A Century of Service
“Celebrating a Century of Service, Building a Foundation for the Future” was the theme for the centennial salute to United Methodist Women-supported United Community Centers, Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas.
Since its founding in 1909 by the mission board of what is now First United Methodist Church in Forth Worth and the Methodist Woman’s Home Missionary Society, United Community Centers (UCC) has helped Fort Worth’s neediest residents.
In her capital campaign letter last year, Celia Esparza, UCC chief executive officer, said the communities served by UCC “need a place they can be proud of ... A place that makes them forget about their problems. UCC has given hope to people who have very little for nearly 100 years. Families come to us for help because they know they will not be judged and their needs will be met. I know this first hand. Because many members of my own family benefited from the services and volunteered at the original Wesley House.”
UCC empowers individuals, strengthens families and enriches communities at three neighborhood centers: Bethlehem United Community Center, Polytechnic United Community Center and Wesley United Community Center.
Sherri Dunn, director of programs, said UCC offers food, tutoring, emergency clothing, day care services, minor home repairs, Vacation Bible School and summer day camps to the community. UCC also holds a variety of workshops for the community, covering immigration, bullying awareness and prevention, and Texas benefit enrollment assistance. A grandparent/ kinship support group is also convened at UCC.
Susie Reyes, public relations officer, enjoys telling stories of dedicated persons who have made the centers what they are today.
Joseph Berry of JB & Company Dance Xtreme owns one of the best dance companies in Texas. People say he is an instructor par excellence, teaching young people dances from the African Diaspora.
Every year parents yearn to enroll their children in his academy. However, not every family can afford the luxury of a school for the arts.
“But if a child wants to dance, we’ll find a way for them to learn,” Mr. Berry said. He has donated his time and talent to UCC’s Bethlehem Center for years as a dance instructor, theater coach and choir director.
Mr. Berry is dedicated to Bethlehem Center because he grew up at the center. His mother, Mary Berry, a member of St. Andrew United Methodist Women in Fort Worth, is a regular volunteer. When former Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women president Myrtis Parker learned that the award-winning director was the son of one of her United Methodist Women members, she quickly requested his services at the agency.
“It is a blessing to work with the children at the Bethlehem Center because somebody helped me when I had no money,” Mr. Berry said. “Somebody said, ‘Come on and take a class.’ Someone took care of me.”
He has taught as many as 80-100 kids at one time at the center. The huge dance classes are not a problem. If the children are ready to learn, it’s fine with him.
Polytechnic Center is run by veteran United Methodist Women member Frances Martinez. She has served as a local unit and district officer in Rio Grande Conference. When her husband, the Rev. David Martinez, transferred to Central Texas Conference to be pastor of El Buen Samaritano United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, she continued following her call in mission service.
Karla Rodriguez, 21, Spanish language coordinator for Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women, appreciates the dedication of Ms. Martinez. Ms. Rodriguez is secretary for Mr. Martinez, and her siblings attend Polytechnic’s summer program.
“My sister has made a lot of friends, and my brother likes it a lot because they have entertainment there,” she said. “They have a variety of programs like going to movie theaters. But they also have to do things in the community like help with Meals on Wheels.
“It’s good to have fun, but it’s important to give back to the community.”
Janna Elliott started volunteering exclusively at UCC’s Wesley Center about 10 years ago until she became a UCC board member in 2004. The wife and mother is a member of First United Methodist Church in Keller, Texas. She was appointed to the board as president
of Mid Cities District United Methodist Women.
“Some of the Central Texas Conference United Methodist Women officers, my 15-year-old daughter Addison and I threw a party for teenagers from all three centers at Wesley,” Ms. Elliott said. “It was so special for my daughter.
“She was playing Apples To Apples with some teenage girls from the Wesley Center when I realized that one of the girls was one of Addison’s favorite friends, who she would always play with when I would come to volunteer at Wesley. They soon recognized each other, and it was such a special moment.
“I have a picture of the two when they were 5 and 6 playing together on the playground,” Ms. Elliott said. “Now I have one of them as young women of 14 and 15 together!”
At all three centers Ms. Elliott has cleaned, helped with child care programs, volunteered in the food pantry and worked in the clothing room sorting clothes. She has found many ways to be involved with the center.
“For the last two summers a group of ladies from local United Methodist Women units, my daughter, a couple of her friends and I have been doing a weeklong VBS [Vacation Bible School] at the Bethlehem Center. During the summer we try to also find ways to serve at the Polytechnic Center and Wesley,” Ms. Elliott said.
“I have seen UCC do many small miracles each day with the families they serve to make huge changes in their lives and the lives of the community,” she said. “UCC has also helped me be a better parent and raise my daughter with such a love and empathy for others that would not have been possible without our family’s involvement with UCC.”
Denise Johnson Stovall is a freelance writer and president of United Methodist Women at St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas.