Mary Bonner-Fisher is Rev. Mary Bonner-Fisher; she’s an ordained minister. And when she speaks, she gives a good sermon, whatever the topic.
“My life philosophy is to live by example, serve with excellence and follow with humility. That’s what keeps me grounded.” she said.
That philosophy is more than just inspiring words — they are words Bonner-Fisher has lived and encourages others to live as well. She’s had highs, like earning a scholarship to attend HITS Theatre in Houston, and lows, like being homeless with five children. She earned a bachelor’s in human services from Springfield College [Greater Houston] and now works as director of education at Just As I Am Ministries. The nonprofit operates a child care center in East Waco called the Academy for Artistic Learning and Early Development. Just As I Am is also working to renovate the historic African American Alpha Theater and turn it into a musical and theatrical arts center for youth. In addition, Bonner-Fisher is a board member of Transformation Waco, working to improve five of Waco ISD’s struggling schools, among them, G.W. Carver Middle School, where she served as PTA president.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Bonner-Fisher by phone about her passion for children, her passion for the arts and the importance of knowing your value.
WACOAN: When we talked on the phone, you mentioned that you were the PTA president at Carver but aren’t anymore.
Bonner-Fisher: When I first came to Waco in 2017, I wanted to get involved in PTA — we were a PTO then, because PTA is national. I worked with Mr. [Alonzo] McAdoo, principal at the time. Then this year we had a new principal. My daughter was no longer a student there, so changes were made.
WACOAN: Were you always an active mom in your kids’ schools?
Bonner-Fisher: Even when I had four in elementary at the same time and parties in different classes, I’d pop my head in each one. I always believed in being intentional. Even when I was working full time, going to school full time and raising my kids as a single mom, nothing was more important than being present in my children’s lives.[With PTA,] I was just being my daughter’s mom because I saw a need. I had to be intentional about making sure I was doing my part as a parent to be a solution to whatever problem I saw. My goal is to be a solution wherever I am — community, work, church, families — to be a solution to a problem.
WACOAN: That feels like a good place to talk about Transformation Waco, which was created to address problems at five Waco ISD campuses. How did you become involved?
Bonner-Fisher: I always say I was just being my daughter’s mother. I was advocating for her and, in the process, advocating for other children who did not have the voice themselves.
I was working with Carver, trying to build the PTA. I was going to community meetings, letting my voice be heard. Transformation Waco called me and said they had several recommendations. I was just being an advocate in the community for children and families. I started, and I’ve never stopped.
WACOAN: Explain what Transformation Waco was set up to do for the five schools: Alta Vista Elementary, Brook Avenue Elementary, G.W. Carver Middle, Indian Spring Middle and J.H. Hines Elementary.
Bonner-Fisher: These five schools were given options after failing [to meet state standards]. The schools could have closed. [Former Waco ISD superintendent] Dr. Marcus Nelson wanted the power to remain in the city, so an in-district charter was developed. Transformation Waco has a contract with Waco ISD. I serve on the board, and we oversee those schools.
It was done this way so that things looked the same and felt the same for the students.
WACOAN: How long have you been on the board?
Bonner-Fisher: Since we started; this is our second year.
WACOAN: I understand three of the schools have improved their state ranking, while two others are still struggling, and one of those is Carver.
Bonner-Fisher: Right before Transformation Waco started, Carver and Hines met the standard, but then they went through a lot of transition last year, in teachers and leaders. Right now with Hines, they may have 10 or more teachers who are part of the alternative certification program through Transformation Waco, [Urban Educator Residency Program].
WACOAN: Why was this alternate route to certification needed?
Bonner-Fisher: Teachers are leaving the profession. There are people wanting to come into the profession.
The teachers earning their certification are also getting support and coaching and are able to earn a master’s degree, and all of this is free for them. It’s heavily supported by a team we work with in Chicago, [Academy for Urban School Leadership], and Tarleton State University. The goal is to retain strong teachers that for many years will continue to work in-district. We need to be able to recruit teachers, train them, coach them and keep them in the district so our schools will be stronger.
