Circle of Winners Betters Children's Chances
Nestled away in a modest Fort Worth, TX neighborhood is the Northside Inner Community Agency (NICA). In an office filled with books and collected materials from her 16+ years as executive director, sits Connie Nahoolewa.
Connie and her staff help area parents obtain essentials, like food, fellowship and household items. Her vision and passion now also extends NICA’s mission to children. It’s helping meet their educational needs and goals. She describes the work as strengthening the community through hand-ups, not handouts.
“It’s wonderful we have the food pantry (and emergency services). Our clients and I am grateful for that,” Connie explains.
“But what the parents really wanted was a program to better their children’s chances. They know education is key. They wanted help for their children - for them to be able to graduate from high school and have access to college,” Connie recalls.
Knowing the agency couldn’t pay for schooling, Connie and her team created Circle of Winners.
“We pay students to help after school and during the summer. Their earnings go into a bank account that can only be used for college,” Connie explains. “They make a little money, and also get help understanding and navigating college admissions. The premise is to help the kids so they can get better jobs and not have to ask for help like their parents.”
To earn money for college, older students help younger kids at NICA. They work with them on activities, games and crafts and outside sports; anything to encourage the young ones' desire to succeed.
Johuin Contreras is the Circle of Winners Education Coordinator. “I see how Circle of Winners students become role models. It enlightens the younger kids.”
The student-mentors and staff mirror Connie’s enthusiasm. Sierra McCarthy is a student from the University of Texas Arlington. She caught Connie’s contagious enthusiasm while working as a Circle of Winners intern and now helps lead the program.
Sierra says the kids are shy at first, but then open up. “We talk about college and they light up. I now see willingness and eagerness to go to college from high school, which is the program goal.”
The neighborhood around NICA boasts a dropout rate of almost 50%. However, 100% of students involved in Circle of Winners graduated high school. Other impressive statistics demonstrate college and trade school success. But perhaps most rewarding is when kids return to volunteer and giveback.
“They inspire me,” Fort Worth State Farm Agent and NICA Board Member Jerry Bristow says. “They’re so passionate about what they do.”
Cesar Garcia, 14, and Erica Gonzalez, 16, are two of NICA’s current success stories. Both are college hopefuls and have benefited from the learning and one-on-one assistance. They now give back by mentoring younger children.
“It’s those mountain top experiences you have in life,” Connie says. “When the young people come back and thank you, it just melts your heart.”