The arrival of Valentine’s Day makes most of us think about what we can do to show others how much we care. For some big-hearted folks in Keller, however, Feb. 14 is just another day of showing love to those in need because it’s their way of life. Here’s an introduction to the local residents behind several inspirational nonprofits that make the community a better place — in large and small ways — on a daily basis.
Passion from Pain
Sometimes, a helping hand starts with something as simple as a blanket.
That’s where it began 10 years ago for Cyndi Bunch, as she tucked her 7-year-old son, Phillip, into bed one cold winter’s night. They’d been driving the streets of Fort Worth that day, looking for the boy’s father, Phillip Sr., whose battle with severe mental illness drove him to leave home and live on the streets.
Young Phillip asked if his daddy and other homeless people were warm, and Bunch admitted that they probably were not.
It became a growing concern for the child, and it prompted Bunch to launch a nonprofit called Phillip’s Wish and a drive to collect blankets to distribute to the homeless.
That first year, they handed out 200 blankets. Four years later, the collection and distribution figure was 20,000, with donations expanding to include gloves, hats and other cold-weather gear. By this past December, just a few days before Christmas, about 600 homeless people gathered on a street corner on East Lancaster in Fort Worth where more than 200 volunteers with Phillip’s Wish and other charities handed out hundreds of blankets and winter apparel. Recipients also benefited from a warm meal that included pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, desserts and snacks.
“This is my passion and my purpose,” Bunch says. “You find your passion through your pain. I wouldn’t have ever thought to help on my own. It took my son to wake me up.”
Bunch’s vision for helping the homeless continues to expand. Phillip’s Wish is partnering with several other charities that assist the homeless at the Transfer Center on East Lancaster and working toward a goal of helping to get more people off the streets and into housing.
A movie based on Phillip’s Wish, titled 5,000 Blankets, is in preproduction with Jorva Productions; it has a distribution agreement from Affirm Films, the faith-based division of Sony that distributed War Room and Fireproof. Bunch says it is expected to hit theaters next Christmas.
You find your passion through your pain. I wouldn’t have ever thought to help on my own. It took my son to wake me up.
Cyndi Bunch, founder of Phillip’s Wish
Phillip, now 19, remains active with the charity and was one of the featured speakers at the group’s Dec. 19 kickoff event in Southlake.
“Phillip’s Wish, I think personally, is a bigger thing than anyone can imagine,” Phillip says. “When you hand a person a blanket, it’s not just keeping them warm. It’s hope.”
More information: http://phillipswish.com.
Chuck Inman remembers the moment Summer Santa stole his heart.
Three years ago, as a new volunteer with the charity that helps children in need, he was distributing backpacks loaded with school supplies and books at a back-to-school event. A young girl who looked to be about 8 years old asked for a copy of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Volunteers suggested something more age-appropriate, but she was insistent. When they handed her the book, she opened it and began reading aloud, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Focusing on children ages 7-14 in Northeast Tarrant County, Summer Santa gives more than 90 cents of each dollar to kids, with current figures noting fundraising of more than $1 million benefiting almost 43,000 children in 19 years.
It was a poignant reminder, Inman says, that Summer Santa brings some of the best of times to kids experiencing some of their worst. Since then, he’s seen many examples of this: Children who arrive at a battered women’s shelter with all they have in a paper bag, given shopping sprees for new school clothes; a teen traumatized by the death of her mother who gets the fee paid for the first-in-a-lifetime adventure of an equestrian camp; youngsters who can’t afford to play soccer who receive free physicals and scholarships that pay the registration costs.
“I was struck by the spirit of some of these underprivileged kids and the amazing resilience they had,” Inman says.
Summer Santa was founded in 1997 by local newspaper columnist Dave Lieber and Brad Bradley, a municipal court judge. With a goal of helping children at times other than the holiday season, the focus is on kids ages 7-14 in Northeast Tarrant County. The all-volunteer organization gives more than 90 cents of each dollar to kids, with current figures saying it has raised more than $1 million to benefit almost 43,000 children in 19 years.
Every August, about 150 kids with few resources get to shop for school clothes at Kohl’s in Keller, courtesy of Summer Santa’s back-to-school event. Meanwhile, Cyn Choate, chairwoman of the board of directors, says the group also funds kids’ camp experiences, providing children with unique experiences like riding horses, learning archery and campfire fun.
Summer Santa gets many referrals from Keller school counselors who recommend students in dire need and those who have gone through recent trauma. And, at the beginning of summer, true to its name, the group donates new toys and books to a number of shelters that house local children. Those donations are made at other times of the year, too, as needs arise.
Along with having a positive impact on kids in need, the charity tries to train area teens in what Summer Santa organizers call “the art of philanthropy.”
More information: https://summer
Creating Safe Havens
Sunshine Spaces originated from a mom’s desire to teach her children how to help others.
