Women at the Helm

By Kathleen Seaman

Three businesswomen share their experiences following a challenging year

Pictured: Photos by Amy Traweek, blacklandphotography.com

While they come from different backgrounds and industries, all three of these women are leaders in their field, and like it did for many, the past year presented challenges for their businesses and organizations to overcome. Dorothy Lentis grew up in the restaurant industry, and now she owns Alpha Omega, a casual Greek restaurant known for its gyros and made-from-scratch pita bread. You may recognize Beth Richards from her years as co-host of the “Dustin & Beth in the Morning” radio show, but today she works for KWBU and is the founding director of Brazos Theatre of Waco, a reparatory theater and improv troupe. Kelly Atkinson is the executive director of The Cove, a nurturing drop-in center that offers a safe space and resources for local teens experiencing homelessness. Whether it was finding new ways to safely serve customers, performing for smaller or virtual audiences, or expanding hours to serve those need, discover how support from family, colleagues and the community helped these inspring women make it through a challenging year.

The Entrepreneur

Dorothy Lentis
Owner, Alpha Omega

Q: What’s a normal day at the restaurant look like for you?

A: Before babies, it would just be waking up early, go in there, doing all our morning prep, cutting vegetables, doing all our hummus and baba ganoush and getting our meats prepared for us to open at 10:30. And then we would work through service. Then after service we would replenish. And then do it again every single day.

My daughter, Kalliroi, just turned 2. I just gave birth to my son, Anthony, about 15 days ago. That’s harder than running a restaurant and having employees.

So, Filip, my husband’s [at the restaurant] from morning till night. Usually, I would go in, in the morning and leave in the afternoon. I used to make all the desserts. Now he makes all the desserts. And I used to make the hummus. Now it’s 100% him while I stay home.

Q: What’s the most popular menu item?

A: Definitely our gyros are our most popular item, the chicken. We just take chicken breasts, we cube it, marinate overnight in buttermilk and our house spices, then we grill it.

Second most popular is our pork, which is what we do on the rotating spit. That’s pork butt that we thinly slice, marinate it. That’s what’s traditional in Greece, too. A big misconception is that it’s lamb and beef mixture. You might find some lamb and beef, but they’re more at Turkish döner shops.

We make our own pita breads in-house every single day. That’s the most challenging thing because that’s something that no one can make other than [my husband or me]. We tried to teach people. It’s not a hard process, but it’s a process that requires a lot of muscle memory.

If you sit there and you weigh 400 balls out, it might take you three, four hours, but if you know the weight of the ball in your hand, it can take you an hour. It’s either me or my husband. We have to make them no matter what.

Q: Isn’t your fifth anniversary coming up?

A: We are coming up on it June 8, and I’ve really got to do something this year because we never did a soft opening. We never did a grand opening. We made it five years. Statistically, in the restaurant industry, if you make it five years, you’re good.

Q: How would you describe the past year as a business owner?

A: Oh, it was scary. It was kind of like you’re in an earthquake, and you don’t know which direction to run to. But little by little, we were able to get everything in order to try to function as much as we possibly could, especially during the shutdown.

A lot of brainstorming, a lot of running around trying to figure out what to do to bring in income. One thing I didn’t want to do was lay off our employees. We tried to do whatever we could to keep the doors open.

We set up a table outside and worked that way. We weren’t allowed any dining room service. We did takeout as normal, but we did carryout service. Then we did our own delivery. We did a lot of catering, business catering, individually packed lunches, to keep the business going. And instead of sourcing out delivery, we let our own staff deliver to make sure they were getting an income.

It was definitely challenging. We went from a restaurant that was full-service to all of a sudden we’re like, ‘What are we doing? How do we drum up more business? How do we do this carefully and safely and for people to be able to trust us?’

Q: What was it like growing up in the restaurant business?

A: The restaurant business is very challenging, but because I grew up in it, it comes a little bit easier to me. I’ve been in it since I was 13 years old. But never through a pandemic, I’ll tell you that.

We moved to Central Texas in 2000 from Greece, and then my parents opened a restaurant, Yianni’s, in 2002 in West. We had that all the way up to 2007. Then they took over 1424 [Bistro]. I actually didn’t work there for a little while. I worked in the banking industry.

Q: Why did you go into banking?

A: I was young, and I wanted something different. I loved it, but eventually, I wanted to excel, and I was not seeing myself growing within the company.

I really missed talking to people face to face and serving them. That’s what kind of feeds our soul, making sure we have a good product that people enjoy. And that’s what keeps our doors open and keeps us going every day.

