Expect a few closures on the Waco Suspension bridge this month as engineers test it in preparation for a $5.5 million makeover.
The bridge will be closed this week from Monday to noon Friday as crews drill to bedrock from the middle of the historical bridge.
Work will continue the following two weeks with partial closures, but the bridge will be fully open on weekends.
The Waco City Council will consider a recommendation Tuesday from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Board to spend $5.5 million in TIF funds to rehabilitate the 148-year-old icon.
The council will meet at the Waco Convention Center’s Bosque Theater at 3 p.m. for a work session and 6 p.m. for a business session.
The project, which would start construction early next year, would replace the wooden decking with a waterproof surface, repair deep cracks in the bridge towers, reinforce the anchors and replace all of the steel cables.
Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem said the bridge is worth the investment, especially as a revived Elm Avenue and the Doris Miller Memorial start to draw people across the river.
“It ties east and west together,” Stem said. “The bridge rehab is going to be a game-changer. We’ve kind of let it go too long. I’m really proud the council has decided to step up and fund the whole thing at once.”
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council will consider $1.3 million in TIF funds for the Webster Avenue streetscape project and $2.1 million for underpass lighting along Interstate 35.
When the hourlong Trail Blazers after-school program releases for the day, a wave of kids emerge along the front lawns of Estella Maxey Place. Some dart across the busy lanes of J.J. Flewellen Road on their way home. Some make a stop at the nearby convenience store, picking up something for a parent without any supervision.
The children, who mostly go to the nearby J.H. Hines Elementary School, then G.W. Carver Middle School, are “latchkey kids,” forced to be independent, Shirley Langston said. She has operated Trail Blazers for the past five years as part of Restoration Haven, a nonprofit ministry she founded in one of Waco’s poorest neighborhoods.
The after-school program serves at least 20 kindergarten through sixth-grade students each year and is an example of the type of “wrap-around” service that could be extended to more Waco Independent School District students if the district partners with Prosper Waco in an effort to keep the state from closing five schools, including J.H. Hines and G.W. Carver, said Langston, a Prosper Waco board member.
Elsewhere in the public housing complex Trail Blazers calls home, children run along sidewalks, hang out outside apartments, and a few ride bikes from one unit to the next.
A young boy, no older than 8 or 10, gabs with an older boy about their two-wheelers in an exchange laced with casual profanity.
Adults walk across parking lots or sit on curbs and in lawn chairs, giving sidelong, wary glances to unfamiliar visitors, including Baylor University students on their way to the after-school program.
Langston has taught an Introduction to Citizenship and Community Service course at Baylor for as long as she has operated Trail Blazers. The course requires students to log 20 hours of work as a mentor in her program and come up with a community event. The requirements are intended to teach the students about barriers families in poverty face just a short drive from their private Baptist university.
The program also plays a key role in the academic success of the Waco ISD students who participate, Langston said. The five Waco schools are facing closure because they have fallen short on academic accountability ratings largely based on standardized testing.
“I always thought of volunteering as something you had to do versus something you want to do,” Baylor freshman Ryan Russell said. “Just seeing the kids when you’re helping them with their work and that moment when they finally get a math problem right, it really just makes you feel good that coming to this after-school program is going to help them be successful later. It’s saving their future.”
In the past five years, Langston has seen students organize a fall festival, Easter celebrations with egg hunts, dance contests and face painting, making the partnership a staple for community culture in the apartment complex.
The partnership has also expanded to include mentoring services from a philanthropic sorority and fraternity at Baylor, she said.
“I realized that first semester what a blessing it was to see students who were passionate about serving but maybe didn’t really understand how to serve,” Langston said. “That was my piece I brought to the table, to teach them how to serve and be in the community and be able to talk to them about culture that’s so different from the ones they were in.”
More than 80 percent of students at J.H. Hines and G.W Carver qualify for free lunches, according to district data. And as Estella Maxey students enter kindergarten, they are often already a year or two behind, Langston said.
Children in Trail Blazers spend at least 30 minutes Monday through Thursday working on homework with the Baylor volunteers. They must complete the work before they are allowed to play outside or dive into tabletop toys and board games, Langston said.
Those who don’t have homework are given worksheets purchased from the local Mardel Christian book and education supply store or asked to read a book, reinforcing skills learned throughout the week, Langston said.
“I just tell the Baylor students the truth,” she said. “It’s hard to work with kids because kids are so vulnerable. …You can only do so much and then they have to go back home in that same environment.”
Langston, who grew up in the same Waco neighborhood before living in Dallas for 35 years, said times seemed different when she was young. Struggles were apparent, but community or family support structures seemed more intact. When she returned to Waco a decade ago, more kids seemed to need someone to listen and to encourage them to embrace education and the power it can give them.
