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By Bev Odom/The Red River Sun—
WELLINGTON – A fun and positive environment that provided her with many learning opportunities is how former student Claudia Jantes describes the Wellington Opportunity Center, Inc., in existence now for 25 years.
“My teachers helped me practice skills like responsibility by ensuring I had my homework completed and always made me eager to participate in schoolwork through engaging activities,” said Jantes, a 2016 WHS graduate who completed her bachelor’s degree at WTAMU in communication disorders and is currently pursuing her Masters of Speech Pathology at the Texas Tech Health Science Center. “Overall, I think the WOC staff were great models of caring and compassionate people.”
In 1995, a group of individuals initially gathered to help create the program known as the Wellington Opportunity Center, Inc., explained Diana Bartlett, founder of the program. “Members of the community were invited to participate at a level they felt comfortable.
Many programs/organizations like Child Protective Services, Juvenile and Adult Probation, Collingsworth County Sheriff’s Office, County Judge’s office, Texas Agricultural Extension Agency, Wellington Sheltered Workshop, Wellington Independent School District and local Ministerial Alliance were asked to participate.”
The idea was to create a board representative of all programs serving youth and families in the rural community.
“The Methodist church took an active role because they heard from me often about the need in our community. At the time, I worked for CPS and was all too familiar with some needs in the community that I knew could be addressed with the right focus of attention on a particularly vulnerable group of youth and their families.”
The majority of the initial active “core group” of interested participants resulted in the first board of directors for the WOCI. That core group just happened to also be members of the Methodist church. But not all were Methodist.
“The Collingsworth Sheriff’s office was very present in the early activities of the WOCI as were many, many of the private sector. Many volunteers from our community included retired teachers, retired business owners, grandparents and others who gave unselfishly of their time to be present for others.”
The Methodist church made a commitment to make a monthly financial contribution to the WOCI to start the program and help Bartlett’s dream come to fruition. “Their support has never wavered. Over the years, though, other congregations and individual organizations have followed suit. I can’t claim the success because it has always been such a program touched by God’s hands.”
“It’s a God thing,” said Andy Henard, president of the WOCI board of directors since its inception in 1995. “If we can save one of these kids from going to jail and ruining their life, it is worth every effort. We have seen it happen numerous times. The program gives kids some initiative to make something of their lives.”
According to Henard, Bartlett came to the administrative board of the First United Methodist Church with the request, “We’ve got a problem, will y’all help?”
FUMC helped Bartlett with resources to establish WOCI as after school program to assist underprivileged and at-risk children with not only completing homework but with mentoring from adults too.
“Chuck Wilbur and John O’Rear had the patience of Job to work with some of these kids in the early days,” Henard remarked. “They would get out there and play catch with the students. The harder the kids threw the ball, the harder these guys threw it back.”
Countless people have donated their time and talents to the program through the years, and it became a community project as all the supporters and directors have shared their talents for God noted Henard.
He described how Bartlett has worked endlessly through the years on all aspects of the program, and how the late Ruby Williams, a long-term teacher to whom the WOCI park is dedicated, attempted to place her whole salary back into the system for the kids.
“The way I look at it, the more we help the kids, the more we help Wellington,” Henard said.
Long-term board member Gay McAlister recalls Bill Hatch being so interested in the WOCI and often showed up. “They called him the man with the hat, and he also contributed financially on a regular basis,” she said. “A special memory: a group of students who had been to see the Nutcracker in Amarillo decided to present their own. They created sets, costumes and a cast with only a little help from the staff. The director and producer of the show recently graduated from college.”
McAlister recalls the first group of kids having so many needs. “It was necessary to have a deputy along to take them home in the van,” she added. “Tommy Lewis often drove. As the years passed, while there were still those with needs, other children enjoyed the services too.”
With varied levels of community support over the years, many service organizations have partnered with the WOCI for a variety of causes according to Bartlett.
