Solid Gold Women
Throughout Waco, you can find strong examples of Solid Gold Neighbors, citizens and business leaders working in our 5 areas of focus. These people exemplify the work we support in the areas of economic development, health, education, cultural wealth and city growth. We wanted to take a moment to highlight women working in our community making a difference. There are many amazing women that are involved in making a difference locally. These five women, partners in the work of Baylor External Affairs, strive to represent their pillar with grace, confidence and wisdom.
Mrs. Elaine Botello, a Wacoan since birth, partners with Solid Gold Neighbor for cultural wealth through the organization that she co-founded and currently serves as board president, the Hispanic Leaders’ Network (HLN). In 2018, Elaine decided that the Hispanic community needed to have gatherings and would benefit from an organizing force dedicated to developing leadership opportunities. Cultural community engagement, as well as personal and professional development are the goals of HLN. “We want to inspire future and current leaders…to bridge networks and be a resource to them, one of those bridges being Baylor External Affairs. We are grateful for our partnership that provides opportunities for our leaders,” said Elaine.
HLN is consistently holding events and invites everyone in the community to join and cultivate education around the Hispanic culture. “Our participants are truly a rainbow of people, we want everyone to see our culture and why we are so proud of it,” explained Elaine. One event that Elaine loved was at the Mayborn Museum on September 10 to kick off Hispanic Heritage Month. Mariachi Azteca, the only Mariachi group based in Waco, was invited to perform at the museum. HLN is also hosts celebrations for Día De Los Muertos, presentations discussing DEI within the Waco community and has launched a new Language Justice initiative.
Elaine continues to come up with new ideas and ways that her organization can better promote cultural wealth in Waco. Elaine explained that her time at HLN, “…has been so inspirational because I see so many people that want to learn and grow and also give back to the community in some way. I have been able to build relationships with those individuals in the community and make an impact on them.”
Gwen James partners with Baylor External Affairs for education through her service at Waco ISD as the Director of Early Childhood Education. Gwen has been in education for 25 years. In college, she knew that she wanted to be in a position where she could serve, she just wasn’t sure in what capacity. Gwen realized she was gifted at leading and mentoring, so she returned to school to get her masters at UMHB. When she accepted a position at Waco ISD, she accepted a Director position. She was not living in the city, but it quickly became a place she called home. Gwen commitment to bettering the curriculum for kids and the education for teachers.
An impactful experience for Gwen is the teacher pre-k bootcamp she puts on every year. To combat the lack of teacher retention, Mrs. James focused on pouring into teachers so that, in turn, teachers could pour into students. This 2-day bootcamp is hosted at Baylor University’s Cashion building. “I love the partnership we have with Baylor so that I can give the teachers the opportunity to gather somewhere nice for the bootcamp,” said Gwen.
Gwen also promotes education in the Waco community through her commitment to growing the literacy rate of the pre-k students. In 2020 to 2021, there was 60% literacy growth in pre-k students. Kindergarten readiness has skyrocketed, and Waco ISD is becoming a competitive school district. Gwen has been so incredible at increasing registration and literacy at her district that she will be presenting what she has done to other districts soon. “This is my mission field. Waco is my mission field. I get to lead and get involved in something bigger than I ever could have imagined for myself- I love that I get to do so much,” said Gwen.
Stefanie Wheat-Johnson, the program director for Creative Waco’s ARTPrenticeship work readiness program is actively partnering with Solid Gold Neighbor to promote city growth in Waco. Stefanie was looking for some creative projects to work on and a community to get plugged in to while she was helping her son get through chemotherapy. She found Creative Waco and started doing contract work. “This is the best job I never expected to have,” explained Stefanie. She found an incredible community and ended up accepting a full-time position with Creative Waco this past year.
The program contributes to city growth by hiring young creatives who live in Waco. The program strives to give room to creatives who want a professional place to grow their skillset. The artists that are hired get paid, which stimulates economic growth and small business growth through the exposure they create. Creative Waco has made seven large scale murals, and an eighth one will be coming this summer. “We serve a diverse population in under-resourced communities. This is a chance for them to try something new and get out of their bubble…this is more than an arts education to be an apprentice. They get paid and have a voice in the project. This is meaningful work,” explained Stefanie.
Past apprentices are now post-college all over the world. Some stay in Waco and continue to pour into the community, and others are expressing their art elsewhere. The most meaningful project to Stefanie was when her team created a mural that served the homeless population. “We helped co-design the mural for the interior space of a place where unhoused teens can get a home and help. I hope that we can make points of contact for these kids and help them propel them into their future,” said Stefanie.
Lauren Da Silva is the program manager for the Baylor on-campus food pantry and other student needs and resources. Solid Gold Neighbor partners with Lauren to foster health in the Waco community. Lauren and her team create positive impact on the physical and mental health of the students at Baylor University. “We focus on empowering students to have consistent access to food,” said Lauren. It is important that students have access to healthy food because the lack of food can cause malnutrition and can cause or exacerbate current mental health problems, like depression and stress.
Around 14-24% of students at Baylor University fall under the category of “food insecure,” which is the inability to have proper portions or healthy food. Many students will make choices- a textbook or groceries. The goal of the on-campus food pantry is to eradicate that. Currently, Lauren is working on providing transportation to the students who do not have access to grocery stores, as well as implementing a place where students can get help applying for the SNAP program.
Lauren is passionate about solving food insecurity on campus so that students can reach their full potential. She is focused on collaborating with partners in the city, such as McLennan County Hunger Coalition, to team up to achieve this goal. “Collaboration is essential…all my direct reports are young women, so I feel empowered to lead like a woman would lead. I feel like I have a tremendous responsibility to not be tempted to dilute my voice or ideas so that the women under me can also make their voices heard…I get to do great work two-fold- empower the women under me and eradicate food insecurity. It is an incredible opportunity,” said Lauren.
Andrea Kosar, a Baylor graduate, is the President and CEO of the Centex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and she partners with Solid Gold Neighbor on the economic development sector. Andrea has been involved in the chamber world since 2017. In her year at the Centex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Andrea and her team have started a program where Spanish speaking people are connected with Hispanic business owners and entrepreneurs. This creates a safe space where entrepreneurs and small business owners can ask questions or get help in their native dialect.
There is a specific focus on pouring into small businesses and getting them recognized locally, whether that be on the news or social media. Andrea told a story about one of her favorite restaurants where the Centex Hispanic Chamber partnered with the restaurant owner. The owner talked about how difficult it was to get access to capital as a Spanish speaker. “We gave her a platform to share that story in a magazine and local TV station. She was able to become a vendor for a VIP tent for Día de Los Muertos and has gained popularity since…It is exciting to see that we were able to help her,” said Andrea.
Andrea encourages everyone to join a chamber. All chambers are open to anyone- it is important to have a diverse team that has differing perspectives. “You can learn so much working at a chamber, and it is so beneficial to be making a difference while learning from industry professionals,” said Andrea.