Years ago, Dalene Buhl saw a notice in her church bulletin seeking tutors for refugee children at McShan Elementary in Vickery Meadows, Dallas’ most ethnically diverse neighborhood.
At the time, the Preston Hollow Presbyterian member had been working with many of the same children’s parents at a learning center, but after one visit to the elementary school, she knew the need there was greater.
(ABOVE: Refugee girls who live in the Vickery Meadows neighborhood show off the bracelets they make with GAIA Empowered Women. Courtesy photo)
“When I came over I saw children out the window trying to do their homework in utter chaos in the apartment next door,” she recalled. “I knew these children were the future of their families, and they needed the education more than their parents.”
That year, she was able to get five of the 12 children she tutored to pass a state educational test, but for Buhl, “that was not good enough.”
So, she started a summer academy that has grown the past eight years from 16 students to 160.
Last year, McShan ranked first out of 150 Dallas ISD elementary schools in the School Effective Index, meaning the school had made the most significant impact on student growth.
DISD board chairperson Dan Micciche credited Buhl and the more than 100 volunteer reading tutors at the school.
“If you have ever doubted the effect of community involvement on student outcomes, take a look at McShan,” he said.
Buhl said she’s never doubted that the children she works with are smart.
“I know they are capable, but their families are in dire financial difficulties,” she said. “For numerous reasons, they are not settling in as happily as we thought they would, and the students are going without because the family is just trying to survive.”
With the nudge from a student wanting to make bracelets to help her family after her father died, Buhl teamed up with church member Paula Minnis whose own experience walking alongside a refugee woman sparked an idea to start a company to employ and empower women.
Minnis, who started GAIA in 2009, wasn’t immediately sold on the idea because she wasn’t sure the plan was sustainable and that the products would be strong enough.
“If the product isn’t strong, it is just a pity purchase,” she explained.
Minnis offered to design four bracelets for the students to make as part of a collection. The teenage girls would have to partner with their mothers in the venture to inspire them to help earn income through meaningful work.
The partnership, she said, has indeed made a difference in how the girls see themselves.
“These girls, they don’t want just to receive; they really want to have control and effect change,” Minnis said. “I have seen their self-confidence soar through the fruits of their labors. Their joy is so palpable.”