The Historic Southside's Village

Ethan Weber is the Fortress Community Relations Coordinator. He serves on the Van Zandt-Guinn Site-Based Decision Making Team and co-chairs the new Historic Southside Education Committee.

Fortress has always believed in the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s not solely the parent’s responsibility or the school’s responsibility or our responsibility, but rather the entire community that is responsible for the education and growth of each child. So when our two lead staff members were asked to co-chair an education committee for the neighborhood that we serve, Historic Southside, we couldn’t turn it down! 

The education committee has been charged with a pretty simple goal: to convene neighborhood partners in education to work together to increase educational achievement and opportunities for children in the neighborhood. Our specific focus will be on literacy and how to prepare all of the students in the neighborhood to read on level by 3rd grade.  This goal is in line with the recent Fort Worth Independent School District goal of 100% of 3rd graders reading on level by 2025. This is an important milestone as students who cannot read by this point face long odds to eventual graduation and success as an adult.

At our first meeting this morning we had partners from three neighborhood organizations -- Fortress YDC, Southside Community Center, and UCC Bethlehem Center -- and our local elementary school (Van-Zandt Guinn) in attendance. We came up with four goals that we have as a committee for this school year:

  1. To continue to take a holistic approach to improving literacy outcomes for children in the Historic Southside community
  2. To promote community involvement through ongoing volunteer opportunities
  3. To support Van Zandt-Guinn and district efforts to create substantial gains in reading and all core subjects
  4. To collaborate on community outreach efforts and align calendars to prevent duplication of events
  5. To provide a united front for the community about the efforts being made to improve literacy and educational outcomes

After our first meeting, we now have some tangible ways to move forward and we are excited to see what happens when we form a united coalition to get all of the kids in our neighborhood reading on level by 3rd grade.

"I pray God blesses the children…" by Lauren Taylor - St. Bowietta

     My name is Lauren Taylor. I'm sixteen years old, almost a junior in high school. I am part of a conglomerate youth group known around Fortress as St. Bowietta. 

     I was placed with Greece, which is the fourth and fifth graders. I am super blessed that Ta'Niya, Sa'Niya, Carlton, Omar and Taylor were in my group, as well as the others that have graced us with their presence here. Whether those kids know it or not, it is so refreshing to see young minds eager to work and learn. These kids have been a huge blessing to all of us who have had the privilege to be their buddies this week. Helping them also helps us, and getting to know them better pushes me to be a great example to them in hopes that I will see all of them again next year. 

Lauren plays cards with the kids in her buddy group.

Lauren plays cards with the kids in her buddy group.

     I have had Ta'Niya as my buddy for the past three years, and seeing how she has much grown over time is incredible and I want others to feel the way I do. I wish everyone could understand how other people work the way Fortress does. 

     The verse that inspired me this week was Proverbs 16:3 which reads, "Commit to the Lord whatever you do and He will establish your plans." It reminds me to try and focus on the important things. I love Fortress and everything that it stands for. I pray God blesses the children, workers and ministry here.

"My eyes were truly opened…" by AneElise Pitt - West Side Church of Christ

AneElise takes some time after the kids leave to write a blog.

AneElise takes some time after the kids leave to write a blog.

When I first heard about Fortress Youth Development Center a few years ago, I had no idea of the impact this program would make on my life. Before coming to Fortress for the first time about a year ago, I had my own perspective on poverty, a perspective of someone who had never been subjected to poverty first hand. While on this trip, my eyes were truly opened for the first time. I realized the reality of what those smiling faces of the kids involved in this program experience everyday. This Youth Development Center really is a "Fortress" for the urban youth of Fort Worth. I am so grateful that they have a place where they not only further their education, but also build a strong relationship with our Lord. 

This past week, I have had the opportunity to be a buddy to the Ukraine group which included the second and third graders. The kids in this group are so eager to learn and full of excitement. They have truly been a joy to be around this week.

In my opinion, Fortress Youth Development Center serves as a great volunteer opportunity for young adults. This is an amazing program, and I am so glad that I have had a chance to be a part of it. 

Parents and Students Get an A+

Ms. Burgess, Ms. Hannah, Mr. Besses, Ms. Aundrea, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Ethan

Ms. Burgess, Ms. Hannah, Mr. Besses, Ms. Aundrea, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Ethan

March brings with it two things most parents and students probably aren't too fond of - the start of tornado season and STAAR testing. Just like it's important to be prepared in the event of bad weather, we can also help our students prepare for the often-stressful environment that comes with standardized testing.

For our March parenting event, Fortress was grateful to Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School for having school counselor Mr. Lewis and testing coordinator Ms. Burgess come talk to our families about ways to help prepare our kids for success. Ms. Burgess focused on Van Zandt-Guinn's theme this year: Pacing yourself for a strong finish!  There are multiple days of testing in March and makeup days in May, and for students in grades 5 and 8, there will also be SSI (Student Success Initiative) testing in math and reading.

Ms. Burgess highlighted the importance of making sure your child is getting plenty of rest the night before testing and eating a good breakfast in the morning. VZG stops serving breakfast at 7:55 am so bring them early if they are going to eat there. Mr. Lewis taught parents that stress means being under pressure combined with an uncomfortable feeling, something a lot of kids are likely to experience during testing. Mr. Lewis reminded our parents that emotionally supporting students during testing is just as important as getting them to school on time. We want to thank all of our parents who attended this event, especially Michelle for asking so many great questions, and a big thank you to Ms. Burgess and Mr. Lewis! We know our Fortress kids are smart and we are excited to work together to help them succeed on the STAAR.

Karaoke Night at Fortress

Last Friday night was an interesting night at Fortress YDC, to say the least! For February's family event, Fortress hosted a Valentine's Dinner and karaoke night. Tables were decorated with red tablecloths, conversation hearts, watercolor valentines, Avengers valentines, temporary tattoo valentines, and of course, pink valentines. Families got to enjoy a dinner of Mrs. D's famous (and delicious) spaghetti and meatballs, salad, garlic bread and cookies, served by volunteers from the Fort Worth Junior League. DJ Malfunxion got the party started by spinning some old school Michael Jackson and other favorites during dinner and then turned the mic over to the crowd. Gabriel and his mom, Pakecia, were brave enough to go first, with a duet of the Sir-Mix-A-Lot classic, "Baby Got Back." While it's not exactly what you'd consider a "Valentine's Day classic," everybody knew the words and it got the dance floor going too. And we all know how much Olaf loves the spotlight, so it was no surprise when Ethan busted out his best rendition of his theme song, "In Summer"! Word must've gotten around that we were having a rockin' good time, because we were pulling out extra chairs by the end of the evening despite only a few families signing up ahead of time to attend. I have a feeling that the next karaoke night will have families jumping at the chance to attend

IGNITE Fortress: Mentors & Volunteers

Dani Kocur has overseen the Ignite mentoring program since 2011 and has seen it grow from fewer than 20 mentors to now 100% capacity at 73 mentors.

