Whether they are advocating for children or providing food, clothing and essential services to the community’s most vulnerable, Waco volunteers are some of the most resolute warriors on the battleground of hunger, homelessness, abuse and loneliness. Five local volunteers share their stories of bringing light to darkness, and all agree that their own lives are illuminated in the process.
Animal Birth Control Clinic (ABC)
Pets often provide comfort and companionship, especially for older folks who are homebound due to illness or limited mobility. But what happens when someone reaches the stage where it is difficult to care for their furry friend? When a local elderly man with brain cancer became unable to take care of his energetic border collie named Bella, retired police officer Jan Price stepped in to fill the gaps so he could keep his best friend by his side. She discovered Bella and her owner while delivering Meals on Wheels.
“The dog was kept outside on a chain because the man was not able to do much with the dog other than to feed her,” Price said. “I took his dog to the Animal Birth Control Clinic and, through the Treasured Tails program, she got vaccinated, heartworm tested and received flea treatment products.”
Unfortunately, she was heartworm positive. But through ABC she went through heartworm treatment, which she received at no cost under the program. But Price did not stop there. She built built a dog kennel for the yard to get Bella off the chain, and she went to the man’s house each month to give the dog a heartworm preventive pill.
“When the year was up, I took her back to ABC, where she was retested and was heartworm negative,” Price said. “The man is no longer on Meals on Wheels, but I still return to his house each month, where I give Bella her heartworm preventive pill. I also clean her pen, groom her and play with her, giving her treats and much needed attention. This makes me happy.”
The Animal Birth Control Clinic, located at 3238 Clay Avenue, offers community members access to affordable spay and neuter as well as preventive veterinary care. Price currently volunteers as a transport driver for the Treasured Tails Program, where Meals on Wheels clients can have their pets taken to the clinic and returned to them.
“Citizens who are Meals on Wheels clients may not have the means to get their pet the vet services that they need,” Price said. “They may not have a car or the funds to keep their pet healthy. The Treasured Tails program funds the vet services and products needed, and volunteers transport the pets to and from the clinic for the client.”
Price also volunteers at ABC’s vaccination clinic on Saturdays, comforts the pets in the recovery area after surgeries and helps trap cats as part of the TNR (trap-neuter-return) program.
“ABC has low cost spay/neuter and preventive care services as well as low-cost products [flea and heartworm preventative medications] for pets,” she said. “There is no doctor or office cost added. Now more than ever, with all the rising costs of everything, this is so needed in the community.”
Price worked for 30 years as a police officer in Detroit and Waco and said she has always enjoyed helping people.
“I get a good feeling inside, and it gives me purpose,” Price said. “Volunteering at ABC goes hand in hand with my career path of meeting and helping people in the community. I also love animals, so this was the perfect volunteer opportunity for me.”
She added that if someone likes animals and wants to make a difference in someone’s life, that volunteering at ABC will give them an emotional high.
“Pets may be the only thing that make seniors happy,” Price said, “so keeping their pets healthy and happy is crucial to a senior’s well-being.”
Some of Waco’s most vulnerable community members arrive on the doorstep of Caritas to seek food, clothing and other basic needs in order to make it through another day. Many of them are also providing for a family. On Tuesdays and Thursdays folks who visit the organization’s food pantry or clothing store, located at 300 South 15th Street, are greeted by volunteer Walter Becker, who quietly helps fulfill their needs while protecting his clients’ dignity.
With more than 26 percent of Waco families living in poverty, the need for food and clothing in Central Texas is significant, Becker said.
“Many that come to Caritas are homeless, live in a vehicle or in run-down housing areas.” Becker said. “They struggle daily and do not know where their next meal or food will come from and only have the clothes they are wearing.”
The food pantry supplies more than 100 people each day, Becker said, and the clothing store, “Mama Lovie’s Closet,” serves two customers each hour as they browse racks full of clothing, mostly organized by Becker himself.
“In the food pantry I fill shopping carts with donated food, bag food items that were sent to Caritas in bulk, organize food items, break down and stack cardboard boxes, assist clients loading food in their vehicle and do any special projects that may be asked of me by Caritas staff,” Becker said. “In the clothing store I organize and hang clothing items that have been donated, help clients with sizes or questions, remove hangers from clothes and bag them, as well as count the clothing items clients want and complete clothing vouchers that have been given to the clients.”
Two individuals stick out in Becker’s mind as people he was privileged to serve.