“If every child had this type of mentor or had someone to assist them or encourage them to say, ‘Hey, you did a good job,’ or ‘Hey, you’re bright and you’re smart, you can do this,’ I feel like we might not be in the position we are today with our schools,” Langston said. “We need help.”
In addition to homework help, much of her time is spent helping mentors mold young minds to understand the importance of answering questions with respect and expanding their vocabulary.
Trail Blazers has also become a haven for older Waco ISD students who were part of the program from the beginning, Langston said.
Sometimes, it’s for a meal offered by the program that students cannot get at home.
Other times, it’s to socialize or get a little extra help on a homework concept, she said.
And she lets them, because she knows the risks the kids face. Pathways to criminal behavior are never far away. The simple danger of a kid who was never taught to look both ways before crossing traffic getting hit by a car also looms. Langston has seen both of those risks play out in the past five years, she said.
As she shared the stories, a group of four Baylor students walked in with a younger girl, not quite old enough to be in middle school. Langston asked who the girl was, and the Baylor students said a mother from across the street insisted they take her daughter with them.
They weren’t going to let her cross the street alone, one of the students said.
But parents who want their children to be part of Trail Blazers must register, Langston said. She instructed the volunteers to take the child back to her mother, along with registration papers. Unfamiliar children often walk in, released by parents or guardians to mentors they have never met before, she said. Other times, the children leave on their own time, Langston said.
“At first, it made me nervous. Yesterday, we were playing and a little girl just left, walked out and walked across the street,” Baylor sophomore Maddie Sullivan said.
Sullivan said her time at Trail Blazers has helped her realize the value of the program.
“In some cases, their (parents) are working or they just don’t have time. It makes me sad. I can’t imagine being in that position,” Sullivan said. “My parents never let me out of their sight. I don’t think it’s safe, but I guess it helps them take care of themselves when they don’t have someone there for them.”
The hope is that Baylor students will either keep coming back to Estella Maxey if they settle in Waco, or learn enough to realize that pockets of poverty can exist anywhere, Langston said.
As a student ran up and handed her a drawing of hearts, Langston smiled and said the smaller moments with Estella Maxey children are her favorite part.
“I could come back every day, every day, every day, because every day when I go home I feel so rewarded about what I’ve done,” Langston said. “(Maybe) I’ve made one change. I’ve made a good change. I’ve impacted some young child’s life, and for me, that might be a lasting impact. I don’t know that, but it might be the one thing that will cause that child to be successful. That’s what the Baylor students see.”
HOUSTON — U.S. Rep. Al Green still calls Jose Escobar one of his constituents, even though Escobar was deported after what he thought would be a routine check-in with immigration authorities.
That’s why Green, a Houston Democrat, flew to El Salvador on Saturday to meet with Escobar in the hopes it will call attention to the plight of families separated by deportation. Another 200,000 people could be forced to return there because President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would end a temporary visa program for Salvadorans.
Green and Escobar met in a small room at the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital. They were accompanied by Jose’s wife, Rose Escobar, who has remained in Texas with the couple’s two children, as well as an off-duty Houston police officer whose airfare was paid for by Green.
Green, a fierce critic of Trump who last year introduced articles of impeachment against him, told Escobar he was committed to “doing everything we can to get you back with your family.”
Speaking to The Associated Press before the trip, Green said he felt obligated to try to help Escobar, who was deported in March despite not having a criminal record, according to his family. Escobar’s immigration court appeals have failed, though his attorneys are looking for new ways to petition on his behalf.
“If not for his place of birth, we would call him an American citizen who is all of the right things,” Green said. “This is the kind of citizen that we would admire.”
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in North America, an impoverished nation of 6.4 million people with one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The State Department warns people against visiting due to the country’s rampant murders, rapes and other violent crimes.
The meeting took place in the same airport where Escobar called his wife last March to tell her he had been deported.
Escobar’s family settled in the U.S. in 2001 with temporary protected status, which was granted to Salvadorans who were victims of earthquakes that year. The program for El Salvador was extended by two presidential administrations, but the Trump administration announced in January that it would end it in September 2019, saying the problems that made temporary visas necessary no longer existed.
Escobar, 32, settled in Houston at the age of 15. Only around the time he married his wife in 2006 did they realize he was in the U.S. illegally because his family hadn’t received the paperwork necessary for him to renew his visa.
An immigration judge ordered his deportation in 2006, and he was arrested in 2011 and detained for several months. After an intense lobbying campaign, ICE’s Houston field office director released Escobar in January 2012.
Shortly after taking office in January 2017, Trump signed an executive order widening the categories of immigrants without legal status who could be subject to deportation. Escobar went to an ICE office the next month to check in under the terms of his order and was detained until his March deportation, his wife said.
ICE confirmed in a statement that it deported Escobar and that his release in 2012 was so “he could get his affairs in order prior to his removal.”