Our mentoring program, Ignite, started by accident. One fall afternoon, a teacher at the local medical school called and said, "I've been meaning to call for months. My name is Rob, and I have a weird schedule on Mondays between classes. I'm tired of sitting in Barnes and Noble to pass the time. Is there anything I can do for you guys on Mondays between 4:00 and 6:00?"

As is happened, we did. There was a boy named Ja'Vuntae enrolled in Fortress After School who cried daily upon arrival. Nothing we could do seemed to help. He hated being here, and no one could get through to him to help him express why he was so upset each afternoon. He was exhausting our teachers and taking time from the other students.

"Yes!" exclaimed Stacy, who was running our fledgling volunteer program at the time. She described the problems with Ja'Vuntae, then said, "You could hang out with him on Mondays and give our teachers a break." Rob laughed nervously and said, "That's not exactly what I had in mind, but I'll come Monday and we'll see how it goes.

On their first meeting, Ja’Vuntae, in his usual gloomy and tearful mood, and Rob - a quiet, shy, unassuming man - barely spoke. Concerned that Rob was in over his head, Stacy joined them at the table where they sat to coach Rob along and help him get Ja'Vuntae to open up.  As the unlikely pair sat there on opposite sides of the table molding Play-Doh and avoiding eye contact, Stacy tried to help. “What’s wrong, Ja’Vuntae? Did something happen at school?” she asked. Nothing. They both continued to roll their separate Play-Doh.

“Did you get in a fight with someone?”

Again, nothing.

“Did you get in trouble at home?” Silent tears continued to roll down Ja'Vuntae's face, but he offered no answers.

PLOP! Rob wordlessly dropped his Play-Doh creation in front of Ja’Vuntae.

“Easy,” Ja’Vuntae said, and he guessed immediately what Rob had made. Then Ja’Vuntae pushed his Play-Doh toward Rob.

“Is it…a ball and a bat?” Rob asked. Ja’Vuntae frowned and shook his head.

“Is it…a stick and a rock?” Frustrated, another tear rolled down Ja’Vuntae’s face.

"Man, Ja'Vuntae," said Rob. "I give up. You're just too good at this Play-Doh thing. You'll have to tell me what it is."

“No! That’s me and that’s a bush. Every day, my Mom says to sit next to that bush after school and she'll pick me up, but if she doesn't come, I have to ride with Fortress.”

Humbled, Stacy walked away and let Rob and Ja’Vuntae finish their time together. Rob obviously knew what he was doing. He knew exactly how to ignite a positive fire in Ja'Vuntae. And it was that moment that Stacy knew that every kid in our building needed a Rob. For the first time all year, Ja'Vuntae was opening up and trusting someone enough to share his sorrow and his pain and his disappointment. For the first time, there was an adult whose word meant something to Ja'Vuntae, as Mr. Rob showed up week after week after week to spend that two hours connecting and building a relationship with the young man who had been unreachable before.

This year for the first time in our history, every single eligible child at Fortress - 73 of them as we write this - has a mentor. That means for one hour a week, every child gets special, personalized, one-on-one time with an adult who cares deeply for them and feels called to be a positive, encouraging, and Christ-like presence in their life. The powerful impact that this makes is hard to measure, but we see it every day. We see it when Bo takes Gabriel’s hands and prays with him when he’s upset. We see it when Brooklyn and Katie sit across the table from each other making a gingerbread house and singing Christmas carols. We see it when Brandon gets excited to read the next chapter in his book with Rusty. When Zac calls his mentor his big brother. When Morgan boasts about the new recipe she and her mentor made this week. When Kelton asks his mentor when they can do another Bible study. When Kyla proudly helps throw a baby shower for her mom with the help of her mentor Lannett. On and on and on I could go, with unique stories for each unique child, but the common theme among all of them comes straight from the mouths of our kids. We recently asked them, “When you spend time with your mentor, how do you feel?” An overwhelming majority of them simply replied, “Loved.”

As valuable as our mentors are, it's not only the Ignite program that makes these tremendous impacts on our kids. ALL of our volunteers leave lasting impressions and make our kids feel valued. From the group who comes every Thursday without fail to provide dinner, to the high school students who spend two days per month with our preK and Kindergarteners, to the handymen who are in and out of our building replacing light bulbs and installing desks, to the groups who arrive with donations and hands-on projects and materials to host Family Fun nights. Every single volunteer who walks through our front door makes a difference, Simply put, we could not do this ministry without you. We are incredibly grateful for those of you who give your time.

But these programs, though comprised entirely of volunteers, do come with a price tag. Consider the Ignite program alone. Art supplies, sports equipment, field trips, background checks, insurance,  training programs, recruiting tools and about 25 hours a week put in by our Volunteer Coordinator specifically to manage the mentoring program – they add up to a cost of about $25 per month per mentor. $287 a year for a child to have these moments. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Our kids are not only told that they have value, worth, promise, potential – they are shown it every week by their mentors. The tagline for our mentoring program is “invest an hour, ignite a life.” You can be a part of that investment. We were blessed this year to match 73 kids with their very own Mr. Rob. In 2016, we need to have at least 73 kids sponsored again. Your monthly gift of only $25 will ensure that our passionate volunteers continue to have the opportunity to IGNITE powerful change in the kids we love so much. Please give.

Merry Christmas!

Rachel Yurek is a volunteer from the Junior League Fort Worth. She is serving in her second year as our resident blogger and photographer for Equip family events.

"Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!" Fortress YDC welcomed a very special guest to our Christmas pajama party on Friday, December 11. The big jolly man in red took a break from supervising his busy little elves at the North Pole to come visit with the nice (and even the naughty!) families at Fortress. And there was a bonus special guest appearance from our favorite snowman! No, not Frosty. Olaf! After taking a break over Thanksgiving, Olaf joined us for another celebration -- I think he must really love the families here at Fortress.

Santa took pictures with all the kids, from tiny tots with their eyes all aglow to the big kids who are still young at heart. He even led a rousing boys-versus-girls match of Simon Says. Gabriel represented the boys in the final round, but thanks to Kyla and her excellent listening skills, the girls won!

Kids also had the chance to make sock snowmen and snowwomen with help from some very patient Fort Worth Christian youth group volunteers. Families were treated to a traditional Christmas dinner of ham, rolls, mashed potatoes and green beans. For dessert, there was a beautiful cake and a hot chocolate bar with mini marshmallows and plenty of whipped cream!

At the end of the night, Santa returned to the North Pole and our kids, who came decked out in their favorite PJs, went home to nestle snug in their beds while visions of sugarplums (and Christmas break) danced in their heads. Fortress will be closed for Christmas break from December 21 through January 4. We hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas, and we can't wait to see y'all again in 2016!

 

EQUIP Fortress: Parent Engagement Program

Ethan is our Community Relations Coordinator where he works with donors and families alike. He oversees our two largest annual community events, the Back 2 School Bash in the fall and the Literacy Carnival in the spring.