“It’s so difficult to teach kids to give back, and it’s so important to raise kind children,” says Erica Jones.
About two years ago, she began seeking a volunteer activity that everybody in her blended family with five kids (ages 4 to 14) could help with, and she wanted something that would “hit home.” Raising money seemed too abstract for the younger children, she says, and when she thought of people in difficult circumstances, her mind often went to families that are faced with the emotional and financial challenges of a child’s chronic disease or terminal illness.
The result? Sunshine Spaces, a charity that brings dream-room makeovers to children battling illness — and help for their families.
Since 2014, the charity has worked its magic on six family homes. There was Emme, an 8-year-old with Down Syndrome and leukemia, who got a Dr. Seuss-themed bedroom; and Logan, an 8-year-old battling Ewing’s Sarcoma, who got a Lego room complete with a reading loft. (Logan’s brother also got a makeover — a room filled with Rangers baseball memorabilia.) For Becca, a 4-year-old with leukemia, Sunshine Spaces fulfilled a request for “a gator swamp room,” while Becca’s sister, Emilie, got a Frozen ice castle room.
The most recent project benefited Kieran, an almost 4-year-old with a rare genetic disorder that severely limits his mobility and mental development. In December, the Sunshine Spaces team renovated bedrooms and bathrooms in the family home, built a deck and made everything wheelchair-accessible. Since the kids get to choose their own themes for their rooms, Kieran chose an aviation bedroom — complete with clouds and fiber-optic stars on the ceiling.
“We create places where they can be a kid again,” Jones says.
Noting that families in crisis don’t have the time or energy to do the makeovers themselves, she says they benefit greatly when the improvements are made by others. The children often are homebound, unable to attend school or go to friends’ homes. Jones and her husband, Josh Jones, pay attention to the details that make life run more easily, like storage spaces for medical equipment or a well-placed hook for an IV bag. And all five of their children actively participate, because even a 4-year-old can paint a bookcase (with help) or put away toys.
The Keller business community has embraced Sunshine Spaces’ efforts, with local companies providing materials and labor for flooring, plumbing fixtures and more. Several area restaurants have donated meals for those times when dozens of volunteers descend on a home for several days to implement a transformation.
The couple’s oldest son, 16-year-old Joshua, says that he’s learned a lot from the family’s volunteer efforts.
“With Mom coming up with Sunshine Spaces, I’ve learned it’s always important to give back to something that is much bigger than you,” he says. “I think I’ll always carry that with me.”
More information: http://sunshinespaces.org.
The Starla Center
A newer charity, the Starla Center is the creation of Stella Gola, who moved to the community from the East Coast after spending the better part of 2 1/2 decades working with developmentally challenged teens and adults. Committed to the belief that people with developmental disabilities can be great assets in their communities, she founded the Starla Center in 2013.
The purpose, she says, is to give teens and young adults with special needs the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to make better lives for themselves and for those around them — with volunteerism playing a key role in this goal. Some clients go to the Humane Society of North Texas and help care for animals several times a week, others help out at the Keller Public Library.
“Our focus is driven by the gifts and needs of the individuals we serve,” Gola says. “... Most individuals here have had the opportunity to learn in buildings. They need to experience life where it happens. Most everything we do is through hands-on learning.”
Encouraging independence, the Starla Center strives to help its clients understand their membership in the community, learn how to stay safe and manage money. The center offers programs during the day for adults and after school for teens. While some clients learn how to transition from school to the workforce, others gain more basic skills, like how to clean or prepare simple foods.
Many of the lessons are practical — knowing how to use a cellphone to find a friend or family member and planning and preparing simple meals. A number of Gola’s clients have received assistance in landing jobs.One vivacious young woman works at a local Starbucks, cleaning tables and visiting with customers. Another offers pet-grooming services to individuals and area veterinary clinics. One man had help getting a position at Sprouts.
Sometimes the vocational help stretches to on-the-job guidance with a coach who works alongside a client to help him or her learn needed skills. Gola also covers workplace social skills, like talking to a boss about areas for improvement or requesting time off.
Jennifer Whitehead says the Starla Center has provided a much-needed service for her son, Weston, who turns 15 in March. Most daycare programs don’t take children older than 13, she notes, but the Starla Center gives Weston a place to go every day after school for a few hours. He can engage in activities, make crafts, play at the park or exercise at The Keller Pointe, she says. He’s also volunteered with the group at the Humane Society and learned to wash dishes, vacuum and do some cooking.
“These are good skills for him to learn for life,” Whitehead says. “It’s comforting to know he’s got a place to go.”
Currently, the Starla Center serves close to 50 clients in its small, commercial storefront on Keller Parkway. In 2016, Gola hopes to raise enough funds to move the nonprofit to a larger, permanent location.
More information: http://starlacenter.org.