The 2019 WX Leaders Summit welcomed John C. Maxwell, who was in town speaking on concepts from one of his newest books, “Leadershift,” at the Waxahachie Civic Center. JH Reach, a philanthropic mission of the John Houston Family of Companies (JH Family of Companies), regularly partners with other top leaders and organizations in our community across different sectors (business, government, education, faith and non-profit and more) to see collaborative leadership transformation in its communities.

At this year's 2019 WX Leaders Summit, Mentors Care Founder and Executive Director Dena Petty was awarded the "Leadershift" award for exemplary leadership. Bobby Parks, Chief Ministry Officer at JH Family of Companies, presented the award to Petty specifying the importance of her program, Mentors Care, "pours back into the next generation" with its free mentoring program for students from six area school districts to include Ferris, Maypearl, Midlothian (Midlothian High School and Midlothian Heritage High School), Palmer and Red Oak.

"We honor you for the ways that you've exemplified what an incredible organization is," he said.

Petty started Mentors Care, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 2009 to address the many academic and social-emotional issues that create barriers to the academic success of high school students who are considered to be at risk of not graduating.

Since she personally survived an array of domestic hardships as a child, she knew right away how she wanted to run the program in order for it to become successful.

"I don't remember my mother ever waking me up to go to school, " she said. "I don't remember her ever checking my report card. Education wasn't important. It was a very unhealthy childhood."

According to Petty, as a result of her life in a dysfunctional family, she missed a lot of school and was overall unengaged.

"I always just sat alone off to myself," she began.

"I somehow managed to graduate from high school. I left home, lived in my car and got a job as a wallpaper hanger until I saved up enough money to go to Louisiana Tech University, where I met my husband Todd."

What got her through those hard times were the skills and ethics she had learned from her late Aunt Nell, who Petty describes as a "beacon of hope."

"She was loving, kind and godly, "Petty said. "I watched her — and I soaked that up."

Petty describes her childhood relationship with her aunt as very close and very impactful, yet she only visited her at her Arkansas home three or four times. Those few hours spent with a loving adult role model is where she got the idea for her one-hour-per-week student/mentor relationship model.

To date, it has been wildly successful. The one-hour-per-week facetime spent between student and mentor is a key component in restoring trust, self-confidence and a change of course for the better among student recipients.

When students remain in the program for at least two years, on average, 98 percent of seniors go on to graduate. At the close of the 2018-2019 school year, 100 percent of seniors in the program graduated, while 85 percent of all students in the program maintained or progressed in credits earned. Fifty-eight percent improved in attendance, and 51 percent were connected with other community resources through coordinators.

Most of the students experienced major turnarounds in their life's trajectory.

One student wrote to his coordinator recently that he decided to enter a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse.

"I decided to make a change, to be better. To make my family proud instead of letting them down. I decided to be the true Chad and not care what people think anymore. I stopped smoking, drinking, partying, hanging out with the bad influences, running away, etc. The list goes on.

"But I changed, truly I wanted to get better, and boy has god pushed me. There were so many days where I just wanted to drink my problems away, but I didn’t. And you were a huge reason for that. So thank you. You got me through my darkest times," he wrote.

School districts partnering with Mentors Care, are equipped with full-time professional mentor-school coordinators who open offices on campus to oversee program operations. Coordinators then recruit, screen and perform background and reference checks on volunteer mentors from the surrounding community then match each mentor with a student who has been referred to the program by school administrators.

Each coordinator's caseload is between 50 and 60 students at risk of not graduating, making for a total of approximately 350 students during the 2019-2020 school year. Since the program's inception, more than 1,000 students have received free mentoring.

Petty oversees partnerships with prospective schools based on two criteria: The mentoring program only serves school districts in rural or suburban areas of North Texas where there are little (if any) social services or funding provided smaller populations. The rate at which the program is expanding could mean eventually spanning all of the State of Texas.

According to Petty, she is in talks with school districts in Johnson County and is excited about potentially bringing volunteer mentors to a 2020 Juvenile Justice Alternative Education program through the Ellis County District Court, which will serve as a last-resort outreach for juvenile offenders to get on the road to graduation and on to better futures.

Petty attributes Mentors Care's success to its approximate 350 volunteers, the staff and board and partners.

"I didn't get here by myself, there's a whole bunch of people that helped me. I'm in awe. Thank you for this honor. I was one of those kids who was lost. I was an 'at-risk' kid and what a great honor it is that we can serve these students and help them know they have a hope and a future," she said.

Because many staff members and executives from John Houston Custom Homes currently volunteer as mentors for the program, the home-building giant has committed to donating $1,000 per company-volunteer to Mentors Care and as of September, has donated $10,000.

It costs Mentors Care approximately $55,000 per school to provide professional coordinators, volunteer mentors, mentor-recruiting initiatives, program supplies, snacks for students and items such as clothing, food to take home, backpacks, transportation and other emergency expenses to aid students in crisis.