A buzzword within educational circles in recent years has been the term “family engagement.” Educators are beginning to better understand the need to engage families as a way to help their students succeed in the classroom. Consider the fact that a student in a program like Fortress may spend 50 hours a week in a classroom setting gaining new academic and social skills. But even with such a high number of hours in that type of setting, students will spend over TWICE (118 hours) as many hours in a home environment as they do in the classroom. Based on the amount of time spent in each environment, it is vital that students have a constructive environment in the home, that advocates for positive learning and growth, in order to reach their full potential.

11908579_1162201247140017_7351802241800269370_o.jpg

At Fortress we began to recognize the need to better engage the families that we serve about 3 years ago. Prior to that point, our programs had been very successful at building on students’ academic and social skills through our math and literacy lab programs, but we began to realize that even greater strides could be made if our families became more invested in their children’s success in the programs. Studies show that regardless of family income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores, and enroll in higher level programs
  • Attend school regularly
  • Have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school
  • Graduate and go on to post secondary education

With all this information in mind, we started the EQUIP parent engagement program in August of 2013 with funding and support from the Junior League of Fort Worth. The program provides regular activities and classes that are designed to encourage, engage and empower our parents to be more intentional in the academic and social development of their children. Families participate in bi-annual parent conferences, monthly family events, parenting classes and a parent support group.  Since we do not charge for our programs, we require that our families participate in 15 hours of these activities per year in order to enroll students the following year. Here are just a few examples of the great things that have happened because of this program in the last few years:

In the 2014-2015 school year, we offered 98 hours of parenting activities to our families and they responded by logging a total of 838 total hours! This resulted in over 90% of our families exceeding the 15 hour requirement to be eligible to reenroll students the following year. In the end-of-year survey that our families completed, one of the feedback comments we received said, “They helped us thru all the grief and problems we had last year” while another parent said, “They (Fortress) show us an example of how to take care of and treat our children as well as resolve family conflicts.”

Kaylyn and Jayla try out their brand new beds.

Kaylyn and Jayla try out their brand new beds.

Towards the end of summer 2015, one of our volunteers came to us with a couple of twin beds that they wanted to give away to someone who could use them. They asked if anyone at Fortress would be in a position to take advantage of the beds. Thanks to the strong relationships we built with the families throughout the school year, we knew of one family in particular that was about to move and had very little furniture for their new apartment. Kaylyn and Jayla, the two girls that were enrolled in our programs, had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor and were going to have the same situation in the new place. The opportunity to meet the need of these students by offering the family two twin beds could not have happened without the increased engagement between the family and Fortress.

So far in 2015-2016, we have hosted two of our largest family events ever! The Fortress Back 2 School Bash on August 21 was attended by 200+ and allowed students and families to prepare for the school year by receiving school supplies and backpacks for completing fun activities in a carnival setting. Some of the favorite event activities were the dunk tank where students could dunk a favorite staff member and the Fortress staff scavenger hunt where families had to use the provided clues to find each staff member on their card. On October 30, we hosted our first ever Trunk or Treat event. Despite weather conditions that forced the event indoors, 190 students and families attended! Volunteers decorated themed tables throughout the building and dressed up to hand candy out to all of the trick or treaters. We saw some great costumes and are super excited for how the event will grow in the coming years!

Jocelyn and her kids, all Fortress students, attend the Back 2 School Bash

Jocelyn and her kids, all Fortress students, attend the Back 2 School Bash

Thanks to some of the conversations we have had in the last couple of years with our families, we became aware that several of our families struggle to put a full Thanksgiving meal on the table. Last year we decided to see if we could do something about it. We rallied some of our donors and volunteers to help us create Thanksgiving boxes that could go home with each of our families. This year we were able to send home a full meal complete with a turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, green beans, sweet potatoes, rolls, stuffing, and peach cobbler to each of the 60 families that we serve. Our families were so appreciative and thankful to have a full meal that they could prepare and eat with their families on the special day.

We also have seen an increase in the amount of social and emotional growth from our families through the EQUIP program. Over the course of the last couple of years we have been able to connect some parents and families dealing with difficult situations to counseling services related to domestic abuse, parenting strategies and grief. Through some outside connections to the Parenting Center and Legacy Church of Christ, we always stand ready to refer any of our families to services that go beyond the scope of what we can offer. The parent support group, which this year is focused on equipping parents with the tools to help them be able to respond to their children’s needs, is another way that we have been able to listen to our parents needs and be a support system for their families.

We have already seen so much success in the EQUIP program in the first two and a half years and we know it will only continue to grow from here! Please consider making it possible to EQUIP one of our families this year by donating the $48.61 a month that it costs to implement the program for one family (or $583.32 for a year). Our families are counting on Fortress and Fortress is counting on you!

INSPIRE Fortress: Little Moments

Dani Kocur is in her sixth year on staff at Fortress. Her passion for seeing our kids grow and thrive spiritually began during her tenure as a summer counselor at Camp of the Hills, and that passion has only become stronger as she serves at Fortress.

As an administrator at Fortress, I mostly work behind-the-scenes coordinating events, communicating with volunteers, and overseeing our programs. I love being in this role, but I still cherish those rare moments where I get to work directly with our kids. That’s why for the better part of five years, I’ve readily volunteered to run our reward store, lead summer worship, and drive our kids down to Camp of the Hills. These small roles give me the opportunity to see the big impact we get to make in the lives of the at-risk kids we serve in the near southeast side of Fort Worth.

Victor was recognized with the Compassionate Heart Award at Camp, given to campers who demonstrate Christ-like compassion to other campers and counselors.

Victor was recognized with the Compassionate Heart Award at Camp, given to campers who demonstrate Christ-like compassion to other campers and counselors.

One of our kids’ most anticipated activities each year is spending a week in the beautiful Texas Hill Country outside of Marble Falls. Camp of the Hills is a ministry dedicated to revealing and glorifying Jesus Christ by providing life-changing experiences for inner-city children. I had the pleasure of serving as a counselor there for three years before I came to Fortress, and I saw first-hand how a week at camp can be so powerful for a child. Now, I am blessed to see the impact it leaves on the hearts and minds of our kids after they return home.

We have one young man at Fortress who is tough. He’s not mean; in fact, he’s got the sweetest heart. But he does have more energy to spend in one day than most people can muster in a month. I’m not saying that we look forward to putting him on the bus to Camp for one week out of the year, but it does happen to be a lot quieter in the building the week that he’s gone. His name is very well-known at Camp for the same reason it is at Fortress. For the last three years I’ve gotten a phone call a couple of weeks before we’re supposed to bring the kids. “Is our friend coming this summer?” the camp director asks me, followed by, “We’ve been praying for him by name. I know exactly which cabin he’s going to be in. His counselors can’t wait to spend time with him.” Then, for that one week, that boy gets more attention, more love, more patience, and more one-on-one time that we could ever possibly give him full-time at Fortress. And for the rest of the year he asks, “When do we go back to Camp?” He encounters the love of Jesus there in a way that cannot be replicated. He is INSPIRED to be all he can be by those counselors who prayed for him by name before he arrived and continue to love and pray for him long after he leaves.

