The Keller Magazine

A Keller photographer’s mentoring program changes lives — step by step

Christina Bynum-Breaux of Stepping Stones led the charge to rebuild and refurnish the destroyed home of a local mom, Michelle Marin, who had fallen on hard times. Many businesses, large and small, contributed funds and labor to the ambitious “home makeover” project and helped welcome Michelle and her family to their much-better-than-before residence in early March, 2015.
Christina Bynum-Breaux of Stepping Stones led the charge to rebuild and refurnish the destroyed home of a local mom, Michelle Marin, who had fallen on hard times. Many businesses, large and small, contributed funds and labor to the ambitious “home makeover” project and helped welcome Michelle and her family to their much-better-than-before residence in early March, 2015. Star-Telegram

Some folks happen upon their life’s work in a roundabout way. They start down what initially seems a predictable path that — step by step — leads to something much bigger than imagined. That’s what happened to Christina Bynum-Breaux.

A Keller photographer and mom, she says her journey toward a redefined life purpose began 15 years ago. The year was 2000 and, like many of her peers, she just wanted to help out at her daughter’s school. Approaching the staff at Keller Middle School and inquiring about what she might do, her casual conversations led her to an idea about taking portraits of at-risk children. She took black-and-white head shots of kids, noting that some of them were excited about it, and others, reserved.

She recalls looking at those faces, seeing the uncertain smiles, worry lines and wistful expressions. And she knew she had to do more.

With a counselor’s permission, she started making weekly visits to the school and pulling a group of students out of class to talk. The stories they told broke her heart. A mother on drugs. A father who committed suicide. Another mother in jail.

Bynum-Breaux began inviting these children into her north Keller-area home. Some would stay for a night, others for a weekend. Every once in a while, one would stay for weeks — camped out on the sofa or a makeshift bed in the dining room. Some lacked adequate food and clothing. Others had been kicked out of the house and had nowhere to stay. All of them needed a good listener, a warm hug and a strong dose of hope.

“I’d do all the things for them that I do for my own five,” Bynum-Breaux says.

Step by step, she says, many of these kids broke the cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse that had defined their young lives. Bynum-Breaux enjoys bragging about the many successes of kids she has taken under her wing: one served as a sergeant in Iraq, several have graduated from college, others started careers and families.

The magic of mentoring

Khamp Odenwalt was a seventh-grader in Bynum-Breaux’s original group at Keller Middle School. Now 27 and living in Hurst, Odenwalt has two children of her own, works as a pharmacy technician and is developing her own marketing business. When she first met Bynum-Breaux, Odenwalt says she had trouble fitting in at school and struggled with a number of issues outside of it. When she was a sophomore in high school, her family moved from Keller to Fort Worth, but she says Bynum-Breaux made a point of meeting with her on weekends — or anytime she needed someone to talk to.

“I had very low self-esteem,” she says. “Christina helped me see how great life was and that there is always someone there to help, if you’ll let them....I honestly think I wouldn’t be here without her.”

The successes of individuals like Odenwalt prompted Bynum-Breaux to give her mentoring program a more official status in 2009. She established a nonprofit she called Stepping Stones Foundation and set about the task of recruiting other mentors and helping more at-risk students and their families. In Odenwalt’s spare time, she volunteers with Stepping Stones, assisting Bynum-Breaux with her efforts to bring hope to other young people in dark places.

Beyond the mentoring, Stepping Stones handles a slew of other needs — from helping a teen get a drivers license to providing food or clothing to students and families. Last year, the charity opened Stepping Stones Boutique at 419 N. Main St., selling new and gently used clothing and accessories for women and girls.

Meanwhile, Bynum-Breaux hosts a mentoring group in her home each week, with attendees numbering anywhere from two to 15 kids. Other Stepping Stones mentors meet one-on-one with students, taking them on fun outings or scheduling together time.

Theresa Wright and her daughter, Katie, became involved with Stepping Stones as part of the National Charity League of Southlake, a mother-daughter service organization. The duo serves as a mentoring team to a Keller girl — something Wright says her daughter thoroughly enjoys — and recently, they devoted many volunteer hours to a Stepping Stones home makeover for a family in need. Wright notes the importance of understanding “that there are people in need, even right in our back yard.”

Another key player with Stepping Stones is Kim Ackerman, who got involved with the charity about three years ago. She heard about the organization when she brought her daughter to Bynum-Breaux’s business, Simply Black and White Photography, to get her senior portraits made.

“I had to badger her to get her to let me help her,” Ackerman says, but now she assists Bynum-Breaux with school visits to find out what students need. She also helps at the boutique and with myriad other Stepping Stones projects.

More than a makeover

In focusing on improving the lives of children and teens in need, Stepping Stones Foundation often impacts the whole family.

Late last year, a school counselor asked Bynum-Breaux to help a 14-year-old girl who was depressed because her family was dealing with one crisis after another, and the family needed food. As Bynum-Breaux and Ackerman met with the girl — and later with her two brothers and mom, Michelle Marin, they realized that much more than a mentor and groceries were needed.

The Marin family’s home in far north Fort Worth had been heavily damaged by fire. A contractor had taken Michelle Marin’s money and had done a small portion of the repairs before disappearing — leaving the job unfinished and the home uninhabitable.

Bynum-Breaux’s indignation is palpable as she describes the situation: The home was sheetrocked with wires sticking out of the walls — basically a shell. The house had no electricity or water, and someone needed to finish the electrical work, the plumbing, the heating and air conditioning. And that was just for starters. There were other issues, too: the trim work, flooring, painting and lighting. The list was daunting.

Forced to use insurance money to stay in hotels, the Marin family was in crisis and funds dwindled. At one point, they were living out of the family car. At the same time, Michelle Marin was having some serious health problems. Bynum-Breaux reports that Stepping Stones had done a few small makeovers in mobile homes before — usually day-long projects — with help from college students. But this situation would require thousands of dollars, in the mid- to high-five figures, not just a few hundred dollars.

She started making some calls, eventually marshalling a massive community effort to rebuild and furnish the family’s home.

Ackerman says her friend has a knack for getting donations of all kinds, “because of her connections, she knows everybody in town,” and by the time she was done, more than 25 businesses had donated items and services to the cause. Berkey’s Air Conditioning & Plumbing in Southlake donated thousands in plumbing, HVAC equipment and labor; many others, large and small, contributed to flooring, installation, paint, furniture and miscellaneous needs. Volunteers from local churches, businesses and groups like the National Charity League of Southlake pitched in to help reconstruct the family home.

The Marin family had been out of their house for about a year and a half and had, in Marin’s words, lost hope.

“Stepping Stones Foundation brought hope back,” she says. “I don’t have words to express to them to thank them for bringing back our lives.”

Bringing hope back is a good description for what the charity does, Ackerman says, adding that it all starts with looking to the needs of children and teens, standing up for them and teaching them how to find a good path.

“We meet their needs, emotionally and physically,” Bynum-Breaux says. “We make sure they have the tools they need to succeed.”

How to help

Shop at Stepping Stones Boutique,

419 N. Main, Keller; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Find out about making a donation

or volunteering at www.steppingstones, email steppingstones

or follow them on Facebook.