Student Activist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Waco Chapter
Avery Ballmann was a freshman in high school in 2018 when her close friend, Jack, lost his life to suicide.
“[The school] brought in counselors, and that’s really all they knew to do. We just sat in the library, and we were kind of healing with ourselves. I was talking to my friends who knew him about our favorite memories about him. Everyone wanted to take action, and I just felt the need to spearhead that because I also have that passion to take action.”
She turned to Jennifer Warnick, the chair of the Waco chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Ballmann started a fundraiser for the AFSP by selling T-shirts at school that students wear each September during Suicide Prevention & Awareness Month. The funds from the T-shirts were donated, and the students formed the China Spring team for the AFSP Walk Out of the Darkness community walk.
“It’s a bunch of families and work organizations that come out to show respect for their loved one that’s passed away or just [encourage] mental health. You can have a little button, and it says, ‘I’m walking for…,’ and you write in who you’re walking for,” Ballmann said. “There’s a table with a bunch of different colored beads, and each bead means a certain thing. White is loss of a child, green is your own attempt. There’s all these different beads that you can wear during the walk so people can make conversation like, ‘I lost my child as well,’ or ‘I lost someone who was in the military as well,’ or ‘I’m struggling too.’ I always encourage people to go because it’s really moving.”
Once she graduated high school, Ballmann passed down her role to another student.
“There’s a business fraternity at Baylor whose philanthropy is AFSP, so I feel like that it’s pretty much well covered [at Baylor]. I just try to make sure it’s still going on in China Spring. I think that’s my biggest goal, to keep in touch with all those people.”
Ballmann has seen the impact raising awareness has brought to the school.
“Teachers were much more aware. If it was syllabus week, they’re like ‘I’m always here to talk, or we have counselors.’ Just saying that is really big to acknowledge that mental health is important, and that people struggle, no matter what stage of life they’re in. I’m very thankful for my band directors being especially aware and keeping the band hall open extra hours to make sure we weren’t alone. People were very supportive, and teachers I’ve never talked to just donated and bought shirts because they cared.”
Ballmann said that becoming an activist for a cause you care about can start with a simple action.
“Just take a baby step,” she said. “The passion that you have to take action can take you far, so just use that drive to maybe donate five, ten dollars, post something on your social media to get donations. If you take one baby step, it leads to more.”
Executive Director of Waco Civic Theatre
Eric Shephard became the executive director of Waco Civic Theatre in 2013. He grew up in Austin and become a teacher before coming to Waco to get a Master of Fine Arts in directing from Baylor University.
“Growing up in Austin, I did a lot of theater at Austin Playhouse and various community and small professional theaters. It made me realize that as a schoolteacher, I was not using my talents,” Shephard said. “That’s why I went to grad school, so that I could work in theater and not just volunteer.”
Shephard described theater as an experience that can transform everyone who participates, from cast members to theater-goers.
“We can watch a movie, or we can go to a ballgame, but we don’t expect to see things in a new way. Part of the expectation of theater is that we gain a greater sense of empathy or understanding for other human beings,” he said. “It’s transformative for the people who are involved and for the audience too. It’s not just about the show, it’s the relationship that you form. The little communities that you make and remake every time you do a show. It’s a marvelous kind of thing. It’s humbling, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.”
Stepping into his role as executive director, Shephard quickly realized that the civic theater wasn’t utilizing its space to meet the demand in the community.
“Parents want to provide quality activities. Athletics is one way to do it, but not every kid wants to be a tumbler or a soccer player or a volleyball player,” he said. “Waco is a place that it’s important to who we are as a city that there are good quality programs for kids. It’s a huge priority. It wasn’t so much that we had this really innovative idea. We said, ‘What if we do more? And what if we do more after that?’”
Shephard had one goal in mind: a summer program for students. Instead of shutting down the building during the summer, the theater space began to be used for learning opportunities for kids, which led to mainstage activities. They also host afternoon classes before rehearsals for the adult actors.
In another effort to meet the demand, the theater has increased its number of shows in a season.
“The traditional model for community theaters, at least of our [city’s] size, was that you do one play at a time,” Shephard said. “You audition the show, you rehearse for five or six weeks and then you do the show. Then when that show is over, you do the auditions for the next show. But we realized that the building and the demand was greater than we were utilizing it so that’s when we started doubling up. At this point, we have no less than two shows in rehearsal at one time, sometimes three or four. We want to add a theater space out back of our building so that we have another performance and rehearsal space. Currently there is the demand to do it, we just have to find the funds for it.”
