When Sierra Negron’s husband was released from active duty in the military, the couple needed some help until they could get back on their feet. For about three months at the start of the 2014-15 school year, their three sons brought home backpacks full of food to help the family get through the weekends.
Called the Backpack Program, this partnership between the Houston Food Bank and a nonprofit called Cy-Hope helps feed low-income families in the Houston suburb of Cypress-Fairbanks. The community -- known by its nickname, Cy-Fair -- has a median household income of nearly $72,000, yet more than 13 percent of the district’s school-age students live below the poverty line, according to the school district.
“This is such a great program that can help families in need that don’t necessarily qualify for government assistance,” Negron said. “It’s not always easy to make ends meet. This program was a blessing.”
Cy-Hope, founded in 2011 by members of Foundry United Methodist Church and community leaders, was established with families like the Negrons at the heart of its mission: “To make life better for kids in Cy-Fair who are economically, relationally or spiritually disadvantaged.”
Through partnerships with the Cy-Fair Independent School District, Cy-Hope has developed more than a half-dozen programs aimed at helping children and families, including the Backpack Program, after-school learning centers, and scholarship aid for high school students seeking to earn high school and college credit in community college courses.
The long-term impact of the organization’s commitment may not be seen in Cy-Fair for another generation. But kids arrive at school on Monday mornings ready to learn, because they have full bellies. Children have a safe place to get help after school. Students graduate with a head start on their college coursework. All of these are evidence that, in a few short years, Cy-Hope’s programs have made a difference.
“Cypress-Fairbanks is a better district because of Cy-Hope and all they do for our students,” said Cy-Fair school district associate superintendent Roy Garcia. “The lesson that I feel other organizations can learn from Cy-Hope is that it takes the whole community to educate all of our students. Cy-Hope recognized that schools cannot do it alone.”
Back to the church
In the summer of 2010, after 26 years at Foundry, senior pastor Godfrey Hubert took a four-month sabbatical. His plan to play golf, sit on the beach and read a long list of books recommended by his staff was sidetracked after he read Reggie McNeal’s “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”
Would the local community miss his congregation if it closed its doors tomorrow? Hubert had to admit that the answer was likely no.
The book expressed a lot of the same concerns he’d been having about the attitude of consumerism and “worshiptainment” in the American church.
“There wasn’t much about church work that I could connect back to Jesus,” Hubert said. “Much of what I felt obligated to do as a pastor often seemed contrary to what Jesus was all about.”
The competitive nature of “doing church,” he said, had begun to feel more like running a consumer enterprise than leading a spiritual service.
“Coming from Latin America, I have a heart for serving the poor,” said Hubert, who was raised by Mennonite missionaries in South America and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18. “But in time, I lost sight of the very people Jesus seemed most concerned about.”
As Foundry grew from its original 28 members meeting in a local elementary school in 1978 to more than 5,000 members on two campuses with seven Sunday services, Hubert realized that he was witnessing a decline in the church’s connection to the local community that his family had taught him was so important. The close-knit, we-take-care-of-each-other environment he’d grown up with just didn’t feel like it existed anymore at Foundry.
When McNeal’s book asked whether the local community would miss his congregation if it closed its doors tomorrow, Hubert had to admit that the answer was likely no.
He returned from his sabbatical with a vision for both his church and his community.
“Everyone thinks Cy-Fair is affluent, and while that’s partly true, we’ve got 113,000 students in our schools and 50 percent of them are considered at-risk [economically]. I realized that’s our mission. That’s our church,” he said.
Before Hubert’s sabbatical, Foundry’s 5,000-member congregation supported 16 foreign mission programs and more than a dozen local mission programs.
“It was like we were filling many potholes but not building a highway anywhere,” he said.
When he came back, he talked with Foundry’s leadership about what an externally focused church would look like. After much prayer and contemplation, they committed to refocus the church’s money, time and effort on the community’s children.
What followed was a capital fund drive to raise $5 million. Of that, $1 million was for Cy-Hope, the new nonprofit dedicated to addressing Cy-Fair’s specific needs. Of the rest, $3.5 million was for a second church campus, and $500,000 for the original campus.
“That’s unheard-of, that a congregation will raise that kind of money to fund ministries beyond their walls,” Hubert said, “but it was made possible by the generosity of a church that ‘got it.’”
Today, Cy-Hope has a $1.6 million annual budget. The organization still receives funding from Foundry but is primarily self-sustaining through grants, gifts and partnerships with local organizations. And Foundry is down to only three or four mission programs.
To be sure, that kind of change in the church’s mission didn’t sit well with some staff and congregants, and several dozen families left the church as a result. But Hubert found that the majority were on board with the goal of “doing good for at-risk kids in our community, because it more closely resembles what Jesus did,” he said.
“To really be externally focused is a huge shift,” he said. “We are truly trying to preach it, practice it and work it.”
Hubert said that Foundry no longer considers how many seats are filled or how many dollars come in as the most important measures of the church’s success.
Instead, the leadership asks, “What’s the reading level of third-graders in our schools? How many hungry children are being fed? How many children and families are learning to cope with life? How many high school kids are graduating?”
