exactly the intention behind artist Ira Watkin’s painting. A few days after my visit to the mural I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Watkins about growing up in Waco and the purpose behind the mural. This was the first time I had spoken to an African American native of Waco about the history here, and I was eager to gain a new perspective on my current home and its past.

“I have more flowers in my yard than they do at MLK park”

The idea of the mural was originally spawned as a beautification project. Mr. Watkins explained that he had a friend over at his house one day and they were looking through an Ebony magazine. His friend mentioned the lack of beauty in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park and said, “I have more flowers in my yard than they do at the MLK park.” He went on to ask Watkins to paint a mural for the park. Watkins agreed and chose to paint a mural of the images of King that were displayed in an Ebony magazine. Watkins went on to talk about King, mentioning, “To me, it’s like MLK was an inspiration. Sometimes God puts different people on the planet not just to give a message from a religious perspective, but from a humanitarian perspective.”

“You see these freckles? That’s the n*gger in me.”

After discussing the conception of the mural, I moved on to ask Watkins more about growing up as an African American in Waco and in the United States. He told stories of his old stomping grounds, of what he did for money, and who his friends were. Despite having what seems to me as a relatively normal childhood, Watkins told me a short story which stuck with me:

“When I was there in Waco as a kid, there was one white dude named Ralph that we socialized with and we could go up to his house as long as his parents weren’t there. He had freckles, he always said, “You see these freckles? That’s the n*gger in me.”

Watkin’s story surprised me for two reasons: the fact that he could only go to Ralph’s if his parents weren’t home and Ralph’s comment about his freckles. This story is a product of its time, steeped in prejudice but also in progress. Ralph’s parents illustrate the prejudice at the time – an unwillingness to have a black boy over at their house. Ralph, however, portrays the progress – a boy so accepting that he is okay with having a little bit of black in him.

Despite the racism and prejudice Watkins may have endured growing up, he explains that “[Waco] was great to me because, in my opinion, we had everything that white people had… Everything was basically on the same level.”

“They’d never come back to Waco. They haven’t seen the changes.”

Ira Watkins painting pumpkins with kids in East Waco Park (October 2017)

Speaking with an African American man who grew up in a time of great racial divide, I expected Watkins to be more bitter toward his hometown and his childhood; however, Watkins only had positive things to say about the city. “Waco was alright to me,” he explained. “I have some friends that said they’d never come back to Waco. They haven’t seen the changes. The good thing about it is everyone there is not from there or the surrounding area. They have people there from all over the country, all over the world, and when they come in they come with different ideas. Some of them fall in place with the old guards and some of them bring their own interpretations of what they want it to be.”

“You can’t undo what has been done.”

When asked about Waco’s past, Watkin’s message remained one of hope and progress. Despite the history of racism and prejudice here, Watkins asserts that there has been, and will be, progress in this city. “It’s history, but you can make progress from learning from the past,” explained Watkins when asked about the acts of violence in Waco. He goes on later to attest, “My perspective is that you can’t undo what has been done. You have to live with the past and make strives so that the future can be better.”

My interview with Watkins highlighted the progress Waco has made and motivated me to continue working toward an even better future. His story has also made me realize that Waco is not just its history, but it is its stories, its people, and most importantly its progress.

Sarah comes from Abilene, Texas and is a senior at Baylor University. She studies Psychology and Professional Writing and hopes to pursue a career in clinical research. She is a dog lover and is known to pull over in her car to stop and pet a dog. She has a hunger for travel and has visited 8 countries and hopes to go to more. A pessimist by nature, but with hope for a better future, she is passionate about civil rights and dreams of a future without borders, hunger, and war.





Parent engagement – everybody knows we need it, but how do we do it?

By Sheila Whitehead

Try something for me – Google the phrase “parent engagement in school.”  What did you find?  When I run that search, I find 3.8 million returns addressing or at least mentioning the importance of parent engagement in our schools.  3.8 million returns are ranging from scholarly articles about why it’s important to how schools can encourage parent engagement.  Everybody seems to be talking about it – everyone can see the importance of parent engagement.  Research over the past 50 years has shown that when parents are involved in their child’s education, school attendance increases; students have higher grades and score higher on tests; and they are more likely to graduate and go on to postsecondary education.  Students experience success – something all parents want for their children. But what does meaningful parent engagement really look like?

That’s something that Waco ISD as a district is working toward defining through intentional discussions, surveys and activities all aimed at bringing the community and families into the conversation.  New district leadership has sharpened the focus of that intentionality.  Community meetings aimed at supporting WISD campuses and students who need it the most are being held.  District-wide events are being planned to support literacy, college for all, the involvement of strong male role models, and summer learning.  Surveys are being circulated giving families, community members, staff, and students an avenue to express concerns and point out successes.

Campuses are also working to create opportunities to involve parents.  In the three years I’ve been at Waco ISD, I’ve had the opportunity to see a huge number of activities across the district designed to encourage parents to become involved – events ranging from Dia de Los Muertos activities and Nachos and Numbers Night to parent/teacher conferences centered around student’s academic needs.  All these events are intended to attract parents to campuses, to become involved with the family of educators that work with our children eight hours a day, five days a week and to have a voice in the academic success of those children.

Our schools and our district are charged with the mission, however, to go beyond Nachos and Numbers and to find ways to support our parents as they seek to become part of their child’s education.  With barriers ranging from limited resources to time constraints, that can be a daunting challenge! It’s one that Waco ISD is up to tackling though.  Be looking for surveys and invitations to parent activities at your school and in the district.  Be part of the conversation around parent engagement at Waco ISD.

But – you might ask – what difference can one parent make in reaching out to become actively engaged at your child’s school and in the district?  One study found that when parents are involved at school, the performance of all the children in the school tends to improve – not just the children of those who are actively involved (Henderson & Berla, 1994).  That is a profound difference.

The district is opening the door to feedback from you – your child’s first teacher.  Are you taking the opportunity to help shape what parent engagement looks like at Waco ISD?  It’s your right to be informed; it’s your right to be involved; it’s your choice to be engaged.

Sheila Whitehead works with Parent Involvement Coordinators across Waco ISD in her role as coordinator of federal programs for WISD.  She has been an educator for 32 years and enjoys spending time with her family including her 11-year-old daughter Meghan.