The Waco theater community has grown over the years with new companies like Brazos Theatre, Wild Imaginings and Silent House Theatre Company, creating more opportunities for actors and for audiences, but also opportunities to work together.
“Collaboration is necessary to theater. It’s how it works. Beyond the actor, you’ve got to work with the director. You’ve got a place to do theater, and then you need to focus on costume and paint and draw. We have a large collection of props and costumes and set pieces that we lend out on a regular basis to all the school programs. We also collaborate on occasion with MCC and Baylor Theatre by sharing actors or costumes or props. Because Waco’s the size it is, we share a lot of actors with other theater groups — MCC, Baylor, Silent House, Wild Imaginings, Brazos Theatre Company. The nature of what we do means that we’re always working with someone else.”
Despite the sell-out run of “Annie Jr.” and “Newsies Jr.” in February, with extra shows added and those sold out, the theater has seen a downturn in ticket sales.
“I understand it’s tricky for other nonprofits this time of year that, I’m guessing, our community in some ways feels a little tapped out. But what I think we’re doing is important and valuable. I would hope that people come back to the theater because it is so unique and it’s such a joyful experience. I think people that do participate, on whatever level, in community theater are richly rewarded for it.”
“[‘Silent Sky’] was a beautiful play, but there were only half-filled seats. I wish people could see how good Jamie [Coblentz] was as the lead astronomer in that show, and I wish people would have seen how great both Anna [Poe] and Kelly [MacGregor] were as the leads in ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ That was professional quality theater. Beautifully acted, beautifully sung. We just didn’t have quite the audience response that I was hoping for to help celebrate these people and their incredible gifts,” Shephard said. “My cast right now that is working on the show that opens Thursday, [February 9], ‘How I Got Over’ have gone over these songs dozens of times because they want to be extraordinary. They don’t want to make it just a passable version of this hymn or spiritual. They want to make it a top-drawer, excellent experience for themselves and for the audience that comes in.”
Founder of Fuzzy Friends Rescue
Betsy Robinson found her calling later in life. After volunteering with animals, she felt a desire to create a no-kill shelter to rescue dogs and cats, where time was not an issue.
“When I was 42 years old, my life made a dramatic turn,” Robinson said.
Since she founded Fuzzy Friends Rescue, Robinson said that her life has gone to the dogs and cats. But she admits that she didn’t see the big picture until years later.
“We’ve had many people say, ‘I thought I was coming out to save this dog or save this cat, when in fact, that animal saved me.’ It’s been very rewarding to see how we’re celebrating the human-animal bond,” she said. “There’s nothing like the companionship a dog or a cat can give someone.”
Robinson relies on her staff to keep the shelter running. Fuzzy Friends houses anywhere between 100-150 dogs and cats at one time.
“Staffing has been a challenge in the last year, and really since COVID,” Robinson said. “We have some great people, some who’ve been with us seven, eight, nine years. They’re very dedicated and very committed individuals.” Not even the 2020 pandemic stopped their work as they continued to make adoptions possible. In addition to the staff, Fuzzy Friends depends on a team of volunteers, which is how Robinson was introduced to the world of animal rescue.
“God truly burdened my heart with the plight of homeless animals, and I began volunteering at the [Humane Society of Central Texas],” Robinson said. “Volunteers are just so essential for nonprofits all across the community, all across the country. Volunteers are a critical part of our success. They do things from working in the front office and answering the telephone, helping us with adoption applications, calling vet clinics, to walking dogs and going in to socialize the cats. There are many opportunities for folks to get involved.”
One of the biggest challenges in running a nonprofit is funding. Robinson had to find new ways to get the community support to sustain the shelter.
“You’ve gotta get creative in your fundraising, in your events and how you get your message out to people who believe in your mission, to let them know the good work that we are doing and why their support is so critical,” Robinson said. “We came up with the idea of a fabulous first-class New Year’s Eve event, and we named it Barkin’ Ball. [It’s] our largest annual event. It provides most of the revenue that we need to support [Fuzzy Friends Rescue] all year long.”
Other fun events for the community include Bow Wow Bingo, Pooches on Parade and the ladies-only Guardian Angel Society luncheon.
This year has been especially tough for Fuzzy Friends Rescue. Robinson said more dogs and cats than ever are being surrendered to shelters, and the need for space is growing.