Four students saved enough money to go to a Ranger's game. They even got to invite their mentors to join them!

Four students saved enough money to go to a Ranger's game. They even got to invite their mentors to join them!

The reward store at Fortress is such a small part of our program, but it is one of ways I see the most growth in our kids. Every two weeks, they get a “paycheck” from Fortress for going to their classes and completing their work, just like they would for a real job. Then, like they would in the real world, they visit the Bank of Fortress and have the opportunity to either spend or save their paycheck. We offer little items for purchase, such as small toys, candy, books, and school supplies. Most of the kids can get two or three of these items with every paycheck. But we also have bigger items for sale, including scooters, sports equipment, art sets, and electronics. The most popular things we offer are the field trips, which include trips to the movies, out to eat, and even an outing to see a Ranger’s game.

Because most of our kids are growing up in generational poverty, they just don’t have the opportunity to learn how to save. When your family is surviving day-by-day, why would you even consider that as an option? The reward store allows us to introduce this concept to our kids and to incentivize it in a way that is realistic. Every time our kids put their money into their Fortress savings account, they earn interest, and we talk about how their money grows and grows. Our older kids even do the math on how much interest they’ll earn by saving! In 2015, an impressive 94% of our kids chose to save their entire paycheck at least once, and 32% of all the money earned was saved for a bigger and better reward. Most impressive this past year was 3rd grader Omar who saved virtually all of his paychecks; he ended up getting to go on every single field trip we offered last year! He was INSPIRED by the new concepts he was taught in the reward store, and as a result he has begun to develop healthy lifelong habits.

Worship time in Mrs. Suzanne's Bible class

Worship time in Mrs. Suzanne's Bible class

If you ever have a chance to join us for worship at Fortress (every Thursday during after-school and every afternoon in the summer), I can guarantee it will give you a tiny glimpse of what Heaven will sound like someday. Our kids LOVE to sing, and they do so beautifully. During worship, Zac sits in the back and lays down a beat on the floorboards. The littlest ones sway and hum in the front, barely able to keep up with the words on the screen. A little giggling here and there, but mostly innocent hearts worshipping in a way that seems both naïve and unimaginably authentic at the same time.

The first time I understood what worship really is happened on an otherwise unremarkable summer day when I watched a young girl, eyes closed, face scrunched up in deep thought, cry out the words: “And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what could stand against?” This little girl’s life was in upheaval. She was living in circumstances she neither chose nor deserved, and she had no reason to have faith or hope in a fair and loving God. And yet she praised Him with abandon. She was moved by the Spirit, INSPIRED by the inherent goodness of her God.

These are only a few of the big impacts being made in the little moments at Fortress. How many more kids like these could we INSPIRE this upcoming year? A sponsorship of $70.91 a month (or $850.92 annually) allows a Fortress child to have a mentor, an after-school snack and dinner, Bible lab, summer camp, art class and reward store. Our kids count on Fortress, and they deserve every opportunity we can offer them. Help us make more of these little moments possible in 2016.

ENGAGE Fortress: After-School Labs

Ethan Weber is our Community Relations Coordinator. He has the unique opportunity to work with students, parents and donors alike, and he is passionate about connecting our donors to the mission of Fortress on a heart level. 

Volunteer Mr. Rick shows Tapanga and Aryana how to change the settings on the video camera

Volunteer Mr. Rick shows Tapanga and Aryana how to change the settings on the video camera

The backbone of the Fortress After School program from its inception in 2005 has been the enrichment labs that our students attend daily as part of the program. In a neighborhood where two-thirds of families are living below the poverty line and students are placed in elementary schools (I.M. Terrell and Van Zandt Guinn) that rank in the bottom 1% of all Texas public schools according to Children at Risk, it is evident that young students in the Near Southeast neighborhood of Fort Worth are in need of additional resources to help them reach their full potential.

At Fortress, our students spend 105 minutes each day in enrichment lab rotations that consist of art, bible, math, reading and for our fourth and fifth grade students, science and technology. These labs are designed to ENGAGE students in a way that allows them to enhance their classroom learning, expand their minds in creative ways, and build stronger relationships with each other and God.

Math lab teacher, Mrs. Tracy, takes a break to pose for a selfie with her 2nd grade students

Math lab teacher, Mrs. Tracy, takes a break to pose for a selfie with her 2nd grade students

The math and reading labs have been a staple at Fortress since the beginning. We believe the work in these labs is vital because of the fact that these foundational skills are so fundamental to success at school and in the workplace. All pre-K – third grade students participate in these self-paced software programs from Creative Education Institute. The programs are able to identify a student’s current reading and math skill levels and help them build on those levels through individualized lessons. Amazingly, the reading program has allowed 72% of our kids who have been in the program for three or more years to gain skills that are at or above their current grade level while 83% of those same kids have gained skills that are at grade level or above in math.

The fact that so many of our students are getting caught up in these essential skills has meant that our teachers are now able to work with students to push their minds toward new concepts and new ideas. Just last week, our math lab teacher Ms. Tracy was able to introduce division and its relationship to multiplication to third grade students Harmony and Ta’Niya while second grader Rayla was introduced to multiplication for the first time by adding numbers in her head to get answers rather than counting on her fingers. The excitement we saw on these students’ faces as their minds were stretched and new concepts were discovered was very rewarding.

2nd grader Denise is proud to have learned all the books of the Old Testament

2nd grader Denise is proud to have learned all the books of the Old Testament

Another staple of the after school program, going back to Fortress’s time as a church, is Bible lab. In this lab, students explore biblical concepts and ideas with the main message being that God loves them and has a plan for their lives. Students spend time in this lab learning scripture, studying biblical stories and worshipping through song. When asked recently about their favorite part of Fortress After School, over 50% of students mentioned something related to Bible class.

One example of growth we have seen in our students through this lab came from a recent testimony of a student’s mom. She said her daughter Denise loves Bible class so much, she keeps all of the projects and papers that she has ever completed to remember all the things that she has learned about God. This school year for the first time, Denise was able to say all the books of the Old Testament for our Bible teacher Ms. Suzanne. Denise’s story is an example of how our students are growing in their faith and understanding of God’s love for them by being a part of Bible lab.

Two of our newer enrichment labs are art lab and the science and technology lab for our fourth and fifth grade students. These labs are designed to introduce new ideas and concepts to our students that they may not be able to explore in school. For example in art class, students have spent time this semester learning about filming and all the preparation that goes into shooting a scene of a movie or television show. Eventually these students will be writing their own screenplays and executing those concepts in a short film. We are very excited about the opportunities that these new labs present to engage our students in new ways.

Please consider making it possible to ENGAGE the young minds at Fortress by donating the $103.58 it costs for one of our students to receive these essential labs for a month (or $1,242.96 for a year). Our kids are counting on Fortress and Fortress is counting on you!

