Fort Worth

In this neighborhood, how fatherless young men find a ‘ray of sunshine’ at Hope Farm

At 13, Joseph Holmes has time to weigh all of life’s opportunities.

Someday, he might be a lawyer defending first time offenders. He likes playing baseball — perhaps, there is a future in that, he mused. He’s certain he wants to attend TCU (his purple Horned Frog hoodie and sneakers are proof).

Joseph is one of the dozens of young men participating in Hope Farm, a Fort Worth nonprofit that has worked for several decades to break cycles of poverty and crime by cultivating the academic, social, emotional and spiritual needs of growing boys living in neighborhoods south of downtown and east of Interstate 35.

“The focus for Hope Farm is to turn fatherless boys into Christ-centered leaders,” said Sacher Dawson, executive director of Hope Farm.

Hope Farm is tucked in the 76104 ZIP code, which made headlines earlier this year when a UT Southwestern study listed the area as having one of the shortest life expectancy in Texas at 66.7 years. That age is far lower than the state’s 78.5 year average, according to the study.

The five-mile radius near Hope Farm includes the Morningside and Hillside Community neighborhoods. While there are pockets of redevelopment nearby, some worry there are too many abandoned buildings and adults who loiter too close to where children live and play.

In this setting, Hope Farm leaders want to give young men opportunity and they are playing a long game. The program is rooted in the idea that by feeding the needs of fatherless boys struggling communities can chip away at larger social hurdles. Last year, Hope Farm opened a facility in the Fort Worth’s Como neighborhood. Plans are underway to open a center in Dallas next year.

“Hope Farm is a ray of sunshine,” said LouVenia Holmes, Joseph’s mother.

Young men in grades kindergarten through grade five, or 5 to 10 year olds, arrive at 865 E. Ramsey Ave. to become “strong men of character,” Dawson said.

On weekdays, Joseph goes to Hope Farm, where he does homework, studies Biblical scriptures and plays basketball. He sees the changes in himself.

“I’ve learned I can bring myself out more and learn more about myself,” said Joseph, explaining that he used to be shy.

Turning hope into change

Hope Farm opened in August 1997 in an abandoned crack house with help from the Sid Richardson Foundation. The word Hope is an acronym for Helping Other People Excel. The word Farm alludes to the cultivation of young minds.

It was founded by Gary Randle and Noble Crawford, retired law enforcement officers who followed a calling in 1990 to help minority children who were being incarcerated and victims of crime.

“We wanted to do something about it, but we weren’t sure what to do about it,” said Crawford, explaining that originally they were thinking of offering a place where the students could live, but ended up with an after-school format.

“We wanted to do something about curbing — stemming the tides of these young guys getting locked up, not going to college. Once they get into the system, their lives are basically gone,” Crawford said. “We wanted to do something about stemming that tide and turning it around in the other direction. That’s how Hope Farm was born.”

The facility grew into a campus that today spread across several blocks on Ramsey Avenue. It has the original building, an administrative office, a garden, basketball court and Family Life Center.

The life center is largely a gym with classrooms used by 45 to 65 boys. The students are shuttled from their schools to the facility by Hope Farm, which builds connections with the nearby public schools.

Many Hope Farm participants attend classes at nearby public schools, including Morningside, Briscoe, Van Zandt-Guinn and De Zavala elementary schools. Some attend private schools that work with Hope Farm, such as Christian Life Preparatory School in Fort Worth.

Every participant at Hope Farm carries an accountability folder to school, which allows educators and Hope Farm representatives to gauge school work.

Jachin Floyd, 13, said if he wasn’t participating in the program, he would likely spend after school hours playing video games. Instead, he is making friends, working on his academics and learning about good sportsmanship.

“We always help each other out when we have questions,” Jachin said.

A focus on fatherless boys

The only eligibility requirement to enter program — that there’s no father in the home.

Many Hope Farm participants are being raised by single mothers or grandparents. Some boys’ dads went to prison. Some died. Others’ dads left their families a long time ago and never returned.

“They are looking for that father figure, they are looking for that family dynamic,” Dawson said.

Dawson said they have a multi-pronged approach to changing the lives of fatherless boys — read, feed, parent and empower.

“We are interested in the holistic family — the mind, spirit and body,” Dawson said. “That’s why we include the moms. If you just pour into the boys, then when they go home the message gets lost.”

Programs offered follow the young men from elementary school to high school through graduation.

“It is so much easier to prepare the kid than to repair,” Dawson said. “We try to bring them in at a younger age and mold them and as they become older, hopefully they will help mentor some of the younger kids.”

The program brings structure that includes reading, Bible study and activities that allow them to bond with students.

At about 5:30 p.m., the basketball court turns into a dinning hall where students get a home-style dinner.

“They help set the table,” Dawson said. “They help teach table etiquette.”

Hope Farm also includes a Mother’s Resource Program and last spring expanded its reach by adding a campus in the Como neighborhood. The latter campus has between five to 10 boys with plans to grow, Dawson said.

Not having an involved father can lead to serious hurdles in life for children, Dawson said, pointing to issues such as suicide, crime and high school completion.

Gang recruitment has long been an issue. Hope Farm’s work is helping communities emerge from the grasp of criminal elements, said Tegan Broadwater, a retired Fort Worth police who infiltrated the Crips in an undercover crackdown in near Hope Farm.

Not too far from Hope Farm is an area known as the Fish Bowl. It is bordered by the western edge of Cobb Park and bounded by Calvin Street, Belzise Terrace, Glen Garden Drive and South Riverside Drive. It was the center of a 15-month undercover investigation known as Operation Fish Bowl.

That high-profile case ended with 41 federal convictions and 10 state convictions, the seizure of 25 guns and $1 million dollars in drugs. The drug bust and subsequent court cases spanned from 2006 through 2008.

Broadwater said the case removed a serious gang element from the neighborhoods, but also affected families.

“There were 104 kids left without at least one parent,” said Broadwater, who wrote a book about the case called “Life in the Fish Bowl: The true story of how a white cop infiltrated and took down 41 of the nation’s most notorious CRIPs.”

Broadwater has donated the proceeds of the book to Hope Farm.

Broadwater said law enforcement is one part of building safer neighborhoods. He said there needs to be counseling, education and empowerment pieces aimed at helping break cycles of crime.

“Even if it is a faucet drip, it is a drip nonetheless,” Broadwater said.

‘The circle of life’

Felix Stiggers started in program at age 5.

He continued through high school graduation in 2009 from Arlington Heights High School. He left to get a degree in social work at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas. Today, the 28-year-old is a program director at Hope Farm.

“He came back and he is working for us. He is a key employee,” Dawson said. “We call that the circle of life.”

Stiggers makes sure the program is working — from Bible study to hot meals to the literacy lab.

In the faces of Hope Farm participants, Stiggers often sees himself. He said he knows the challenges children experience in the 76104 neighborhoods even if there has been positive changes in recent years.

“The neighborhood that I grew up in is different from the neighborhood of today,” Stiggers said. “There were crackheads on the street.”

Once someone pulled a gun on Stiggers and his friends from Morningside Middle School while they walked to Hope Farm, he said. That incident helped start a shuttling program of students, he said.

Growing up in this setting, Stiggers just thought that’s the neighborhood.

“You just think that is life,” he said.

Stiggers said it scares him to think where his life might have taken him without Hope Farm. At 5, he got in trouble for bringing a knife to school. He said he experienced a lot of anger and watched too much television. Hope Farm leaders helped him channel that into positive passion.

“If I could have my way, every fatherless boy would be in this program,” he said.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.