Who Are The People in Your Nonprofit Neighborhood?

By Megan Willome

There are more than these 10, of course.

Pictured: Photos by Grace-Marie Brunken & Ray Im

Since a nonprofit is all about people, we’re featuring 10 stories about how and why these particular individuals got involved and what Waco’s nonprofit neighborhood looks like from their corner.

Some of these people give scholarships, some serve kids who have aged out of the foster system, some work behind a computer to end sex slavery, some bring theater to local schools, some go door to door to raise funds. All have found ways to work as a team.

“Waco is a big little town,” DeLisa Russell said.

“It’s a safe place to incubate ideas,” added Emily Mills.

These folks do what they do, like Connie Nichols, “to see that light go on” in a child’s eyes. Or “to encourage others to have empathy for one another,” like Nikki Rhea. Or simply because, as Eagle Scout candidate Carl Schubert said, “It was a great way to give back.”

Natalie Garnett
The Administrator
Assistant national director, UnBound

UnBound, which started in Waco and has offices worldwide, fights human trafficking. Natalie Garnett sees the correlation between her work in the office and the organization’s ability to serve.

“Every hour we spend on the administrative side and the business side, it impacts our ability to serve the community. Even though I’m sitting behind a computer for the large part of the day, I’m opening doors and sending people and impacting populations,” Garnett said.

She is grateful to be based in Waco, a city she called “just the right size.”

“We have such need in our city, but we also have a rich community of nonprofits and resources to serve. People are willing to come to the table and work together. It’s not competitive — it’s really collaborative,” she said. “That’s what I love about Waco. Competition within nonprofits distracts from your ability to have impact, but collaboration multiplies the impact of every agency.”

Over the past three years Garnett has seen this collaboration grow, especially with law enforcement, and it’s gained the attention of media giant Netflix.

“Netflix is working on a documentary series that is uncovering some internet crimes, and one of those was these illicit massage parlors, and through an article they found out about what the McLennan County sheriff was doing here, and they gave us a call,” Garnett said. “They came down for a few days to get an inside look on what these types of operations look like.”

Footage was shot in June for the as yet unnamed documentary, which is set to come out later this year. Even with growing recognition, UnBound is still focused on meeting the needs in Waco.

“It feels like our goal is to accomplish our mission but also to serve the greater mission of serving victims and making our community better,” Garnett said.

Libby Jessup
The Fundraiser
Volunteer, Care Net of Central Texas

In April, Care Net holds the Human Race, an adventure race with running, paddling and biking. But there is also a 5K, and it’s perfectly acceptable to walk it. This year Libby Jessup, a homeschool senior, did just that, and she raised $7,870 in the process.

How did she do it? Jessup is old school.

“I started going door to door and talking to people in different neighborhoods,” she said. Although she lives in Eddy, “We’re in Waco pretty much every day, so we would wait until around 5, 5:30 [p.m.] and start knocking on doors to try to catch people after work, when they were home,” she said.

Jessup’s mother followed along.

“She’s in the car, and she’s praying the whole time,” Jessup said.

Even though she wasn’t selling magazines or taking a political poll, Jessup still had doors slammed in her face.

“But then you find nuggets of gold by people who’ve never heard of Care Net and give me a $100 donation. You find that one person who says, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and you feel happy again, like you can do this for five more hours,” she said.

Care Net serves women facing an unexpected pregnancy. Jessup has been raising money for them since she was 5, but going to neighborhoods helped her see the issues surrounding abortion and adoption in new ways.

“Getting to hear people’s stories makes it that much more real and makes it more meaningful walking,” Jessup said. “Care Net has changed my life forever. I want to be an ultrasound technician, showing moms the baby’s heartbeat for the first time and seeing their faces light up.”

Kara Malone
The Empowerer
President, executive director and co-founder, Refuge Waco

Refuge Waco is the new kid on the block. On May 30, District Judge Gary Coley Jr. introduced co-founders Kendall Goodwin, Kara Wagstaff and Kara Malone on the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse. Refuge Waco serves kids who have aged out of the foster system.

“Overnight they become homeless with nowhere to go, no resources. We want to prevent homelessness, sex trafficking, them ending up in jail or having kids that enter back into the [foster care] system,” Malone said. “We’re not here to enable these women; we’re here to empower them.”

Refuge Waco works with UnBound, Child Protective Services, CASA [Court-Appointed Special Advocates], Communities in Schools and other groups.

“We are coming alongside these organizations. We are not competing for donations with them. We are not in competition to do something better than them. We want to create unity for the betterment of these women and men that are the next generation,” she said.

Malone and her co-founders met in February and have been working together ever since. When she learned of the need, Malone said she felt, “Humbled. Kara and Kendall and I, we always say that we are just completely humbled because we grew up so privileged. Not that we had a lot of money or got whatever we wanted, but the kind of privilege that is human rights.”

Malone says many young women who are too old for Refuge Waco services but who grew up in the foster care system are anxious to help.

“They literally don’t even think about themselves,” she said. “They keep asking us how they can help others so they don’t have to go through what they went through.”