WACOAN: Tell me about the prom suits drive you started at Carver. How does that fit into the school’s transformation?
Bonner-Fisher: I can’t say I was the lead person. There were a group of women: Mrs. Shirley Langston, Dr. Kathy Ransom and Mrs. Keli Jackson-Freeman — she was able to be the strongest in getting dresses donated, over 300. We got all the dresses but didn’t have any boys’ things, so we did a suit drive for the boys. We worked together as a team, but I’d have to give those ladies a lot of credit.
WACOAN: This was for the eighth-grade prom?
Bonner-Fisher: At the beginning of the year, there were two things we wanted. They were not having eighth-grade awards, so we wanted to see an awards assembly, as well as a prom. The school worked to do the prom, and we made sure [students] had medals and were able to receive awards for their accomplishments. It’s affirming academic excellence and even perfect attendance — to salute them, affirm them. Then prom is a celebration and fun. To be able to put on the suit or the dress and feel good — both of those spark this good feeling inside about who you are.
WACOAN: I would not have thought about the need for boys’ formal clothes as well, but it makes sense.
Bonner-Fisher: We got so many expensive, beautiful dresses. We didn’t want anyone not to come because they did not have the attire, or for a parent to feel bad that they couldn’t buy the suit or the dress.
WACOAN: Since you’ve been a parent and a PTA president at Carver, what do you see as students’ biggest challenges?
Bonner-Fisher: Family challenges. It’s so much — a lot of kids who’ve experienced trauma by the age of 3, grandparents raising grandkids.
Waco ISD has a 60% Hispanic population, and families unable to communicate with teachers and who can’t assist kids with homework because they can’t read the language (not all of them). I’m a big advocate of making sure the Hispanic population that are non-English-speaking parents are able to get information. We are connecting to them in the language that they speak.
WACOAN: You were interviewed by KCEN-TV about the prom suits drive, and you said, ‘It’s village work.’
Bonner-Fisher: I’m surprised I didn’t say that earlier. That’s the way I see it, that it takes a village to raise a child. For me, that’s from Transformation Waco to the Academy for Artistic Development to being a mom.
When I went to [Indian Spring Middle School] yesterday. I talked to these young ladies. One of them had just arrived in a foster care shelter. Whatever we do for children, it requires village work. We can’t say it’s all about family. Sometimes family is not equipped to give the child everything they need. That’s when faith-based organizations, schools or whoever touches the lives of children — we come together as a village.
I was talking with one of the principals at Indian Spring, Mr. Joseph Alexander, as part of Transformation Waco, talking about the great work they’re doing there. Their UIL band and drama won competitions, but they’re one of the Transformation Waco schools that had met their midway target for testing. I strongly believe it’s because research shows that kids who perform in the arts score higher on standardized tests. We see the decline of arts and the decline of testing, and we don’t think to connect the two.[Art] builds confidence, it builds problem-solving, critical thinking — things you need for test-taking and learning. It’s foundational.
WACOAN: I’d like to hear more about the Academy of Artistic Development you opened through Just As I Am Ministries.
Bonner-Fisher: In 2018 we opened up. I helped them launch the child care center.
Our mission is to use arts to help nurture creativity but also build coping and critical thinking skills. It used to be about two-thirds to now maybe half of the students have been involved with [child protective services] in some way. It’s important to me to build these skills very early, to nurture creativity.
A lot of people don’t know the work we’re doing. We’re always interested and open to the community being a part, especially those who have a heart for children.
Eventually we want to focus on special needs children and autism. They’re underserved in the community. I knew nothing about autism, I’ll be honest. I knew I was meeting a lot of families with autistic kids, not just here in Waco. One student I helped enroll [in the academy], I was working with him and trying to find solutions because he came from another program where he was unable to stay. He’s been with us a year now; he’s 4. When we turn on music to dance, that is one of the things he’ll do with the rest of the children.