After I left the banking industry, for about four years afterwards, I went to work at 1424 and then went to culinary school, too.

Q: What brought your family to Waco?

A: My mom is actually American. Originally, she’s from Odessa, but she moved here to Waco. She went to Abilene Christian University. My dad, at the time, was going to Abilene Christian University, pre-med.

He ended up marrying my mom, went back to Greece to get married. Well, they ended up staying, and they went into the butcher business. They ended up having two butcher shops/minimarkets.

Finally, he told my mom, ‘Hey, let’s move. Let’s go to the U.S. [The children] can get a better education there.’ They up and moved here and bought a little piece of land out in West and put a building on it. Little by little, he fixed up the building and made it a restaurant.

They really instilled in [my siblings and me] that if we wanted anything good in life, we had to work. Whether it was trying to build the restaurant out in West or laying tiles as a side job or doing all kinds of odd jobs to just make that extra income. Watching them come from having a business in Greece and then, coming here and having nothing, in their late 40s, it’s pretty inspirational to watch that and see them grow.

The Entertainer

Beth Richards
Founding Director, Brazos Theatre of Waco

Q: When did you found the Brazos Theatre of Waco?

A: Leah Stewart [owner of The Olive Branch] reached out and was the one who gave me that chance to get started and the place to perform our very first show. Things went so well, we outgrew her place immediately. At the end of that year, we ended up being part of what was The CAST [The Creative Arts Studio & Theater].

[The theater group] started in the spring of 2013, and then December of 2013, two other people and I got together and decided, ‘Let’s open an art gallery downtown, and then it could also be a home for the theater.’ That lasted about two years. I think we were maybe about a year, year and a half too early for downtown. We ended up closing the art gallery, which meant, of course, the theater had to find a new place.

A reporter from one of the local TV stations called me and asked if I’d be willing to go on camera to talk about it. The next day, my phone rang, and it was the lady who was managing [Bosque Square Shopping Center]. She said, ‘I saw the feature on your theater company. I think I have just the place for you.’ She gave us an incredible deal for the first six months to help us get started. We’ve been here ever since. Since the beginning of 2016.

Q: How are things going?

A: To be absolutely honest, not great. When you’re in a business that requires lots of people to get together, face to face, it’s been an ultra-challenging year.

We just need people to know that we’re here. Even after seven, eight years, there’s still so many people that don’t know we exist. We have such a top-notch improv team. We have amazing actors. People may not know we’re here and that they can come enjoy our shows and help support us.

Q: What was your original plan for 2020?

A: The plan was to expand our regular dinner theater options. We do murder mystery dinner theaters on the regular. We have a dedicated improv comedy team. Then we do specialty shows here and there. We can do private shows for birthday parties and corporate events. We also do a melodrama every year.

We were going to expand more in the way of comedy plays with dinner. We’ve done about one a year since we started, but we were going to do two, maybe three a year.

Every event is a learning process, and by February of last year, we were all kind of feeling, ‘You know what, I think we’ve got this.’ Just when we were starting to feel that way, COVID hit. We were completely shut down. Unfortunately, the bills didn’t stop. We had a lot of very generous patrons that kept us going. But people get donation weary after a little while. Everybody was needing help. We weren’t anything special when it came to that.

Q: When did you reopen?

A: We did open up late [in 2020]. Our improv comedy show is the only thing we’re doing right now because it’s the only thing we feel like we can do safely. We’re doing shows on the first Saturday of every month. We’re keeping a cast of two to four sitting on the stage, but no more than three in a scene. Instead of 80-100 people in [the audience], now we have 30. It’s been working out OK, but it’s definitely not bringing in the income needed to keep the place running. But we’re still here. I find hope in that.

Q: What are you doing in your role at KWBU?

A: I just started in January. I had been out of radio since COVID hit. I was working at another station, and I’d only been there for eight months. The last job I was at for 15 years. So COVID hit, and the financial situation changed. Last in, first out kind of thing. I thought, ‘You know, it’s OK. I can just concentrate on trying to keep the theater afloat.’ Then toward the end of last year, a friend of mine that is the station manager [at KWBU], Brodie Bashaw, mentioned, ‘Hey, do you know anybody interested in a part-time job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I actually do.’ It worked out perfectly. I work four to five hours a day, and I have the rest of the day to concentrate on the theater. I do operations, so I’m producing, I’m editing, doing whatever needs to be done around the station. And I fill in for the morning show host whenever she’s out of town. The fun thing is Dustin [Drew of ‘Dustin & Beth in the Morning’] is working at KWBU as a reporter, so it all came full circle.

