Carlos: A Life is Changed
Carlos was in kindergarten. By all appearances, he was a quiet little boy with his whole future ahead of him. But given his actual situation, the statistics predicted that he was very likely to fall through the cracks and miss out on the educational and economic opportunities that our country can provide.
Growing up in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, where 80% of the students in the Irving Independent School District are economically disadvantaged, 70% are at-risk of dropping out prematurely, and nearly 40% have limited knowledge of and capability with English, the odds were decidedly not in Carlos’s favor. And because Carlos’s father was not really in the picture, his situation was even more tenuous.
But today, Carlos has very different odds. In large part because Carlos met Fred Cunha.
SchoolWorks: An Idea is Born
To understand the powerful dynamic between Carlos and Fred, you have to appreciate a critical transition that occurred in 2008. At that time, a visionary woman named Jan Fanning felt called to step out of her role as children’s pastor at Irving Bible Church. While she still felt called to care for children in her area, Jan sensed she could best provide that care through an organization operating outside the walls of her church. Seeing the challenges and needs of many children enrolled in the schools of the Irving ISD and feeling that God had plans for those children, Jan began an organization called SchoolWorks.
Jan recognized that two of the most critical factors in a student’s success are literacy and relational connectedness, so that is where she started. Initially, the focus of SchoolWorks was championing literacy in Irving-area schools through the in-school placement of Reading Buddies. Reading Buddies are volunteers who give up time each week to meet with an elementary student and read with them. The concept is simple – these volunteers, also called Half Hour Heroes, commit to reading with their student consistently each week, one-on-one, for 30 minutes. Through the avenue of stories and sight words, these volunteers build relationships with their students, meet emotional and social needs, and provide consistency in their lives. SchoolWorks partners with the school counselors, administrative staff, and individual teachers to determine which students can benefit from one-on-one time with a Reading Buddy or mentor during the week.
Carlos and Fred: A Relationship is Formed
In 2012, Fred Cunha was talking to a friend who was telling him about his experience as a Reading Buddy with SchoolWorks. At the time, the majority of volunteer buddies were women, and they were looking for more men to participate. His friend was reading at a school not far from Fred’s office, so Fred agreed to sign up as a volunteer.
SchoolWorks assigned Fred to a kindergartener named Carlos at Townsell Elementary School. And neither of their lives has been the same since.
Fred went to the school and read with Carlos for 30 minutes at a time, week after week after week. At first, these times were difficult for Fred because he wasn’t getting much feedback from Carlos. Carlos was a quiet kid, and Fred wondered if he even enjoyed those 30-minute lunch-time readings. But Fred was faithful and kept showing up for Carlos. After a while, Carlo’s teachers began encouraging Fred with feedback such as, “He lights up when you come in,” and “He gets so excited on reading days.”
About three years into Carlos’s and Fred’s friendship, Carlos’s family moved. So, Fred moved with him. Carlos was rezoned to a new school called Barton Elementary, where there was no SchoolWorks program in operation. Instead of ceasing their weekly hangouts, Fred went to the Barton administration and asked for permission to continue coming in to the school during lunch to read with Carlos.
Carlos and Fred: From Connection to Growing Commitment
Fred has mentored Carlos consistently since he met him in Kindergarten six years ago. He has also instigated a relationship with Carlo’s family, has included Carlos and his sister in family outings and meals, has attended graduations, and simply “shown up” for Carlos at different times.
Carlos is now in middle school, so Fred has also graduated to the Lunch Buddy program designed for Middle School students. Every week, you can find them having lunch together, reading Carlo’s current favorite book, or playing ongoing games of chess, where they take a picture of the game if they run out of time and continue where they left off the next week.
As the years have passed, Fred has continued to grow in his commitment to Carlos. One day while at school with Carlos, he saw a poster for Watch Dogs, a national program started in Washington D.C., in which fathers and father figures volunteer for a day at school. Fred had participated with his children and offered to do it with Carlos as well.
SchoolWorks: Humble Beginnings to a Bright, Expanding Future
This year marked the 10-year anniversary of the inception of SchoolWorks. Over that time it has grown in breadth and influence, but the core mission has not changed since Jan felt called to begin a new organization focused on caring for children attending school in the Irving ISD.
SchoolWorks is described now as a coalition of churches striving to make a lasting difference in the local community by their dedication to serve children, teachers, and families of local schools and meet their needs in real, practical ways.
As the years passed, relationships with the schools grew, the number of volunteers increased, and the kids grew up. Reading Buddies for elementary students expanded into a Lunch Buddies program for middle school students and Mentors program for high school students. What started as an elementary school reading program has grown into so much more. SchoolWorks is now in operation in three different school districts around Irving, and in nine schools total.
Jan Fanning is now the chair of the SchoolWorks scholarship program that has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money to students. These funds have helped kids who never dreamed of the possibility of college to pursue their goals of higher education. One of the most recent scholarship recipients was encouraged by her SchoolWorks mentor to apply. Upon receiving the award, she tearfully expressed that she never thought that college was even a remote option for her. Now, she will be able to pursue an education that has the potential to change the entire course of her future.
SchoolWorks also offers substantial teacher support that is greatly needed in Irving ISD. Most of the schools have limited resources and low parent involvement, and the average teacher only lasts five years in the district. SchoolWorks has sponsored book fairs, donated scholastic funds, granted wish lists, and hosted many other teacher appreciation events.
Carlos and Fred: People and Relationships Matter
What started as a casual invite from a friend to fulfill a need for more male volunteers has turned into an ongoing six-year relationship of mentorship, friendship, stability and life-long impact for both Carlos and Fred. It is impossible to know the ripple effects that this relationship will have in the lives of all of those touched in the future by Carlos and Fred, but it is safe to say that their lives and the lives of their families have been impacted irrevocably through this relationship.
At Enable our mission is “Changing Lives by Serving Those Who Serve.” It is an unspeakable privilege for us to have the opportunity to work with Irving Bible Church and the many other churches that have come together to support the work of organizations like SchoolWorks. As churches work hard to equip caring people such as Jan Fanning “to do the work of the ministry,” (Eph 4:12), individual lives and, by extension, the world, truly are changed.
Carlos: The Last Word
Recently, Fred received some feedback from Carlos that spoke volumes to Fred and assured him regarding the impact of the time he spent with Carlos. It was the kind of feedback that the shy, quiet Kindergarten version of Carlos was unable to give:
“Hey Mr. Cunha, will you be my reading buddy all the way through college?”