Emily Mills
The Collaborator
CEO and co-founder, Jesus Said Love

Jesus Said Love advocates for and supports women in the commercial sex industry. This year it opened Lovely, a storefront that employs women leaving the industry, and started a complementary eight-week holistic program called Access.

“Eighty-nine percent of the women say they want a way out, but they don’t have a way to survive. Jobs have been the No. 1 issue,” Mills said. “The common misconception is that women want to work there, and since we’ve opened Lovely, we’ve seen a flood of women wanting to get out.

Emily Mills does this work for one reason.

“There is hands down no doubt that what I gain is joy. And it’s completely intangible,” she said. “The way to measure that is through the relationships I get to have not only with the women that we reach but also this community of nonprofits and collaborators.”

Collaborating comes naturally to Mills and her husband, Brett.

“We’re musicians. It’s like collaborating on an album,” she said. “It takes all of us.”

Here’s a brief list of partners: Mission Waco, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-Hillcrest, UnBound, Methodist Children’s Home, Advocacy Center. Also Creative Waco, “because our fundraiser, Wild Torch, uses the visual and performing arts to tell our story,” Mills said. “It’s natural for Brett and I to use artists to tell the story of redemption for a population that has largely been stigmatized.”

She also leans on Baylor, MCC and TSTC.

“We’ve got these innovators here that we can call on: ‘Hey, I think there’s a public health crisis. I need an epidemiologist.’ There are crazy high-level academic brains that can help inform your practice,” she said. “So to have a small town that is doing top-tier work is incredible.”

Connie Nichols
The Server
Faculty adviser, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Baylor

Faculty adviser is one of many titles that apply to Connie Nichols’ service. She just stepped down as president of the local chapter of Jack and Jill of America, a position she’s held for five years. She recently joined the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Waco. She’s a member of The Links, formerly vice president, a sustaining member of Junior League of Waco. Oh, and she started the Intellectual Property Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic — a pro bono clinic — at Baylor Law School where she is a professor.

“I believe when you’re a part of a community you have to ensure that it grows to its full capacity, which is why I’m so involved. As a Christian and a member of the community, it’s my obligation to give back where I can,” she said.

It’s a tradition she’s passing on to her son through their participation in Jack and Jill of America, an organization for mothers that nurtures African-American leaders.

“I wanted my son to truly be — from the time he was 4 — immersed in the idea that it’s our obligation to give back to our community,” she said.

One of her favorite outreaches was a partnership between The Links and Restoration Haven, teaching science to children living in Estella Maxey public housing. Nichols found that doing science experiments for the kids changed their perception of themselves.

“To see those kids, who had no idea what they wanted to be when they grow up, now talking about ‘when they go to college,’” she said.

Nichols also supports education through her sorority. Last year, in conjunction with Doris Miller Family YMCA, Alpha Kappa Alpha gave out 300 backpacks and resupplied them at semester break.

“I actually got a scholarship from the sorority I’m in to go to college,” Nichols said. “If it weren’t for these organizations, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Roman Novian
The Giver
Realtor, Coldwell Banker Jim Stewart Realtors

The last two years Roman Novian has given scholarships to graduates of his alma mater, University High School, through the Waco ISD Education Foundation. This year he gave five scholarships worth $1,000 each and two worth $500.

“The [$1,000 scholarships] are for the 11-20th percentile of their class ranking. It’s not always just the top 10 percent of kids who can do good in college, so we wanted to give the opportunity,” he said. “We opened it up to the top 1-10 percent on those two $500 ones.”

Giving scholarships is only one way Novian participates in the nonprofit world. He also makes special events and galas a regular part of his calendar. He’s been a celebrity waiter at Table Toppers for The Art Center of Waco. He was a celebrity chef for the H-E-B Celebrity Cook Off, benefiting the Waco ISD Education Foundation. And he’ll be a contestant in the Family Abuse Center’s Dancing with the Waco Stars. At other events he will often support organizations by buying a table or bidding on an auction item.

“Almost every weekend you could go to a nonprofit event, especially at certain times of the year. There are definitely lots of times to enjoy yourself and be giving back,” Novian said. “My community trusts me to help them, and I like to give back to the community that gives to me.”

Nikki Rhea
The Messenger
Development director, Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children

Nikki Rhea has a dream: “I would love to see pinwheels up and down Waco Drive and Valley Mills [Drive] during the month of April, [and] Austin Avenue,” she said.

That dream came a little closer to reality this year with the Advocacy Center’s #pinwheelsforprevention campaign, in which the center placed 40-inch pinwheels in the yards of homes, churches and small businesses who donated during April, which is Child Abuse Prevention Month. They raised almost $5,000.

“The pinwheel is a symbol for a child who has been helped at their local advocacy center,” Rhea said. “It’s a topic that nobody wants to talk about. This was a light, fun, sweet, innocent, almost beautiful way. It took the fear out of speaking about child abuse.”