Escobar now lives with relatives in a town that’s about a three-hour drive from San Salvador. He worries about the gang members who control the streets and often accost people who have recently returned from the U.S.
Before the meeting, Rose Escobar talked about how their children were learning to cope. She said their 3-year-old daughter, Carmen, stopped speaking for several weeks after Jose was deported, which a doctor told her could have been caused by the trauma of the deportation.
Their 8-year-old son, Walter, has slowly come to understand what happened. But shortly after Hurricane Harvey in August, she got a call from the school saying that he had broken down crying. The teacher who consoled him was herself protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program shielding young immigrants from deportation that the Trump administration has planned to end in March.
Rose said she worries about Jose, who the rest of the family calls before dinner every night and before the children go to bed.
In Texas, Jose had worked his way from being a painter on a construction crew to a crew supervisor. He wore a suit and did most of his work on a laptop, which he brought with him to the check-in last February.
Now, he works as a laborer whenever a job is available, often lifting heavy stones and putting them into place for houses and buildings. He stays in his room most of the time.
“All of your sacrifices that you make for so many years, you see them taken away from you,” he said Saturday. “After deportation, all of that is gone.”
Rose Escobar is a hospital receptionist and relies on savings that are slowly dwindling. She questions whether anyone who has spent years in the United States could handle returning to El Salvador.
“For someone in Jose’s case, can they adjust over there?” Rose said. “No. It’s almost been a year, and he’s still in his room, and it breaks my heart.”
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was wrong to assert that a GOP-produced classified memo on FBI surveillance powers cleared him in the Russia investigation, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Sunday. They expressed hope that special counsel Robert Mueller’s work would continue without interference.
Democrats could seek a vote on publicly releasing their rebuttal memo when the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee meets late Monday afternoon. The committee rejected that move last week, with one Republican member saying revisions were needed so the memo would not endanger national security. The Senate’s Democratic leader urged Trump to back the public release and said that refusing to do so would show the president’s intent to undermine the Russia investigation.
The committee’s top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, branded the GOP memo “a political hit job.” He questioned whether the chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., had coordinated with the White House in drafting the document seized on by the president to vent his grievances against the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies.
“The goal here is to undermine the FBI, discredit the FBI, discredit the Mueller investigation, do the president’s bidding,” Schiff said. “I think it’s very possible his staff worked with the White House.”
Nunes was asked during a Jan. 29 committee meeting whether he had coordinated the memo with the White House. “As far as I know, no,” he responded, then refused to answer when asked whether his staff members had communicated with the White House. He had previously apologized for sharing with the White House secret intelligence intercepts related to an investigation of Russian election interference before talking to committee members.
Trump’s Saturday tweet that the memo “totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe” even as “the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on” found no echo from four committee Republicans who appeared on the Sunday talk shows.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said, “I think this is a separate issue.” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said, “No, it doesn’t end that.” Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said, “I don’t,” when asked whether he agreed with Trump. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., asked whether the memo affected the investigation, said, “No, not to me, it doesn’t, and I was pretty integrally involved in the drafting of it.”
The Democratic response was more expected: “Of course, not at all,” said Schiff. Added Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.: “No, of course it does not.”
Lawmakers also said the memo should not impede Mueller.
“I think it would be a mistake for anyone to suggest that the special counsel shouldn’t complete his work. I support his work. I want him to finish it. I hope he finishes it as quickly as possible,” Stewart said.
The memo released Friday alleges misconduct on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and his ties to Russia. Specifically, it takes aim at the FBI’s use of information from former British spy Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier containing allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.
The underlying materials that served as the basis for the warrant application were not made public in the GOP memo. Even as Democrats described it as inaccurate, some Republicans quickly cited the memo — released over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department — in their arguments that Mueller’s investigation is politically tainted.
The memo’s central allegation is that agents and prosecutors, in applying in October 2016 to monitor Page’s communications, failed to tell a judge that the opposition research that provided grounds for the FBI’s suspicion received funding from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Page had stopped advising the campaign sometime around the end of that summer.
Steele’s research, according to the memo, “formed an essential part” of the warrant application. But it’s unclear how much or what information Steele collected made it into the application, or how much has been corroborated.
Republicans say a judge should have known that “political actors” were involved in allegations that led the Justice Department to believe Page might be an agent of a foreign power — an accusation he has consistently denied.
The memo confirms the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign began in July 2016, months before the surveillance warrant was sought, and was “triggered” by information concerning campaign aide George Papadopoulos. He pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI.
The confirmation about Papadopoulos is “the most important fact disclosed in this otherwise shoddy memo,” Schiff said Saturday.
Schiff and Hurd spoke on ABC’s “This Week.” Stewart appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” Gowdy was on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and Wenstrup was interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union.”