7th grader Arianna shows off her wire sculpture

7th grader Arianna shows off her wire sculpture

4th grader Aryana participates in a science experiment

4th grader Aryana participates in a science experiment

Worship time in Bible classs

Worship time in Bible classs

Little minds exploring new concepts around Mrs. Tracy's desk

Little minds exploring new concepts around Mrs. Tracy's desk

EXPAND Fortress: Fortress Early Learning Center

Stacy Kocur is the Director of Communications and Development. A volunteer since 2004 and on staff since 2008, Stacy has watched the preschool program grow and thrive, and she has seen firsthand the positive long-term outcomes it gives our kids.

Mrs. Jenn, our preschool director, leading carpet time with these little learners

Mrs. Jenn, our preschool director, leading carpet time with these little learners

Fortress YDC’s preschool program is in its 8th year of operation. What started as a twice-weekly mother’s day out program is on the verge of explosive growth, the realization of a long-held dream of the Fortress board and staff.

When we launched our preschool program in 2008, our primary goal was to provide a happy, nurturing atmosphere for the children of kids who had grown up at Fortress. Because we weren’t licensed for preschool (and couldn’t obtain licensure in our 100+-year old building), we were only allowed to operate two mornings per week. We staffed the preschool with a group of loving, committed volunteers -many of whom still log hours every week - and began pouring love into the hearts of those precious little ones. We served a healthy breakfast and lunch each day, stocked our shelves with books and toys, and were thrilled when a brand new volunteer took it upon herself to raise the funds and manpower to build a playground exclusively for the use of our preschoolers. We consistently enrolled the maximum 22 children, and kept a growing waitlist of more families hoping to enroll their kids.

It didn’t take long before we realized that the kids needed more than just a loving, nurturing environment. They were entering kindergarten without the necessary tools needed to succeed in school, so we became intentional about providing those tools. According to Camp Fire First Texas, school readiness is defined by five areas of child development:

Play time! On the playground, our kids learn to cooperate, engage creatively, and develop fine and gross motor skills.

Play time! On the playground, our kids learn to cooperate, engage creatively, and develop fine and gross motor skills.

  • Social/emotional
  • Language
  • Cognitive
  • Physical and technological
  • Motivation to learn

As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” While we’re serious about preparing our youngest learners for success in school and in life through early literacy and social skills training, we’re also deeply invested in creative play time. Fred Rogers, the host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has included play as a criterion in its accreditation process for programs for young children. “They call it their work,” says Peter Pizzolongo, associate director for professional development at NAEYC. “When they’re learning and playing with joy, then it’s a positive experience. They develop a positive approach to learning.”  It is during play that our students develop gross and fine motor development, language skills, social development such as listening, negotiating and compromising, and self-concept/confidence.

The rewards of this intentional play is staggering. When measured against new students who enter our after school program as kindergarteners, the five-year olds who have grown up in our preschool program are easy to spot. They’re the ones who engage visitors in conversation, who know how to stand in line and wait their turn, who readily take out books to read, and who emerge as natural leaders.

The future class of 2029 celebrate their first graduation

The future class of 2029 celebrate their first graduation

This year, we launched a capital campaign to build four new preschool classrooms. This additional facility will meet licensure requirements, enabling us to operate full-time instead of two mornings per week. That means that when the newly expanded Fortress Early Learning Center opens, we’ll be able to release all 30 kids from our waiting list, increasing our enrollment from to almost 60, and that we’ll be allowed to operate 40 hours per week instead of 12. That’s a whopping TEN TIMES as many hours spent nurturing and educating our community’s youngest learners!

We still need $34,000 to wrap up the capital campaign. (We’ve raised more than $200,000 to date!) And when we open full-time, we’ll need sponsors to scholarship more precious preschoolers. Can you believe it only costs us $131.12 per month (or $1,573.44 per year) to provide full-time preschool for a Fortress student? For just $6.50 per day, each child enjoys breakfast, lunch, outdoor and indoor creative play, circle time, annual field trips to the zoo, supplies for play, learning and resting, and top-notch teachers who are passionate about early childhood education. What keeps the cost so low? Our volunteers. Our dedicated staff of weekly helpers makes it possible for us to offer preschool to a neighborhood who desperately needs it.

Please consider being a part of our preschool expansion. Please help us wrap up the capital campaign so we can ignite powerful change in the lives of even more hopeful little ones. And please consider EXPANDing our program by sponsoring a preschooler for a full-year for only $1,573.44 ($131.12 per month).

Our kids are counting on Fortress. Fortress is counting on you.

Fortress Gives Thanks

Rachel Yurek is serving in her 2nd year on our Junior League volunteer team as our photographer/blogger.

London and her mentor's daughter, also named London, worked together to build a parachute for their egg!

London and her mentor's daughter, also named London, worked together to build a parachute for their egg!

Let's talk some turkey, y'all! Last Friday, November 13th, we gathered for a Gobble Gobble Get Together with yummy frito chili pie, Thanksgiving trivia, and getting to know you games. This event brings together our families, mentors and staff for the purpose of building community here at Fortress.  The first game of the night was People Bingo, with each square containing an attribute or statement like "left-handed" or "doesn't like chocolate". The crowd really got to mixing and mingling as kids and adults alike scrambled to find someone in the room that fit each square.

The biggest hit of the evening, however, was the egg drop competition! Teams were each given a bag of supplies -- magazines, foil, plastic cups, pipe cleaners, tape, etc. -- and 20 minutes to design a structure capable of protecting a raw egg from impact. Ms. Dani pulled out Fortress's tallest ladder and bravely climbed all the way to the top, just to drop these egg-cellent creations onto the hard concrete floor! Gabriel's team was the first to successfully design an egg-safe cushion, following by three more innovative and effective designs. I think we found some future engineers! The ones that went splat were pretty fun to watch, too. Maybe next year we should put some newspaper on the floor first, though!

The evening was capped off with deliveries of graham crackers, marshmallow fluff, Hershey bars and Reese's cups to each table so everyone could enjoy making s'mores together! As families headed out the door, Junior League volunteers and Fortress staff members started stacking chairs and wiping down tables. One of our after-school students, Gabriel, and his grandma very generously stayed to help with clean up. Gabriel said he was happy to help because he comes to Fortress every day and he loves it so much. Gabriel, we are glad you are thankful for Fortress and we sure are thankful for you!

We hope everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving, and we're looking forward to getting together again next month for our Christmas party!

Volunteer Steffon helps some kids complete their People Bingo

Volunteer Steffon helps some kids complete their People Bingo

The Aldridge family and Reyonna's mentor, Margot, successfully protected their egg from busting!

The Aldridge family and Reyonna's mentor, Margot, successfully protected their egg from busting!

Isabel, her family, and her mentor, Cristina, were the last team to have a successful egg drop.

Isabel, her family, and her mentor, Cristina, were the last team to have a successful egg drop.

Janessa (EJ and Elan's mom) talks to Mr. Roy and one of our mentors, Katie.

Janessa (EJ and Elan's mom) talks to Mr. Roy and one of our mentors, Katie.