The Advocacy Center works closely with the district attorney’s office and law enforcement, as well as the Family Abuse Center, which focuses on domestic violence. The center also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Baylor to formalize their partnership, which includes offering services to students in need. Sometimes they work with Jesus Said Love and UnBound, depending on the client.

Meeting clients who have been helped by the Advocacy Center spurs on Rhea’s motivation. She remembers encountering one young family at an event where she was promoting the agency.

“The mom said, ‘I’ve been there.’ She was almost ashamed,” Rhea said. “If you come here and we’ve helped you, I don’t want you to feel ashamed. When you walk in, it’s the most peaceful environment you could be in.”

But Rhea’s primary role is to work behind the scenes.

“I’m not the one who works directly with victims — I’m the messenger,” she said. “I’m just a small piece of the puzzle, to let the community know what they’re doing inside these walls.”

DeLisa Russell
The Hand-Raiser
Director, Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop

DeLisa Russell is from a military family. Her father was a combat veteran, her husband served for 24 years, her son is in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M, and her daughter has a movement for those in the armed services called Servant’s Heart. So taking care of military families comes naturally to her.

“Often people forget it’s 1 percent of our population that are holding up their hands and taking the pledge to protect us. So what is it that we are willing to do? Everybody needs to raise their hand and make some kind of commitment, and this is mine,” Russell said.

Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop Center is a facility to serve veterans and their families.

“Every day we have someone walk in and say, ‘I had no idea this was here. This is an answer to our prayers,’” Russell said.

She collaborates with the city of Waco, McLennan County, the Texas Veterans Commission, and MHMR, which donated its building. A new shower and laundry room was recently donated by ReBath of Central Texas. Next month a gym, funded by the Guardians for Heroes Foundation, will open.

“I frequently say I’d love to have a million dollars, but I need a million hands,” Russell said.

Veterans One Stop is a place where a World War II vet can sit next to a soldier who just returned from Afghanistan. They share stories, lend each other a hand.

“A veteran will often have a hard time asking for assistance, but they’re usually the first to give back to their military family,” Russell said. “We don’t let go of a veteran’s hand until someone has hold of the other.”

Carl Schubert
The Trail Blazer
Boy Scout, Boy Scouts of America

On June 8, a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Waco Mammoth National Monument unveiled a new nature trail — the Eagle Scout service project of Carl Schubert. Because Schubert is a member of Troop 453, the trail is fittingly 0.453 miles long.

“We built a pedestrian bridge, and we mulched the entire trail down using woodchips donated by the parks system of the City of Waco. It was a lot of work. We had to cut through a lot of thorns and brush that made it look kind of daunting when we started,” he said.

Schubert has always wanted to be an Eagle Scout, since he was a Cub Scout in second grade. But to complete this project — demonstrating his leadership qualities, just one step in the process to becoming an Eagle Scout — he needed Wacoans to pitch in.

“So my entire troop was able to come out and help build it. As well as Order of the Arrow chapter [a national honor society for Boy Scouts], and a few Cub Scouts helped me too. Girl Scouts. National Honor Society for China Spring. My [football] coach. Home Depot donated a lot of supplies. Pizza Hut and Shipley’s donated food. A brush cutter — Sunbelt Rentals let us use it for free. Without the support from the community, I would not have finished the project when I did.”

Schubert says visitors to the park will now be able to see more wildlife.

“A lot of nature is out there, but they’re not able to see it because the trails at the front of the park are paved, and wildlife doesn’t want to go near traffic,” he said. “Hopefully, the trail will allow a new window for people to observe nature in the park.”

Eric Shephard
The Enthusiast
Executive director, Waco Civic Theatre

When Eric Shephard was in graduate school at Baylor in the late ’90s, he said the arts community was more “silo’d off.” But that’s changed even in the four-and-a-half years he’s been director of the Waco Civic Theatre.

“There aren’t teams anymore,” he said.

Many things have come together to create a thriving artistic environment, where “Wacoans are more aware of the ways in which art affects our community,” Shephard said.

“I was at Jesus Said Love — they have an art gallery there! Only in Waco! The work that Peter and Summer Ellis are doing to combine commerce and art [at Anthem Studios in the Praetorian]. A songwriter performs at Papillon while people nosh on things and take a look at items from across the sea [as part of First Friday]. The impact that Yo-Yo Ma had by coming here [to perform with Waco Symphony Orchestra in October 2015]. It was a revelation: ‘We can have Yo-Yo Ma in Waco?’”

Meanwhile, the Waco Civic Theatre is looking to bring theater arts directly to schools without arts programs, thanks in part to a grant from Creative Waco.

“We want to do more than take shows to them. We also want to do interactive work with the kids so they can come up with their own material,” Shephard said.

With the support of one more donor, workshops and productions like “The Ugly Duckling” will be brought to kids who are least likely to have any exposure to the arts.

“Part of why we would bring [‘The Ugly Duckling’] to an elementary school would be, yes, there’s a lesson to be learned there, but also to bring them a great storytelling experience so they have a fine quality arts experience,” Shephard said. “You never know. Maybe there’s a future entertainer in there or someone who appreciates the arts and makes it be a part of their lives.”