Optimist Case Study

Faces of Optimism: Community Builders

Six Texans creating optimism in their communities—with the help of the communities themselves.

Optimism isn’t just a state of mind, it’s a practice. But seizing an opportunity to improve things can rarely be done alone. Texans work together every day to help their neighbors, respond to disaster, and build brighter futures. We’ve spotlighted six Texans creating optimism in their communities—with the help of the communities themselves.

Matthew Smith: Coordinator of Affective Education, Elementary Counseling & Behavioral Services, Humble Independent School District

Matthew Smith

Positive thinking is a cornerstone for the counselors of Humble ISD. “At a very early age, we want students to think optimistically,” Smith says. The district’s focus on optimism is sustained from kindergarten all the way through high school. When Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, that same optimism extended from the classroom to the real world. And while Humble ISD’s attention to optimism and other life skills has seen disciplinary referrals reduced by nearly half in some schools, the chaos of the storm required even more hard work. Now, to be better prepared for the future, Smith’s team is working with local faith-based groups to create a community counseling response team. Teacher training sessions are now organized around the theme, The Power of Possibilities. “If that’s not optimism,” Smith says, “I don’t know what is.”

Sheila Lowe: Executive Director, Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team

Sheila Lowe

First there was the Bastrop County Complex Fire, the most devastating wildfire in state history. It was followed by massive floods, more fires, and more floods. In the last ten years, Bastrop County, just east of Austin, has been forced to take proactive measures to abate natural disasters. “We’ve kind of become subject-matter experts, unfortunately,” says Sheila Lowe. Her nonprofit grew from the needs of affected residents. The work they do goes far beyond what was required during the initial cleanup efforts. With state and county officials, the team is now a permanent part of the area’s response to natural disasters, and a model for other communities.

“We never want to be victims,” she says, “but we have to know it will be better on the other side.” By investing in a group of dedicated case workers, Lowe’s team is building lasting resilience in the Bastrop community. “You can’t stop the floods from coming, but we can lessen their impact.”

Commander Scott Holt: Waco Police Department, Hurricane Harvey volunteer

Commander Scott Holt

When Commander Scott Holt met up with some of his fellow Waco police officers late one summer evening, the trickle of information about the hurricane barreling toward the Texas Coast was beginning to flood in. Holt and his comrades made a quick decision to make the trek into the heart of the storm to help the communities being affected. “I think optimism is contagious, ” he says, and the proof was at a gas station in Temple, where a legion of volunteers—some of whom Holt didn’t even know, who’d heard about the officers’ journey on social media—formed a massive relief caravan within a matter of 12 hours.

Before Holt left, his daughter slipped him a handwritten note. “I hope you don’t get hurt,” she wrote, “but I hope you help other people that need it more than you do.” Buoyed by his daughter’s encouragement, the team spent days in Conroe, sleeping on floors, being fed by locals. “People lost it all, but good came out of it,” Holt says. “We came together to the good of mankind. It’s was amazing.”

Ricky Ramirez: Teacher, Canyon Middle School (El Paso)

Ricky Ramirez

“I want to change the narrative for northeast El Paso,” says Ricky Ramirez, El Paso ISD’s 2018 Secondary Teacher of the Year. He grew up in that part of the city, and teaches at the same middle school he attended when he was young. Ramirez grew up with five siblings, all of whom were cared for by a mother with little formal education. Now the family counts four bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. among their ranks, with two siblings still in college.

The best way for me to give back to my community was to be a teacher,” Ramirez says. Last year, a speech he gave to new El Paso teachers went viral. In it, Ramirez shared stories of helping students in the classroom, in sports, and in life. He teaches, he says, to pass on the ways he was helped, both inside and outside the classroom. “Relationships come before content,” he says.“Young people are tough, but they need advice, direction, and a sympathetic ear. That’s where you make a lasting impact.”

Jane Hervey: Founder, #BossBabesATX

Jane Hervey

Austinite Jane Hervey started Boss Babes ATX, a nonprofit community of artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs focused on gender equality, in 2015. After a few years, the work was taking its toll. But before she threw in the towel, Hervey made the decision to calculate the organization’s impact. What she found was that the programs, meetups, and opportunities the group provided had injected nearly $1 million into the Austin-area economy. That was enough to keep going.

“Survival is on the line for a lot of these entrepreneurs,” Hervey says. “This not only makes them visible, but it changes the cultural conversation.” When it comes to driving that change, she says it comes down to constant conscious choices to be resilient. “When we stand up and speak out, we inspire people to listen,” she says.“I have to be an optimist every day.”

Jimmy Kendrick, Mayor of Fulton, Texas

Jimmy Kendrick

When Hurricane Harvey slammed into Fulton, the storm didn’t discriminate in its affect. “I lost half my house,” says Kendrick, “and I’m rebuilding from the ground up.” Faced with massive and long-term devastation, Kendrick knew the community would have to work together to support each other, not just in the immediate aftermath, but in renewing businesses, rebuilding homes, and stabilizing the local economy. “It scared each and every one of us,” he recalls. When an outpouring of support came from across the state and the country, he says they found the energy—and the optimism—to make recovery a reality. “Texans were helping Texans, citizens helping citizens, being good neighbors,” he says.

Even as recovery efforts continue, he’s working on passing on the lessons learned from Harvey to help other communities affected by natural disasters.

Photos by Darice Chavira and Hannah Vickers.

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