“The first gentlemen was shaking so badly,” he said. “My guess is he had Parkinson’s disease. He could not even hold the clothes that he selected, and I had to assist him in looking for sizes and holding the items that were selected. The second individual was homeless, and he was looking to replace the clothes he was wearing because he had been wearing them for some time.”
Becker spent most of his career working in the environmental, health and safety field, the last 17 of it at Allergan, now AbbVie, in Waco. His responsibilities included helping to provide a safe work environment for employees and helping to ensure his company was in compliance with environmental laws and regulations.
Now Becker is working to provide a different kind of health and safety assurance through Caritas, and he urged fellow community members to “just get involved.”
“No matter how bad you think you have it, someone is less fortunate and needs your assistance,” Becker said. “It is a great feeling to be able to assist and help others.”
Bill & Lianna Smyers
Meals on Wheels
One day Bill and Lianna Smyers were covering some Meals on Wheels clients not on their usual route when they pulled up to the home of a woman named Bertha Mae — the name on the printout attached to their clipboard. Bill greeted the woman with a meal and a friendly smile and said, “Good morning, Bertha Mae.” They visited her for several weeks in a row, always calling her by name, and one day she spoke up: “You know, you are the first person to call me Bertha Mae since I was a little girl.” Bill said, “Oh, Bertha Mae, I’m so sorry. I won’t do that again.” With a tear in her eye, the woman said, “Please don’t stop.”
As part of Meals on Wheels training, Bill learned to call every client by their first name because it’s likely the only time they will hear their own name that day. That’s when he and his wife realized that delivering Meals on Wheels is a lot more than providing food to shut-ins. It’s also about human connection.
“The food they serve is very nutritious food,” Bill said. “But there is a personal interaction that occurs that is equally as important, especially after you get to know them. We could just go up and hand someone their meal and say, ‘Have good day,’ but we don’t do that. If they want to talk, we talk. And they really look forward to you coming every week. I always say, ‘God bless you.’”
The husband-wife team has been delivering together since 2014. Bill, a retired air traffic controller, does the driving while Lianna, a retired accountant, keeps track of the spreadsheet of their clients. Together they spread care and love to every person they meet.
“These people are important to us, and we care about them,” Lianna said. “They’re not just a name on a piece of paper. It’s a very real connection.”
Freddy, another one of the clients the Smyers now call a friend, lives in a reddish-brown house in East Waco. A large, very old catawba tree grows out front of the home where he has lived since he was a child. He looks forward to their visits and has been able to count on them during the most difficult times.
“After Freddy’s wife passed away, we just really felt for him because we knew he was lonely,” Lianna said. “I asked if he had any plans for Thanksgiving. I know he has a daughter, but I think she lives in Dallas. He said he would like to join us, so Bill picked him up, and we had dinner with him and my sister, who lives down the street. We talked for a while, and he still asks me how my sister Sharon is doing. We love him and he loves us back.”
Freddy and Bertha Mae are only a few of the personal connections the Smyers have made through Meals on Wheels. There’s also Pat, the devoted daughter of a lady named Floretta, who comes to the door to accept her mother’s meal. And Lee, whom the Smyers saw through his journey to sobriety. They comforted a man named Leon with cards and notes when his wife passed away.
“He told us he had kept every card, and when he was having a bad day he read them all over again,” Bill said.
When Leon passed away, the Smyers attended his funeral, where they found out that he was a leader in his church and had been very involved in his community through Boy Scouts and Little League. He was loved by many.
“My regret is that I did not know Leon my whole life,” Bill said, “because he was just a sweet, gentle man.”
Meals on Wheels, located at 501 West Waco Drive, currently serves more than 800 homebound seniors, but there are more than 200 hungry people on a waiting list, desperately needing a meal and the human warmth served along with it.
“Volunteering for Meals on Wheels is definitely two-fold,” Bill said. “You bring them something that is nutritious to eat, and you bring them love, and then they give it back.
The day Jennifer Whitlark was able to reunite a struggling, but dedicated mom with her six kids was a really good day as a CASA — or Court Appointed Special Advocate. While the role of a CASA is to advocate for children, there are times when returning them to a parent is not in the child’s best interest. But on this day there was a happy reunion that was the result of time and effort on many fronts.
“I really loved this case because she was involved and was eager to do what she needed to do for her kids,” Whitlark said. “There was a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to do that and a lack of resources. She needed housing here in Waco, and we had to navigate that together, and she eventually got it.”
CASA, located at 1208 North 5th Street, was able to provide access to resources, like attorneys, which ultimately led to the mother being able to secure proper housing for her large family.