Answering those questions drives Cy-Hope’s programming, which includes the Backpack Program, two after-school Hope Centers, a college prep program, family assistance and therapy centers, a summer camp for low-income children, a school “adoption” program for local businesses, and a music initiative that’s gearing up for its first-ever summer music camp for students in the community.
The ability to connect resources throughout the community and focus on helping the people who need it most is at the heart of Cy-Hope’s success.
Although Cy-Hope was born under Foundry’s leadership, its organization as a stand-alone nonprofit allows it to connect with businesses and receive funding that would not be available if it was directly tied to a church, said Lynda Zelenka, Cy-Hope’s executive director and an associate pastor at Foundry.
Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference said she sees Foundry and Cy-Hope’s work as a 21st-century approach to the Methodist Church’s original focus on children, families and education.
“What Foundry and Cy-Hope have done is remarkable, because of its scope and because it’s so holistic. They connect with the children in their community through sports, counseling, their backpack program and mentoring,” she said. “This type of work reminds us of who we are as Methodists. We’re not just in ministry to children and their parents but in ministry with children and their parents.”
Feeding children -- and their families
As part of their initial research into building a community-centered organization, Cy-Hope’s founders visited nonprofits across the country, including Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, 3E in McKinney, Texas, and Titus County Cares in Mt. Pleasant, Texas.
They learned that they needed to look at Cy-Fair and ask, “What can we do in our community? Where are the gaps?”
“Drive-by mission work is hard to sustain,” said Zelenka, who felt called to ministry after spending the first half of her career in management at General Electric. “If someone was already doing something to address a particular need and doing it well, we didn’t want to duplicate those efforts.”
It didn’t take long to realize there was a large, underserved youth population right at the heart of their community. The school district has 86 schools, making it the third-largest school district in Texas and the 22nd-largest in the nation, according to a September 2014 report from American School and University.
“About 40 percent of our students are eligible for free lunch, which is the reverse of what I would’ve thought,” Zelenka said. For a student to receive a reduced-price lunch, a family of four must make less than $44,000 per year, and to be eligible for free lunch, a family of four must make less than $31,000 per year.
Living in one of the most affluent areas of Harris County, she said, “I think many of us drive through our community with blinders on, not seeing the poverty in our midst.”
Those stark facts led to Cy-Hope’s first and most successful initiative: the Backpack Program. The pilot partnership with the Houston Food Bank for two schools and 86 bags of food has, in just over three years, grown to serve 64 schools and reach more than 1,600 students a week. That’s 47,000 bags of food this year for students who might not otherwise have enough to eat on the weekends.
The Backpack Program has helped many of the area’s low-income suburban families, said Cy-Fair district superintendent Mark Henry. The organization has “made a tremendous positive impact on improving the lives of those students and families who need the most help.”
Hayley Hewett, the Houston Food Bank’s school programs coordinator, said, “We hear all the time about the improvement in behavior and in grades when kids are on this program. It’s nice to know their bellies are full when they come to school on Monday and they’re ready to learn.”
Part of the community
Although the Backpack Program might be Cy-Hope’s most visible and successful community partnership, the organization also runs two Hope Centers -- one in the Windfern Trails Apartments and another in the Longhorn Trailer Park. Some 50-80 kids stop by after school each week to have a safe, fun place to hang out and get help with their homework.
Cy-Hope also administers a program dedicated to preparing disadvantaged high school students to enter college and the workforce by providing dual-credit and Advanced Placement scholarships.
Superintendent Henry recalls a former student who told him that her parents were upset that they couldn’t afford the dual-credit program. He connected her with Cy-Hope, and she was able to complete core college classes at Lone Star College-CyFair.
“She shared that Cy-Hope had lifted the burden from her parents’ shoulders and that she felt well-prepared for college as a result of Cy-Hope’s assistance,” he said. “This story describes Cy-Hope in a nutshell: giving hope to those in our community who feel they previously had none.”
Since the fall of 2012, nearly 600 economically disadvantaged students have received financial assistance from Cy-Hope so they could take dual-credit courses, and the organization has awarded 1,574 Advanced Placement scholarships totaling $41,500.
Being an integral part of raising the children in their community is what Hubert, Zelenka and hundreds of families at Foundry committed to in 2011 when they undertook their capital campaign and helped give Cy-Hope its start.
“Most of these kids have parents who both work, doing everything possible to provide necessities for their kids, but when that falls short, Cy-Hope is there,” said local newspaper publisher, Cy-Hope volunteer and Foundry Church member Jason Culpepper. “When they need guidance, tutoring, financial support for college, Cy-Hope is there. It’s been amazing for me to see how Cy-Hope continues to meet the needs of the community as they arise.”
Questions to consider
Questions to consider
- How would you answer the question the Rev. Hubert found so transformative: Would the community miss your institution if it closed tomorrow?
- What would your congregation or institution look like if it was externally focused rather than internally focused? Which existing ministries engage your community in meaningful ways? Which ones do not?
- Hubert describes a significant change in the way leaders at Foundry evaluate their work and ministries. What questions are your leaders asking to evaluate success? Are they providing you with meaningful information? How might they need to be adapted?
- Cy-Hope is an example of traditioned innovation because it took a central focus of early Methodism and adapted it to its contemporary context. What institutional or denominational tradition could you adapt to meet the needs of your community today?