“We are getting emails from all over the state. Little communities I’ve never even heard of, from their city shelter or a volunteer, desperate. ‘Please, here are pictures of our dogs. Are there any that you can take? They’re on the euthanasia list.’ The city of Waco has been under a lot of strain. We have seen a greater need and more animals being surrendered and homeless in 26 years. It’s so sad.”
Fuzzy Friends never euthanizes to make room for more animals, instead it has a system of foster volunteers. Foster volunteers provide temporary care and shelter to animals waiting to be adopted or those who need to live in a home environment before adoption.
“Sometimes we have people reach out to us, and we’ll say if you could hang on to that dog, that cat for a week or two, then we can then work the dog into our rescue, but right now we’re packed.” Anyone willing to foster can sign up at fuzzyfriendsrescue.com.
“Running a nonprofit is very stressful, I’ll say that. It’s very stressful, and it’s a huge responsibility,” Robinson said. “Over the years, there’s been times I’ve thought, ‘What in the world did I get myself into?’ But then I go out there, and I look in the eyes of an animal and I’m like ‘I can do it. I’m doing it!’ We are doing it, but it’s all because of a caring community. People who believe in what we’re doing, that an animal deserves a life and happiness and a quality good home.”
Executive Director of Christian Women’s Job Corps of McLennan County
Christian Women’s Job Corps of McLennan County provides free GED and job training classes to women of McLennan County. Lydia Tate moved to Waco from Houston and took over as executive director of the CWJC McLennan County in October 2019.
Working with CWJC, Tate gets to meet women every day who are eager to better themselves and change their lives, which she said makes the job worth it.
“I really enjoy women’s ministry. I enjoy the process of women coming together to do something big together. I love working in a space where women are feeling encouraged and uplifted and like they are part of something bigger than just themselves,” Tate said.
The GED program started as a study space for women preparing to take the test and then became a full learning and testing center that is now CWJC’s largest program. The organization also cohosts a Spanish GED class with La Puerta, a nonprofit serving immigrants. CWJC offers job development workshops, resume development coaching, computer classes, financial wellness classes, mentoring, Bible study and personal development to equip women with the resources to enter the workforce or go on to secondary education.
By serving women through these programs, Tate has become familiar with other problems that can hold women back.
“It’s barriers like ‘I don’t have a driver’s license so I can’t take my GED,’” Tate said. “We expect that people are going to have trouble with transportation or childcare, but sometimes you don’t expect that you’re gonna have a giant barrier with learning disabilities or with license recovery.”
With each challenge, Tate sees an opportunity for CWJC to grow and better serve clients in Waco and beyond.
“If we start cracking the question mark of transportation, then that’s something that we can present to other communities and say this is how we tackle it as a small community,” Tate said.
Her priority, though, is to provide resources for learning disabilities. Tate wants to provide a safe space for students, away from the stigmas of learning disabilities, and nourish their desire to learn.
“We have one gal who had been with us for a long time working on her math test and then went on to MCC and discovered that she had a learning disability,” Tate said. “Had she had the opportunity to take that test with us when she started, then we would’ve been able to help her catch that early on and have a faster pace getting through the process of getting her high school diploma.”
When it comes to breaking down barriers for her clients, Tate believes that collaboration with other organizations is key. The nonprofit community of Waco is unlike the one she experienced while living in Houston.
“I don’t think we can really dream that sort of work in Houston because it’s so vast and so spread out,” she said. “Here in Waco, we have such a great tight-knit community. We have the opportunity to actually solve some really huge problems for the community. We are constantly reaching out to other nonprofits, and they’re reaching out to us to make sure that we’re providing great services to our entire clients.”
Tate described the experience of working at a nonprofit as a blessing that’s good for a person’s soul.
“You can develop a bond with someone you’ve never expected to have developed a bond with. You could learn a skill that you never thought you would ever learn. You could shape someone else’s life just by being a steady presence,” she said. “I think working for a nonprofit helps me to see the world around me with a much clearer lens and to be able to understand what the needs are in our community and to get close to the needs.”
And it’s easy to stay inspired for the work at hand when she looks at the clients she’s serving.
“The women that are here are just the most brave, amazing, incredible, tenacious people I’ve ever met. They’re incredible women who are full of faith and fire and want to do this incredibly hard thing to show their kids that education is possible and to show their kids that their mom can do it, to find a better space for themselves and to get a better job or to go back to school. It’s just really incredible and it’s inspiring.”