1993 Advocate Award — Betty Hersey

She was virtually uncontrollable, a child angry at the world and bitter beyond her years.

“This little girl was really a terror and could out-curse anyone,” recalls Betty Hersey.

“She was angry all the time, and as she got older, she couldn’t read very well.”

The girl lived in a neighborhood apartment complex and was starved for adult attention. Without special care and tutoring she couldn’t receive at school and wasn’t receiving at home, Hersey knew the girl was in danger of becoming another of society’s lost souls.

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Perhaps Hersey’s new after-school program for apartment children could make a difference.

“We found out that the key to helping her was that she loved math,” Hersey says proudly.

“We’d do all the math we could and then slip in a little reading. I knew we had her hooked when, one day, a volunteer working with her got her to read six books in one day.

“Now she’s reading books on her own and writing stories. Nobody before had seen how smart she was, because all they saw was the meanness.”

When social change overtakes a community, residents often react as if they are about to be hit by a runaway locomotive: Many run, some desperately try to throw obstacles in its path, and others stand to one side and wring their hands.

Few take the personal risk of jumping on board the train to steer it to a safe destination.

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Advocate Award winner Betty Hersey is one of the few.

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In 1989, when middle-class schools and apartment complexes throughout the City saw a large and unexpected influx of children because of the change in the federal Fair Housing Act that prohibited landlords from discriminating against families with children, Lake Highlands began to experience some new urban socioeconomic tensions.

The differences in cultural and educational backgrounds of homeowner children and apartment children created special stress on the public schools.

Hersey helped lead a group that acknowledged the area’s changing demographics and sought solutions that could benefit everyone, especially children who had special educational needs because of their families’ mobility.

The Lake Highlands Community Project, an after-school and summer tutoring and recreation program for children living in the Audelia Heights Apartments near Kingsley and Audelia, is one of the most tangible results of those discussions.

For her efforts, Hersey was selected to receive the annual Advocate Award, sponsored by Advocate Community Newspapers and the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce to recognize outstanding leadership dedicated to improving life in our neighborhoods.

Now nearly four years old, the Lake Highlands Community Project is coordinated by Hersey and staffed and funded mainly through donations of time, money and materials from individuals and neighborhood organizations.

On a typical school day, the free program serves 22 to 25 elementary school children, many of whom otherwise would be unsupervised in the afternoons while their parents are at work.

“I grew up wth a very good sense of community,” says Hersey, a Dallas native and 11-year resident of Lake Highlands.

“But when we lived near Northwest Highway and Abrams in the 1970s, I saw a breakdown in community when parents started sending their kids to private schools.

“I decided that wasn’t going to happen here in Lake Highlands. I really believe in public schools and that you can meet a great cross-section of people there.

Hersey, who attended Dallas public schools and graduated from Hillcrest High School in 1965, is the mother of three teenagers who attend middle school and high school in Lake Highlands.

She always was active with her children’s schools, partly out of a deep sense of community obligation and partly because one of her daughters has Down’s syndrome, which requires special education attention.

Hersey has been a tireless advocate for her daughter and others with learning disabilities. With the proper support, she says, these students can remain in traditional classrooms.

“The reason I think that I view children differently is that I’ve been a very strong advocate of Jenny’s for many years,: Hersey says. “The doctor told me when she was born that she’d probably be very passive. I didn’t know what she could or couldn’t do, but I’d try everything with her that I did with her twin brother, Chris, and I found there was a lot she could do.”

Hersey attributes much of Jenny’s strong academic and social development to her experiences in Montessori schools, which she attended from pre-school until last fall, when she entered Lake Highlands Junior High. Hersey became such a fan of the Montessori Method’s emphasis on individual initiative and learning that she decided in 1987 to return to college and possibly become a Montessori teacher herself.

Originally, Hersey had completed two years at Southern Methodist University, where she was studying dance, when she married Jay Hersey, a civil engineering student, in 1967. The Herseys left Dallas for two years while he served in the Navy, including a stint in Vietnam, before returning in 1969.

Jay then completed his degree at SMU, while Betty worked at General Motors Acceptance Corp. handling credit accounts.

After their first child, Alison, was born, Hersey became a full-time mother. Three years later, Hersey learned just a few weeks before the end of her second pregnancy that she was carrying twins.

Their birth, and the fact that Jenny would need extra attention to reach her full potential, started Hersey down the road to learning more about child development.

Ultimately, this road led to the Lake Highlands Community Project.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be doing this,” Hersey says of the after-school project that consumes at least three afternoons a week and has led her to pursue a master’s degree in social work.

“But I find it is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

The main rewards – seeing children who were frustrated and angry about their inability to succeed in school blossom into bright, charming kids who enjoy learning – were just dreams in the beginning.

When Hersey and founding program partner Donna Halstead began promoting the idea of working with children who lived in Lake Highlands’ many apartment complexes, reactions ran the gamut from opposition to amusement.

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But eventually, Hersey’s persistence, sincerity and farsightedness convinced a variety of community groups to give the idea a try.

Apartment managers were more resistant to offers of help from outsiders, but finally the management of Audelia Heights relented and agreed to participate in the pilot program in the summer of 1989.

“That first summer, Betty and I put together some focus groups to try and see what we thought the resources in the community might be and what we could do with them,” says Halstead, a former teacher and current City Council member.

“We decided to initially conduct a two-week summer camp that would emphasize group, craft and physical activities and field trips and to use teenagers as role models for the kids.”