Q: Which came first for you, radio or theater?

A: I auditioned for the musical my freshman year in high school. They were doing ‘The Sound of Music.’ I auditioned for this musical that had 15,000 nuns in it, and I did not make it. I was devastated.

Then because of scheduling, I needed an elective, and drama was during the time I needed to fill. Getting into drama class was probably what I should have done from the beginning. The next time I auditioned, I made it. It was ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ and I played Ursula Merkle. And that was it. I was bit by the bug.

Improv is also something I started doing in high school. Did a little improv in college, and then it kind of went to the wayside for a while. Just did basic acting, singing. Then I moved, when I met my husband. He’s from the Netherlands. We started going to this improv theater in Amsterdam, and we ended up taking their improv classes.

Q: How did you meet your husband?

A: We actually met online in 1997. We were on one of those primitive chat programs called IRC, Internet Relay Chat. We started chatting a little bit. Then we started talking on the phone and sending emails. He came to visit and spent about two weeks here. About a month and a half later, I quit my job, packed everything up, moved to the Netherlands. We were there seven years.

We have three kids. They’re mine, but they’re his, too. They’re all grown [now]. And at the very end of ’04, our youngest had finished school, and she wanted to come back to the U.S. He’d always been very interested in the U.S, the way of life and all that. And that’s when the job at Star 92.9 opened up.

Q: How did you originally get into radio?

A: I lived in Temple most of my teen years and into college, and I was very involved at the Temple Civic Theatre. One of the ladies working backstage was a copywriter for a group of radio stations. She said, ‘Why don’t you come in one weekend and record a few things? Maybe I could use you on some commercials. We’re always looking for different voices.’

I recorded a few mock commercials so she could hear how I would sound on tape. She gave the tape to the program director, and the program director asked if I’d be interested in working part time. It just fell into my lap. It was a great part-time job while I was [at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor], studying vocal performance and theater. It was great, and then it ended up being my full-time job, for forever.

Q: What did you love most about doing ‘Dustin & Beth in the Morning’?

A: The camaraderie Dustin and I have together. We’re like brother and sister. We can get on each other’s nerves, but we love each other to death. We mesh so well. He could start saying something and he could look at me, and I’d know exactly what I needed to do and vice versa. And the fact you get to meet so many different people in so many different walks of life.

Q: Who have been some of your favorite people to meet over the years?

A: We got to interview one of the Iron Chefs from Food Network, Michael Symon, and that was super cool. One of the most fun things we did was every week we would highlight [The Humane Society of Central Texas].

Just being involved in so many events for good causes, whether we were emceeing or doing live broadcasts or helping promote, it was nice to be in a position where you could actually make a difference.

The Advocate

Kelly Atkinson
Executive Director, The Cove

Q: What is a typical day like at The Cove?

A: A lot of our youth have experienced trauma, and having a combination of a nurturing environment and a structured environment is what they need to feel secure. They need a lot of do-overs, a lot of grace, a lot of love, even when they’re presenting with behaviors that are offensive. But they also need structure. The structure-nurture balance helps youth progress and move out of that fight, flight or freeze.

Our daily schedule [posted on the dining room wall] is what youth can expect every day. There’s chill time. We have community partners come in and talk about anything from dating violence to character to how to do a budget. We have a workout or a public health spotlight, like, ‘Here’s how to wear a condom.’ Productive time is, ‘Hey, let’s make some progress on your school goals.’

Then, we’re not an overnight facility, so we take youth to where they’re staying for the night. If they don’t have a place to go, then we have multiple crisis housing options now. [Heart of Texas MHMR’s] The Klaras Center for Families has a youth crisis respite house, and our youth can stay there up to 21 nights. We’ve also been putting a lot of youth, like 17-year-old youth, in hotels because there’s just no other place. We don’t ever drop kids off on the street. Thankfully, we have built out our system in our community to where there are more crisis housing options. When I first started, the only option was to take youth to the Family Abuse Center or My Brother’s Keeper. Both are adult shelters and scary places for teens. We were grateful there was something, but it wasn’t great.

Q: What are some of the services teens can take advantage of?

A: Even though all teens now have a laptop from the district, a lot of times our youth don’t have reliable Wi-Fi, or it’s just a crazy environment where they are. They come here, get schoolwork done, apply for a job, complete their taxes or whatever.