Gabriel, his family, and his mentor Bo celebrate their egg drop victory.

Gabriel, his family, and his mentor Bo celebrate their egg drop victory.

Ms. Dani conquered her fear of heights to drop the eggs all the way from the ceiling!

Ms. Dani conquered her fear of heights to drop the eggs all the way from the ceiling!

The Child God Delights In

Hannah Witty is our Early Childhood Coordinator. A recent graduate of Abilene Christian University, Hannah teaches in our preschool and PreK-1st grade afterschool classrooms.

As a teacher, I can’t help but anticipate the moment at the beginning of each term when I will finally get to meet the kids I’ll be working with. After working at Fortress as an intern and as the reading lab coordinator, I was especially looking forward to working with the PreK-1st graders exclusively for the first time this summer. I was excited, but also nervous to meet the students I would be spending my whole summer with, particularly the PreK students who I’d be meeting for the very first time.

They say first impressions are lasting, and 4-year old Bre’Niyah is no exception. From the moment she stepped foot into my classroom, I knew we were in for a year of fun, for lack of a better word. That girl has a personality that stands taller than her 3 foot 7 inch frame. After the first week of Summer JAM, which included some temper tantrums, some defiance, and even a little hair-pulling, I knew we needed to make a game plan for Bre’Niyah to be successful at Fortress. The first step was picking a good “buddy” for her (buddies are volunteers who come with youth groups to spend a week doing mission work with us). I paired Bre’Niyah with strong women, often mothers, to be her buddies for the week. With their motherly touch and my education background, we worked together to provide consistent, loving structure for her. Slowly but surely, Bre’Niyah started to figure out that we were going to hold her accountable for the choices she made.

Bre'Niyah in the reading lab

Bre'Niyah in the reading lab

I feel so privileged to be a part of Bre’Niyah’s growth here at Fortress. She’s learned to keep her hands to herself.  She’s learned how to calm herself down when she feels upset. She rejoices when she learns something new or masters a concept. She walks into my classroom every day, flashes her wide, world-class smile, gives me a hug, and tells me about her day at school. It’s amazing how teachable a four-year old can be.

There are still tough days for her. The reality is that teaching isn’t always going to be a walk in the park. There aren’t always these magical “ah-ha” moments, but within those tough moments you get to see flickers of the progress a student has made. Bre’Niyah is a shining example of that progress.

As a recent graduate with a degree in education, I could talk all day long about the who’s and what’s of classroom management, but the why’s and how’s take time and practice. Working with Bre’Niyah has shown me how important it is to provide loving and consistent discipline. It’s still hard to be consistent sometimes because in the back of my head I think, “Maybe you’re being too hard on this kid.” But at the end of the day I would rather help Bre’Niyah and all of my students understand that there are consequences for their actions, as opposed to learning later in their life when there might be a much heavier consequence. And isn’t that what God does for each of his children?

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, for the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the child he delights in.” – Proverbs 3:11-12  

No Trunks, But Plenty of Treats

Rachel Yurek is serving in her 2nd year on our Junior League volunteer team as our photographer/blogger.

London and Harmony

London and Harmony

The rain and mud couldn't trick Fortress families out of having their treats this Halloween! While the plans for an outdoor Trunk or Treat got washed out, the amazing volunteer groups who'd committed to decorating their cars and handing out candy to kids from the near Southeast side neighborhood rallied and changed gears from trunks to tables! Volunteers decorated their "trunks" in various themes, from Cap'n Jack Sparrow and his First Mate to the sweet characters of CandyLand. There were also quite a few superheroes around, should anyone need rescuing from too much fun or candy overload!

Thanks to the great group of volunteers from AmeriCorps, families were treated to chili dogs and lemonade, accompanied by brownies baked by volunteers from the Fort Worth Junior League. Junior League volunteers were also on hand to supervise the AmeriCorps kitchen work, check in the nearly 200 party-goers and take photos of all the fun and fabulous costumes. 

Olaf (aka Mr. Ethan) and Jordan

Olaf (aka Mr. Ethan) and Jordan

Once the kiddos had as much candy as their bags could hold, they had the chance to vote on their favorite "trunks." Best in Show went to Caitlin and Ryan Waits, who really outdid themselves with a fantastic pirate setup, complete with an overflowing treasure chest of gold coins and a treasure map. First Runner Up went to St. Jo Church of Christ who brought their own brand of mischief with the Cat in the Hat and his companions, Thing 1 and Thing 2. Second Runner Up was everyone's favorite snowman who also happens to love warm hugs, Olaf (aka Mr. Ethan).

With all of the volunteers, dedicated Fortress staff, and Fortress families and friends, the Halloween weekend started off with a bang! In fact, we're already looking forward to next year and thinking about our costumes! We hope everyone had a safe and happy Halloween and we're looking forward to coming together again in a few weeks to celebrate Thanksgiving! 

 
Caitlin and Ryan with their winning "trunk"

Caitlin and Ryan with their winning "trunk"

PreK student Skyler with her dad

PreK student Skyler with her dad

5th grader Kyla and her baby sister, Adayiah

5th grader Kyla and her baby sister, Adayiah

Our awesome volunteers from AmeriCorps

Our awesome volunteers from AmeriCorps

Brotherhood

Ethan Weber serves as our Development Coordinator. A recent TCU graduate, Ethan was a member of TCU Beta Upsilon Chi and was instrumental in the development of this partnership.

Step into our building on any afternoon of the week and you’re likely to find one of our boys doing homework or playing games with a male college student. Most of these young men hail from TCU’s Beta Upsilon Chi Fraternity, more commonly referred to as BYX.  BYX is the Christian fraternity on campus and has existed at TCU since 1989 with a mission of “establishing brotherhood and unity among college men based on the common bond of Jesus Christ.”

Two years ago, several members of the fraternity, who were mentoring Fortress boys at the time, decided to push for Fortress to become the organization’s philanthropic partner. After taking a vote, it was decided that Fortress would in fact become TCU BYX’s philanthropy! What this meant was that BYX was committed to serving Fortress through fundraisers, mentoring and volunteering at other events. Current service chair McKay Lu says, “It was the perfect match because our energy levels are high and so are the boys’ at Fortress. We were able to keep up with each other from the get-go.”

Since then, Fortress has seen an increase in the amount of volunteers, mentors and donations that have come from the fraternity each year. Lu thinks the main reason for this is because, “As more guys are getting over here, they’re going back and telling other guys how much fun it is at Fortress and what a difference you can make by serving over there and that makes them want to get involved too.”

Just since the start of the 2015-2016 school year, BYX has been able to provide 20 mentors who spend an hour a week at Fortress, resulting in every single boy here having a mentor. They’ve also organized parts of the building during a day of service and have plans to dress themselves up to assist with our Trunk or Treat event. 

