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.”

Organizing events

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.

Risks children face

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.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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