United Community Centers are coming back in style

07/01/2014 1:07 PM

07/01/2014 1:09 PM

It was a triumphant moment during a whirlwind shopping trip Wednesday at The Children’s Place at Hulen Mall, as five children from Bethlehem United Community Center selected outfits to wear during their star turns at the Styles and Smiles Fashion Show this month.

Aloni Perkins, age 7 1/2 by her count, strutted a store aisle in a new denim jacket and print sundress, her hair up in a sassy ponytail and her dimples deepening with each step.

Allen Pace, 11, tried on a fedora. “I like more happy-like, lighter clothes,” he said. “I like to be happy when I’m dancing.”

Johnathan Mcdowell-Carson, 10, also likes bright outfits “so everyone knows I’m there.”

“They’ve been asking me every week, ‘When are we going to do rehearsals?’ ’’ said Carolyn Yusuf, center director at Bethlehem. “They want to show off.”

Their chance will come at the Styles and Smiles show on July 29 at Arborlawn United Methodist Church.

“We get to go out onstage and show off our outfits,” explained Kennedy Lee, 8 1/2. “We get to wear makeup and practice.”

There is more substance to summertime at the UCCs than just styling.

“We have them from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day during the summer,” said Yusuf , who served as a UCC educational consultant before becoming a director. “We give them educational enrichment instead of being a typical day care center.”

United Community Centers is a nonprofit affiliated with the United Methodist Church and United Way of Tarrant County. Three community centers serve more than 14,000 people living in Fort Worth neighborhoods where more than 94 percent of households earn less than $23,000 for a family of four.

The centers’ three core programs are educational enrichment for ages 3 to 13; a program of homework assistance, substance abuse prevention and conflict resolution for high-school youth; and help with food, rent and clothing for families and seniors.

Rebuilding program

These are good days for the United Community Centers. A rebuilding program will have all three centers in new facilities by the end of 2015. Funding comes from a $4.5 million Housing and Urban Development Department grant from the city and $6.7 million from a just-completed capital campaign.

The Polytechnic Center at 3100 Ave. I opened in 2010, and Celia Esparza, UCC’s president and CEO, describes it as “incredible.”

Plans call for construction to begin Oct. 1 on Wesley, the oldest of the centers, currently at 3600 N. Crump St. The new 13,000-square-foot, $3 million building is scheduled for completion in June.

Bethlehem’s new center is being built at the corner of Evans and Humboldt by the city with HUD funding for the Evans Corridor project. The city will lease the 15,000-square-foot facility to the center for a 30-year term.

Completion is scheduled for spring.

“New centers will allow us to have more space for our literacy and educational programs,” said Esparza. “Also, it gives the community something to be proud of, whether it’s being used for meetings or for private functions.”

Styles and Smiles began eight years ago as a summer activity at the Bethlehem and Wesley centers, said show coordinator Holley Williams, a volunteer from Arborlawn United Methodist Church. The show is a fundraiser for United Methodist Women, the group that started United Community Centers in 1909.

The show was modest at first, with an audience of just 15, but it caught on. Last year’s show drew more than 250 paying guests.

Fifteen models are selected — five from each center. Center directors choose students based on their attendance at center classes and functions and their parents’ support and ability to transport them to the rehearsals.

Usually that’s not a problem.

“It’s a really big deal to their families,” Williams said.

The models get three new outfits on their shopping trip, with supervision and suggestions from their own adult “stylist,” a volunteer who will guide them through rehearsals and the show itself.

Sanaa Breedlove, 8, covered her mouth and stifled a giggle when her stylist suggested that she pick out something in a color other than pink.

Students have professional makeup and hair stylists for the show. A professional model comes in every year to help the children learn to walk the runway, pose and show off their personalities.

Self-esteem boost

The fashion show is more than just fun for the young participants.

“They have a lot more confidence and you can tell they feel really good about themselves,” Williams said. “And their parents are so proud. It’s something they will never forget.”

“It changes their lives in so many different ways, you can’t even put a value on it,” added Esparza. “They see that people are willing to give of themselves, for them.”

The show itself brings together people from southwest, east and north Fort Worth.

“It’s a great blend of communities — it’s fun, it’s loud,” said Williams. “People leave and say, ‘That was one of the most fun things I’ve ever attended.’ ”

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