Whitlark is a campus administrator at Rapoport Academy Elementary. She’s been at Rapoport since 2003, first as a teacher, and in 2013 she moved into leadership. While her work is academically focused, Whitlark wanted to take her dedication to kids to another level.
“I just had this desire to be involved with kiddos in a different way,” she said. “Rapoport serves a population where there’s a lot of need. I see a lot of kids that are that are in the foster care system. I see a lot of kids that are raised by grandparents or different family members that are not a part of a nuclear family or a traditional family. I can only do so much in education. We have our boundaries as far as being involved in children’s lives. So this gives me an avenue to participate in kids’ lives outside of school.”
There are currently about 500 children in the McLennan County foster care system, and 130-140 of them are being served by around to 80 CASA volunteers. So, the need in the community is great as the organization looks to fill the gap for close to 400 kids. When Child Protective Services (CPS) has a case of abuse or neglect, a CASA can serve the caseworker in a support role, advocating solely for the child.
“The name Court Appointed Special Advocate says it well,” Whitlark said. “You’re advocating for a child who often doesn’t have a voice. They’re moved from one place to another, the courts are dictating things, and the CPS system is dictating things. And they just don’t have a voice. They’re not able to say, ‘Hold on, I don’t like this,’ or ‘I don’t want this,’ or ‘I’m worried about this. I can advocate for them, and I can help. It’s kind of being a third party, like an outsider looking in and saying, ‘OK I’m looking at the whole situation. Let me tell you what I see.’”
Whitlark has been a CASA for four-and-a-half years, and she’s currently working on her fourth case, which will tlast about a year. Depending on the case, a CASA can provide many different types of support.
“We can provide educational support,” Whitlark said. “I’ve gone to the kiddo’s school and met with the teachers and principal on occasion, making sure they have what they need, like academic support. There’s also medical advocacy, where you’re making sure that they’re getting what they need medically and even attending doctor’s appointments if needed. And of course, there’s hanging out with the kid. That’s the most fun for me, taking them out and doing fun things with them.”
As an advocate, Whitlark said her role with the child is to be a friend and to listen.
“I want them to know if they have a need, they can talk to me about it,” she said.
Often a child will have multiple CPS caseworkers during the time their case is active. CASAs can provide consistency and go the whole distance with the child they serve.
“So many kids are in the system and just have a CPS case worker — and bless them for what they do, but they are so overextended,” Whitlark said. “So the need is really for these kids to have somebody hands-on to walk with them in a closer and more supportive way than CPS is able to do. CASA brings consistency because you’re involved from beginning to end. You’re the constant.”
There are a lot of moments Whitlark said that have made her experience rewarding. But one of the best, she said, involved the mother of six who fought to get her family back together.
“We got out of the case right around Christmas, and of course, this mom had six children, so I knew that would be very difficult,” Whitlark said. “CASA works with people in the community to come up with presents for all of their kiddos. But in this case I got with friends and family, and I said, ‘Guys, here’s the situation.’ We raised money to take this mom shopping. I told her she could go anywhere, and she chose Walmart. We divided the money up between the six kids, and after about 30 minutes she asked if we could take a break. She was very overwhelmed. So we took a break and just kind of chatted, and then she finished up.”
Whitlark and her CASA supervisor, John Moorman, took all the proceeds from that shopping trip, plus all the gifts from CASA, to the mother’s home, and the entire living room was filled.
“I remember walking out of her living room that day,” Whitlark said. “She was so overwhelmed — she was almost in tears. I think they were tears of joy, but also tears of just feeling overwhelmed. Of course, I wasn’t there when she gave them to the kids. I didn’t get to see that part, but being able to know that Christmas, that those kids were so loved — not just through the gifts — but to know that so many people had a hand in providing for those kiddos that Christmas. I think it also gave hope, and it gave that mom a sense of joy and being able to provide something for her kids.”
With the time, not to mention the emotional, investment of being a CASA, Whitlark said it is completely doable for a full-time working person.
“It’s flexible, and you have a lot of resources and support from CASA,” Whitlark said. “Every CASA has a supervisor, and they are very helpful. You always have someone to call and say, ‘This just happened’ or ‘I don’t know what to do,’ and they will walk you through it.”
A CASA serves as the eyes and ears of the judges who have to make tough decisions about the welfare of local children.
“It’s a very rewarding feeling when I turn in that court report, knowing that I’m giving that judge way more information than she would have had to help this kid in the best way possible,” Whitlark said. “That’s kind of the culmination of it all, when you can turn that over and say, ‘OK, now a decision is about to be made,’ and know that you’ve provided all the information that the judge would need to make the best decision for the child.”