Brooks and EJ

Brooks and EJ

Earlier this week, we interviewed some of the guys to find out why they made the decision to give of their time to Fortress and what they’ve gotten out of the experience so far:

Brooks, who mentors E.J., on why he decided to volunteer at Fortress:

I realized I wasn’t getting involved enough and I wanted to do more outside of campus. Our philanthropy, of course, is Fortress, so that’s where I got involved. I got a couple of friends to go with me every week and we got a good group of kids. It’s turned out to be the best hour of my week.
Keanu and Kelton

Keanu and Kelton

 

Keanu, who mentors Kelton, on what he feels he has taught his mentee so far:

We did a devotional two weeks ago, and last week when I came in he said, “hey can we do that again?” and it totally caught me off-guard because I had to fight to get him to sit down and do it that first time. So he goes, “can we do that again?” and I was like, “yeah, absolutely, if you wanna sit down and go over that again we definitely can.” So I’m excited to see where that’s gonna go, to see the kinds of questions he continues to ask. He’s a bright kid. He keeps asking questions that I don’t always know the answers to.

 

Michael and Zac

Michael and Zac

Michael, who mentors Zac, and what his mentee has taught him:

One thing he’s taught me is definitely love. Through some of our quiet times and our talks, he’s told me about the love he has for his parents, for his siblings, for God, for his friends. It’s so cool to see that he doesn’t really care about material possessions and things and a lot of stuff that a 10- or 11-year old boy would. He cares about the relationships and loving others and doing what’s right. It’s cool to see that he has that right mindset that not that many kids have these days.


Kyle and Trent

Kyle and Trent

Kyle, who mentors Trent, on the value of serving while in college:

The biggest thing for me is just taking everything that I’ve learned in life, through education and church, and just giving back. I’ve been blessed with those opportunities, so it’s just great to be able to use that for good and give back to people who maybe haven’t had those same opportunities.

We are so blessed to have such a great partnership with TCU BYX and hope that it continues to make in difference in the lives of our boys for years to come!

The Why of it All

Stacy Kocur serves as our Director of Communications and Development, also known as our CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer).

I have a wild streak in me - a need for adventure and to be challenged and the need for healthy doses of adrenaline. But even though I prefer to take the least-traveled path and often jump in without a plan, I always need to know how it's supposed to end. I always need to know why. Even as a kid, I tended to read the last page of a book before I cracked the first chapter. I needed to KNOW.

Twelve years ago next month, I discovered this place called Fortress and felt undeniably called to return. I didn't understand; it was all about kids, and I... well, I really am not much of a kid person. I mean, I love my OWN kids, of course. And I love my friends' kids, but only because I love my friends. But in general? Let me put it this way: when it's my turn to teach Sunday school, it's the longest 3 months of my life. Every time.

So when I was so strongly called to this place, I wondered WHY. I deeply believed in our mission - to provide kids born into generational poverty the resources and hope to break the cycle. Even so, I made it clear that I didn't especially want to work with kids. So WHY was I HERE? Soon, I started a scrapbook ministry for the moms in the Fortress neighborhood. I thought, "There it is. THIS is why."

Then through fellow Fortress volunteers, I developed the best friendships of my adulthood and I thought, "YES. THIS is why."

Then I began volunteering in other ways, using my creative talents for the organization, and I knew that THAT was why.

In 2008 when I badly needed a distraction from some brokenness in my marriage, I was asked to pull together a fundraising auction, which turned out to be a great success and launched a whole new era in fundraising for us. THIS, I knew in my heart, was why I'd been called to Fortress.

At the same time, I'd been praying about returning to the workforce, but wondered if I was even hirable after seven years as a stay-at-home-Mom. Plus, it was 2008; no one was hiring during the recession. Immediately following that first auction, I was offered a paying job here and I jumped at the opportunity. Finally, I was beginning to understand the "why". Again.

Along the way, I realized that I'd landed my dream job, that I was working in the exact place and utilizing the exact talents and developing the exact skills that I never knew were my dream. I was WRITING, and making money doing it. I was PAINTING, and earning money for that, too. I was being CREATIVE and it all had so much meaningful purpose. At the age of 40, I finally knew what I wanted to be when I grew up and it was in the nonprofit sector at Fortress.

I wasn't making much. At first, I was working 20 hours and volunteering the other 20. Over the next few years, I acquired more skills and experience and eventually began earning a modest salary.

Then in 2012, my marriage imploded for good. I was faced with being a single mom, and I knew I couldn't survive on the money I was making at Fortress. I grieved deeply because I was about to lose everything that meant anything to me at all: my family remaining intact, and the passion I'd found in my job at Fortress. I would have to find something that paid more, a daunting proposition since the economy was still shaky.

Then the miracle happened. Our Board of Directors promoted me to Director of Communications and Development, which came with a raise substantial enough that I could stay here and survive as a single mom. I'll never be rich materially, but you can't imagine the joy I get waking up each morning knowing that what I do is making a difference - and not just a small one, but a life-changing one. And not just an immediate one, but an eternal one. What a blessing to be part of what God is doing here in Near Southeast Fort Worth in the beautiful families and precious children who are living here. And how fortunate am I that I get to act as our Chief Encouragement Officer as I share our story with potential donors?  It turns out - and no one is more surprised at this than I am - that I'm actually pretty good at what I do. Who knew?

There's a Bible verse that we often use with our kids. From Jeremiah 29:11: "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans not to harm you, but to prosper you. Plans to give you hope and a future." We remind the kids that God KNOWS the awesome plans He has for them, but they are still responsible for making the good choices that will bring that plan to life. Stay in school. Stop fighting. Respect your Mom. Don't get pregnant. Eat your veggies. Do your homework. Try your hardest. Say no to drugs. Be kind to little kids and old people and animals. Love God.

One afternoon that summer of 2012, my eyes were drawn up to the west-facing windows as I walked into our building. The evening sun was streaming in through the burglar bars and looked like a poorly FXed movie set; the orange shaft of light didn't even look real, yet it was. The verse - one that I'd recited to our kids a million times - was bathed in sunlight. It was as if I were reading it for the first time.

"For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans not to harm you, but to prosper you. Plans to give you hope and a future."

In that moment, I finally realized that His promise was good for ME, too. I melted into the concrete floor, racked with sobs and the release of so many years of wondering WHY. I thought I'd known at various points all along, but in that moment - in that very moment - I finally knew. It was as clear to me as if God Himself was holding me in His arms and looking into my eyes and telling me with His own voice. He had always known what was coming. He knew I'd be a single mom and that I'd need a career. Not just a job, but a career. He knew that I could never be happy in any ol' 9-5, but that I need deep, clear purpose  and a great deal of challenge and variety or I'd get bored. I never would've believed it if He himself had told me back then. But He knew. He had a plan. Thank GOD I was obedient to the calls along the way. That alone is a miracle, because I tend to not be real good about following rules. I mean, left turn signals are stupid. 

And all these kids? I love them with my whole heart and I'd take any one of them home with me forever if I needed to, because they're MINE now and I love them. (Still please don't make me teach Sunday school ever again!)

Only God knows how my story ends. 