“The WISD is always a critical partnership because it allows the WOCI to reach the youth that are most likely to benefit from the programs and resources provided. The WISD partnership has provided in many ways. They have provided opportunities for our older youth to serve as staff through work partnerships, volunteer services, service organizations. At one time, they provided shared building space for activities, computers for a computer lab, bus service for transportation to and from the building and to and from planned off-site activities in the summertime.”
At one time, the Amarillo Area Foundation provided a matching grant for WOCI to purchase the building on the square that is now Mammy’s Daycare, prior to the purchase of the current building at 817 West Ave.
“The community had to raise an equal amount in order for us to receive the grant. I really can’t remember the amount, but as ALWAYS, the community met the challenge.”
The Zephyr Foundation has offered very generous support to the WOCI for many years. They have been generous beyond measure explained Bartlett.
“The Zephyr Foundation has consistently funded the summer program for many years and has provided for building renovations, repairs, special projects and helped fill the gap when unexpected deficits exist.”
The Zephyr Foundation has also partnered with WISD and the WOCI to create a program where students participating in college course work through Clarendon College can work at the WOCI and trade hours of work for payment of their tuition.
“Intended to be a safe haven, even the current WOCI is designed as a safe place in the event we need to use it for that purpose. For example, the current building was designed to include access to a shower as needed as well as kitchen and laundry access.”
Bartlett stressed that since 1995, the WOCI has made significant strides toward offering the competencies that youth need to be able to transition to self-sufficient and productive adults, not only in the community but in society as a whole.
“With each director, we have tried not to micromanage the activities at the center. Each director has brought their own set of skills and their own focus of service to the youth of our community. We have served K-8th grade at a wide variety of levels. At one time, we served junior high students’ lunch one day a week during the school year and they were transported to the WOCI by a volunteer – just to keep a mid-week moment check in going. We have offered summer activity programs which required three different buildings on the square to house all participants. We have served food at a variety of levels, including meals donated within our community as well as utilization of food provided by the High Plains Food Bank, from kindergarten to junior high one meal during the day and a backpack of food for the weekend.”
WOCI is currently serving a group of youth at the elementary level, yet that may change as community interest changes noted Bartlett. The variety of service provided through the WOCI has been as varied as the variety of youth who frequent the doors of the center.
How can Bartlett describe the benefits of the program she has witnessed over a quarter of a century?
“This is a whole other story; 25 years of great stories of success, sometimes measured only by the few that know about them and the families who have been touched – not to minimize the impact that those special successes have on the staff and others involved with the Opportunity Center.”
Because the board of directors and staff strives to respect the confidentiality of every individual and family served, the WOCI is not at liberty to share the many successes, victories and often impactful stories from youth participants.
“This season of COVID-19 has been difficult for the WOCI in their ability to provide a place for the youth, but there will be a time when activities will resume and those who live and breathe the Wellington Opportunity Center will once again shine as they see the spark they create for the youth whose lives they touch.”
During the school year, students are fed a meal upon arrival according to Shelly Brim, WOCI director since December 2012. Youth work on homework and enjoy recreational activities.
“I attempt to make it a safe place to go for all kids. The summer program lets the kids of Wellington know that other things are available outside of Collingsworth County. It’s hands-on and educational.” The WOCI serves all socio-economic levels and is also a favorite among law enforcement and the judicial system, as the program occupies kids’ time in a positive and constructive way, including teaching social skills and manners.
The summer sessions include science lessons with visits from the Abilene Zoo, Amarillo Discovery Center and Native American Dancing Eagles, field trips to Collingsworth Public Library, Panfork Baptist Encampment and Pioneer Park and walks to the Ritz Theatre for Monday matinees. Arts and crafts projects, outdoor recreational activities plus lunch and snacks round out the agenda.
Emma Jones, a 2020 graduate of WHS and currently a student at Hardin-Simmons University, summed up the program from a student-teacher standpoint.
“I saw the benefit of older students, like myself and a few classmates, spending one on one time helping the kids with homework, playing games with them and just listening to their stories. Seeing their eyes light up when they finally remember how to spell a word or solve a math problem is so rewarding. Also, once we gain their trust to confide in us with more personal things, you can really see how important it is for even elementary age kids to have safe connections outside of school and home.”