I have a heart for children with emotional and social needs — that was the whole purpose of the arts program. I did not understand autism or know much about it. But being able to be around [the kids], they taught me. I realized there were things I needed to know. Since I already had a belief that the arts could work for children with other needs, then surely it has a place in working with children who are autistic.
We’re renovating the Alpha Theater for a community arts theater.
WACOAN: Where is the Alpha Theater?
Bonner-Fisher: In East Waco [221 Clifton Street]. It’s a historical movie theater, an African American theater, so we’re the organization that owns it. Eventually it will [host] musical and theatrical programs for youth and children in East Waco.
WACOAN: How did you come to work with children?
Bonner-Fisher: The work that I do with children and youth I’ve been doing for 30 years. As it has been quoted, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’ I’ve worked with child development, juvenile probation. I’ve been a youth pastor. The earlier we’re able to impact children’s lives, the stronger they will be in elementary and middle school. The goal is to build strong adults. You have to plant those seeds very early.
WACOAN: What is your background in the arts?
Bonner-Fisher: I was in theater, in music, growing up. I did a lot of public speaking in the church. It strengthened my self-confidence. They say the earlier a child is introduced to culture and arts, the stronger they will be as a student. They can have students start in kindergarten at the same school, and when you test them in fifth grade, the difference is the introduction to culture and arts (and reading also).
For myself, I was involved in band and theater arts and very early saw the impact of being able to have rich experiences. I had the opportunity to go to Houston International Theatrical School [now HITS Theatre]. I had a scholarship in high school. I wasn’t a rich child, but I had rich experiences. I had a mother who made sure I had rich experiences and rich values and that determined how I saw life.
Even 12 years ago when I was a single mother with five kids and homeless, I was still able to see myself rich because of what I carry in me. I was able to put that in my children so we could go through that phase without that having a negative effect on my children because they understood we were carrying rich values.
WACOAN: How did all this come about?
Bonner-Fisher: I fled a domestic abusive relationship. I say I’m a victor of abuse, not a victim. After divorcing my husband I was a single mom of five children, spent a short time homeless.
My daughter went to a preschool that had art therapy and music therapy. That’s where my interest and understanding the impact of art in my own personal life came from. It was a rich experience for me, seeing the impact on young lives, in therapy. I thought that was something Waco needed. At this point we don’t have the therapist, but to bring [the arts] into the lives of children — not just for school but for life.
WACOAN: Of your five children, how many are still in Waco ISD?
Bonner-Fisher: Four are adults, and one is at Waco High School.
Most of what I do — they’re my why. To experience their smiles and their laughter, of my children and grandchildren, that’s my affirmation at the end of the day. I love people and children and family. That’s what affirms that I am living out my purpose and my call. That is the pay.
When I hire people, I tell them, ‘I can’t pay you your worth. I can appreciate your value. Keep doing what you’re doing. Your work is not in vain.’
One quote I live by: ‘There’s always a good return on a good investment.’ I may not be able to see the return in the lives of children, but I know there’s always a good return on my investment. Sometimes we may not be able to see it. Nothing I do, none of the work I do, will ever be in vain. There’s gonna be a return, but you may not see it, and it may come back to you different.
5 Things Mary Can’t Live Without
1. My Bible. I like The New Living Translation.
2. Phone. My kids, they call me Google Queen. I’m very resourceful, and I do a lot of research on my phone. If I’m in a meeting or in church and somebody says something, I’m searching, looking up who that person is or whatever. It’s a tool for me to be resourceful.
3. Container of pictures. I have lost many things, but not this. It’s mostly pictures of my children in a plastic container, like a shoebox, but a little bit bigger than that.
4. Eyebrow pencil. I need to be able to fill in. If I’m going to a meeting and catch myself in a mirror without it, I will stop at Walgreens.
5. A wig. For bad hair days.