We have a washer and dryer. [We supply] feminine hygiene products, shampoo, Chapstick, deodorant, toothpaste. A lot of times our youth are bouncing around — granny’s, auntie’s, boyfriend’s coach. Maybe mom has a dangerous boyfriend, or they break up with their boyfriend, and they can’t stay there anymore. Since they’re not 18, they can’t get housing on their own. When they’re bouncing from place to place, they leave stuff behind.

Our restrooms, one has a shower. A lot of times, having a safe place to take a shower is just one of those things you don’t think about until you don’t have it. We have teens who just come here to get clean.

At 6 p.m., they have a hot meal together. We partner with Campus Kitchens at Baylor, Antioch’s Community Feast, Judi Neville’s book club groups, Revival Eastside Eatery, La Fiesta. Just amazing community support.

The community space, teens will come in, most of them have a favorite spot, and they’ll just hang out.

Q: What are some of the goals for The Cove’s future?

A: We do have our strategic plan. Our first goal is to clarify The Cove’s impact in young people’s lives and in the Heart of Texas region. Our second is to build key partnerships to support and extend our mission. The third is to broaden the community’s engagement with addressing youth homelessness and invest in our capacity to lead community change. It feels right for us to focus on high school age youth. As a community each [organization] has been able to focus on our strengths and go deeper with those strengths.

Research shows the earlier you can identify a youth experiencing homelessness, the less likely it is they’ll experience homelessness as an adult. Early identification, social support and then helping them know they’re not alone. We can help them access housing, we can help them graduate, and we can help connect them to workforce training and think about a different path in their future. If you think of [it] as the emergency room, we’re the triage unit. The first place a youth can come. They can start to recognize someone cares about them, start to talk about what’s going on, and they can get connected to resources.

Q: What is the estimated number for homeless teens in the Waco area?

A: Typically, if you look at any given school district and the number of youth eligible for free and reduced lunch, you take 10% of that number. The last kind of normal year we had was [2018-2019]. That year, there were 335 teenagers identified by the school district. There may be kids that have already dropped out. Kids who are not working and not in school. That number is even greater, and I think it’s going to be greater due to COVID.

Q: How many teens come through every day?

A: We’ve been having about 10 to 12 kids per day, and that’s up from last year. Everybody had to shut down this time last year, and then in the summer, it was hard to find a lot of the youth we had been serving in the spring.

But we’ve rebuilt our partnership with Waco ISD. We have a new partnership with La Vega ISD. We’re doing a lot more outreach to help find these youth and make sure they can get here. We’ve served 36 youth this semester. Before, we were serving 70 to 80.

Q: How do you find the youth that need your support?

A: By federal law, school districts have to have someone on staff whose job is to identify homeless youth. But in the past, there wasn’t one place where a student could come to be helped in all the different ways they needed. That’s why The Cove was opened in 2016. Cheryl Pooler, our founder, was the homeless liaison for Waco ISD. She realized this isn’t just ones and twos or dozens of teenagers; this is hundreds of teenagers.

The federal grant our community got is called the [Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program]. We got $2.2 million from [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and they basically said, ‘Here’s a bucket of money. We want your community to work across systems to try to eradicate youth homelessness.’ So, school systems, mental health care, housing, food, social supports, therapies. That was a big task, and it was exciting because we were one of only 23 communities to get that grant.

Q: When did you join The Cove?

A: March 2018. One of the things that was really neat about The Cove’s board, when I first was approached about this position, I said I really don’t want to start working full time. I have three kids. My oldest is 13, my middle is 10, and my youngest is 7. I still had a 4-year-old [at the time], and they said, we would be open to you working part time.

I found a partner in Kayleigh Cunningham, our assistant director, who also was investing in her kids. In the beginning, we had kind of a job share. It was challenging, but with a lot of communication, we worked hard to figure out some way that would work for us personally and professionally to contribute.

When we were recognized by TFNB as Charity Champions in fall 2018, that really changed our trajectory as an organization. Their whole mission is to get nonprofits in the spotlight. The work has just grown over the years. Also, this federal grant has been really important to building out our strategy and hiring excellent folks to expand our hours and mission. We went from six to 11 team members in one swoop. They just need me to be here.

Q: What is your why?

A: As a person of faith, when I look at how Christ lived in the world, he was always looking for ways to show love and to draw people into experiencing love and safety and acceptance and connection. Most of our youth have not experienced that throughout their life. That’s definitely a motivator for me and for our team, to build a space where teens know they can come and be loved.