The response from children, parents and volunteers was so encouraging that Hersey and Halstead decided soon afterward to seek community support for an after-school program in the Audelia Heights clubhouse that would emphasize tutoring as well as recreation.

As the concept evolved, the project utilized teenage and adult volunteers to organize activities and help with homework. The group also trained leaders from the Camp Fire Association and Girl Scouts of America to direct programs twice a week, and generated the loan of a complete set of current elementary school textbooks from the Richardson Independent School District.

The Dallas Park and Recreation Department has been supportive from the beginning, providing use of the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center at least one afternoon a week.

“Betty has a knack for getting people to work for her,” says Jerry Miller, an area assistant superintendent for the Richardson Independent School District.

“She’s not what I’d call a hard sell, but she’s very convincing.”

Miller, who previously worked directly with schools in Lake Highlands, was one of the first converts to Hersey’s idea, helping to get textbooks and other cooperation from the school district.

“It’s kind of like ‘time on task’,” Miller says. I think a lot of kids who live in apartments need more help or priority put on their schoolwork. We can give it to them from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at school, but they need all that reinforcement after school and during the summer.

“I think we’re going to see, particularly where you have a very mobile population, that programs need to go to the site to work with (students). We just need more and more of these types of organizations to help with kids.”

For the children attending the Lake Highlands Community Project, the boundaries of learning and fun overlap so fluidly that the youngsters often don’t even realize what they are doing is educational.

A tour of a museum exhibit almost inevitably will expand to include some history, while a trip to the zoo is a natural time to talk about geography. An hour spent making, cooking and eating pizzas at a nearby take-out restaurant can hardly avoid incorporating just a little math.

Even many of the table games played by the students and adult volunteers are opportunities to learn: multiplication bingo, word and picture bingo, and memory-building puzzles.

The children also learn to share, help one another, take turns, think imaginatively and make group decisions without bickering.

Many of these lessons are subtle, as are the changes in individual children – building slowly until one day all the pieces fall into place, Hersey says.

“We’ve seen some really neat things in the past few years,” she says.

I had one older boy who could hardly read at all because of a learning disability. One of the service organizations at Lake Highlands High School put all his books on tapes so he could hear the lessons.

“He then got tested orally and started making 100s. We also had him read stories to first-graders attending the program, which allowed him to practice reading and at the same time be a big guy by helping with the smaller kids.

“His behavior improved dramatically; he had been so angry before, because he could not compete academically.”

Hersey says she hopes that each small success shared by the volunteers and students will give the children skills they can use to tackle other difficult tasks, and that with continued support at home and at school, many will be able to free themselves from a mind-set of failure.

“What Betty does for those children goes one step beyond what anyone could expect,” says Kay Shickles, principal of Northlake Elementary School, which most children in the program attend.

“I really believe she does it out of the goodness of her heart and for the love of children. She’s like a second mother to them; she really touches their lives in so many ways.”

The reach of the Lake Highlands Community Project admittedly is small so far, involving only one apartment complex and one elementary school (not including former Northlake Elementary School students who have moved on to Lake Highlands Junior High).

But Hersey hopes she eventually can tap into the kind of funding that will enable the program to involve not only all children who live in Lake Highlands’ apartment complexes but any school-age child in the area who needs extra help.

She’d like to be able to hire a full-time director to operate the program and to have money to pay for some services when direct donors cannot be found.

“I’d also like us to be able to have an adolescent program for older kids because they need help with school and life, too,” Hersey says.

“I even have dreams that we’d take some of the parents and help them start their own day-care programs at various sites.”

For now, though, Hersey and the other volunteers do the best they can with what they have and keep looking for innovative ways to inspire the kids.

While getting the program off the ground and seeing it through its first year, Hersey completed a bachelor’s degree in general studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.

She then began studying part-time for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington, scheduling classes around her work with the after-school program, the many demands of being a mother to twin 15-year-olds and a high school senior, and involvement in church and civic activities.

“I thought: ‘If I’m going to do this, I need to be sure I’m doing it right,’” Hersey says. “The first rule of social work is to do no harm. After that, I needed to gain some tools to work with.”

Hersey credits one local community leader for helping her redirect the focus of her life.

Part of her inspiration, she says, came from a speech she remembers hearing State District Judge Merrill Hartman (also a Lake Highlands resident) give about living according to one’s beliefs.

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“I remember him saying you should assess your skills, and see where you can put them to best use,” Hersey says.

“I thought, ‘What is it that I do?’ I knew child development, because I had a child with Down’s syndrome, and I’d been very active in her education.”

“I also knew I was good with kids and was pretty good at organizing through other volunteer projects.”

“I never knew that I could do all this. All I initially set out to do was a two-week summer program,” she says.

“Then all of a sudden, I found myself in charge of organizing a whole project. The thing that is most gratifying to me is that everyone in the community is pitching in to help.”

Today, some of the people who initially were wary of a bunch of “do-gooders” talking about working with other people’s kids and making them an integral part of the larger “community” are acknowledging that a little help sometimes does a lot of good.

“I can understand where she’s coming from now in reaching out to children, because tomorrow’s world really is today’s children,” says Landra Cole, who oversees the Audelia Heights Apartments and 10 other complexes as regional property manager for Intervest Cos. Inc.

“What they are doing is really very important. If we could create their kind of community spirit all over Dallas, we could eliminate a lot of the inner-city problems we now have.”

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