He's really good at teasing the wild streak in me - providing humbling adventures, worthy challenges, and protecting me from accidental overdoses of procrastination-induced adrenaline. He hasn't let me read the last page this time, but for once, I'm not obsessed with the WHY, because I finally trust the Author and He knows the plans He has for me.

God Shows Up

Dani Kocur has served as our Volunteer Coordinator since 2010 and oversees all of our volunteer programs, including the Ignite mentoring program.

Joshua and his new mentor, Aidan

Joshua and his new mentor, Aidan

In volunteer management, they say there are two jobs that are never done – recruiting and recruiting. Ignite, our mentoring program, matches students with volunteers who commit one hour each week to developing meaningful relationships which foster trust, hope and success. When we had 31 mentors sign up to return to our program this fall, it looked like it would be a stagnant year in terms of mentoring. The task of matching 44 more kids with a brand new mentor was incredibly daunting. We’ve never really come close to matching everyone; honestly, I didn’t expect that to be any different this year.

How often does God have to come around, flick me in the back of the head, and say, “I’ve got this, remember?”

Back in August, the president of Beta Upsilon Chi (the Christian fraternity at TCU who have chosen us as their philanthropy for three years in a row) met with me. “I’ve got this idea that I’m really excited about,” he said. “What if at one of our meetings, you came to talk to us about mentoring, and just didn’t leave until every boy had a mentor?” So three weeks later, I stood in front of 75 young men, showed them the pictures of all of our boys who needed a mentor, and left with more people committed to mentoring than I had boys to match them with. God showed up that night, and it was an incredible thing to witness.

There was still a problem, though. We started the year with a huge disparity in boy/girl enrollment – 2/3 of our enrollment is made up of girls! That left us at a huge disadvantage for mentoring – even though we had nearly the same number of male/female mentors, we had all of our boys matched and 25 girls without a mentor. So on a whim, we posted a photo collage of all 25 girls without a mentor and an emotional plea for more women to apply.

“As of today, each of these 25 beautiful girls is without a mentor. They don't have someone who comes in and asks them about their week at school. They don't have someone who gets them out of their class for an hour of fun and conversation. They don't have someone who sees them one-on-one and knows their strengths and worries and secrets.
Our girls know they're missing this. That's why they ask us every day, "when do I get my mentor"?
Can you be a mentor, confidante, friend and cheerleader for one of these girls? It's easy. You just need one free hour a week and a love for a child made in God's image.”
Isabel and her new mentor, Cristina

Isabel and her new mentor, Cristina

That photo was shared 48 times and reached over 3,000 people. Since then, we have received dozens of applications and have so far matched 16 of those 25 girls with a mentor. God showed up again that day, and He moved in the hearts of women across the city.

I am so excited to report that as of right now we have SIXTY-FOUR mentors (over twice as many as we started with six weeks ago), with 15 applications currently pending/awaiting interview. For those of you doing the math, that means we are about to have more people wanting to be mentors than we have kids to match them with! For the first time in six years of having this mentoring program, all of our kids will have an adult investing one hour a week into their lives. I am thrilled (and maybe 2% scared) of what this means for Fortress. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned again and again, it’s that God shows up -- in our weakness, in our joy, in our fear. And his promises stay true -- “[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 1:6

Love & Logic Parenting Class - Success!

On Thursday, September 24th, Fortress YDC had a record night. Twenty-five adults, representing 16 Fortress families, attended an Equip Parenting class, the largest turnout for a parenting class in Fortress history. It is safe to say that the Love & Logic Discipline techniques class was a big success! Participants learned about the different discipline techniques used by Fortress to guide kids towards making better choices, including 8 tips to use when disciplining at home. After the presentation, the parents enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, made by the lovely ladies of the Fort Worth Junior League. After dinner, Junior League volunteers joined the participants to engage in a Q&A with presenters Cori and Jason Brown about what they’d learned and how they might be able to apply those principles to real-life situations they’ve encountered at home with their children. 

 

 

 

The 8 principles presented by Cori and Jason Brown were: 

  1. Building Positive Relationships
  2. Empathy
  3. Setting Limits
  4. Neutralizing Arguing 
  5. Using Choices
  6. The Recovery Process 
  7. Delayed Consequences
  8. Guiding Children to Own and Solve their Own Problems

We can't wait for more exciting events as the year continues! So far, our amazing parents have already invested 174 hours into our programs this school year!

Welcome Back to Fortress

Families wait in line to cash in their points for new school supplies.

Families wait in line to cash in their points for new school supplies.

It's back to school time in Texas! And y'all know what that means -- it's also Back 2 School Bash time at Fortress YDC! This year, Fortress opened its door and invited the whole neighborhood to come enjoy food and games on a hot summer evening last Friday, August 21st. We welcomed 200 people onto our block for a night of fun and celebration!

Kids were given activity cards that they had to complete by playing games, like digging for buried treasure and carefully (or not so carefully in this heat!) tossing water balloons, and fun things like dunking various Fortress staff members in the dunk tank, face painting, and taking pictures in the photo booth. There was also a scavenger hunt to identify the different staff members at Fortress, from the Big Boss (hint: Terri) to the only man on staff (hint: Ethan).

Each completed activity was worth points, and the points could be redeemed for school supplies, generously donated by Wells Fargo Dealer Services Fort Worth office, Legacy Church of Christ young professionals, The Hills Church singles group, Michele and Ed Newmeyer, Carrie Dressler, Connie Blaylock, and Leslie Cave. At the end of the night, all of the kiddos attending Fortress this year were also gifted with brand new backpacks full of grade-appropriate school supplies from the good folks at Lakeside Church of Christ so that they would be all set to start school the following Monday. Families were also given tickets when they signed in that they could exchange for all kinds of yummy things like sno-cones, Raising Cane's chicken fingers, pizza and popcorn. 

In addition to all the hard work by the dedicated Fortress staff, the event was a big success thanks to several volunteer groups. A HUGE thanks goes out to the Gary Patterson Foundation for underwriting the cost of the event, and to the many groups who took the time (and in some cases, made quite a drive!) to bring food and man our carnival-style food booths, including the youth groups from St. Jo, Decatur and Henrietta Churches of Christ, our friends at Wells Fargo, the always amazing grill master Spencer Thompson, our faithful friends Linda and Everett Hoover, Legacy young professionals, The Hills singles, our neighbors Mrs. Renfro's Salsa, the generous and friendly folks at Raising Cane's, and our 2015-16 team of Junior League Fort Worth volunteers who jumped right in to their first event of the year. We hope all of our friends and neighbors had as much fun as we did and that everyone's first day of school was a blast! Welcome back to Fortress Youth Development Center for another great year!

It was a gorgeous evening for an outdoor event!

It was a gorgeous evening for an outdoor event!

Ta'Niya shows off her brand new backpack.

Ta'Niya shows off her brand new backpack.

Jocelyn and her daughters, all Fortress students, posed for the photo booth

Jocelyn and her daughters, all Fortress students, posed for the photo booth