Meet the Longhorn Changing Kids’ Lives in South Dallas

On the chilly morning of Dec. 14, 2017, around 150 boys dressed in black uniforms waited eagerly in the auditorium at Billy Earl Dade Middle School in southeast Dallas, where more than 99 percent of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged, and the test scores consistently fall below standard. Organizers of the “Breakfast with Dads” event, worried about low parental attendance, had sent out a call across social media, hoping to wrangle some volunteers to act as stand-in “dads” for the boys. They were aiming for at least 50. Instead, nearly 600 men of all ages, races, and backgrounds poured through the auditorium doors that morning, overflowing the space.

The massive crowd spilled over into the gymnasium, which reverberated with energetic introductions, laughter, and games. Among the group of proxy fathers were businessmen, musicians, and police officers. They offered the boys words of guidance, and led them through the steps of tying a necktie. The hour concluded with the boys and men standing side-by-side, arms linked, bowing their heads in prayer and sealing in their newly formed bonds. It was a special moment, one that ended up going viral. Outlets like ABC News and the Washington Post touted the story as “extraordinary” and “heartwarming.” For lead organizer Donald Ray Parish Jr., BA ’02, it was so much more. The event was just another day’s work for Parish, but the overwhelming response from the community was a catalyst—it proved to him that real change was possible.

Parish, who turns 42 this January, isn’t used to being noticed. After graduating from UT with a kinesiology degree, Parish has spent the last two decades quietly working to improve the lives and conditions of South Dallas residents, through preaching, working with the local youth community, and more often than not, simply volunteering his time and money to anyone who needs it.

He knows South Dallas intimately. “I’m an Oak Cliff kid, born and raised,” Parish says of his own neighborhood, about 10 miles west of Dade down I-30. “There’s a good side of Oak Cliff, and there’s a bad side of Oak Cliff.” On the “bad side,” conditions there aren’t far from the ones the boys at Dade experience: low-income, low-performing schools, violence, drugs, and more.

But mention his name to anyone in the area, and they’ll respond with a smile. Parish has the kind of  warm energy that can fill up entire rooms. He has a big personality, a hearty laugh, and an empath’s ability to make everyone feel like family. He genuinely cares about each person he meets, which is why he has everything invested in his hometown.

The momentum and response from the community, and by proxy, the nation, to the Breakfast with Dads event led Parish to zero in on what he saw as the root cause of the problems facing his community: a lack of father figures in children’s lives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 million children are living without a father figure in the home—more than one in four. Black and African-American children are the most likely group to live in single-parent households, where more often than not, it’s a single mother. Research consistently shows that kids are affected by this absence in a multitude of ways: it creates a higher risk of poverty, behavioral problems, substance abuse, incarceration, obesity, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of school. Parish sees this—and more—first-hand.

In an effort to break the cycle, he founded A Steady Hand last summer, a nonprofit aimed at fighting the effects of fatherlessness by providing male mentors for boys in the community.

“I believe that when we, as men, are present and active in our family lives, communities, schools, city organizations, and churches, we can steady that situation,” Parish says.

When Parish isn’t giving a sermon at True Lee Missionary Baptist Church or spearheading A Steady Hand, he’s hosting a social-media based talk show, The Sports Preacher, or serving on the boards of the African-American Museum of Dallas, Parkland Clinic, Tapestry Ministries, nonprofit Behind Every Door, and on the mental health and homelessness, community policing, and pastoral advisory committees at the Dallas Police Department. He also conducts workshops for boys in the juvenile court program at the Dallas County Youth Village.

Family and friends often tell him he’s doing too much or that he’s crazy. When asked how he manages to juggle it all, he responds with his signature full-bellied laugh.

“There was a period in my life where I felt like I was useless and worthless,” Parish says. His heart was telling him to fix the problems he saw in his community, but he didn’t know how. After years of building up resources and connections, now, he says, he’s “just grinding.”

Parish admits his work-life balance is a blurred line at best, but he’s aided by guidance from his wife of 16 years, Monica (“An Aggie, of all things!” Parish, a die-hard Longhorn, laughs). The couple has five kids of their own, both biological and adopted, and have welcomed countless others into their home, whether it be extended family members or kids from the community in need of a home for a night—or a couple of months. “My wife has told me ‘no more extra kids please,’ because I just come home with a kid who needs a place to stay,” Parish says. “Family is very important to me—structure. Having kids feeling safe and secure, knowing that somebody’s there for them.”

Family—and the value of higher education—was instilled in Parish from a young age by his parents, Rev. Donald Sr. and Deborah, who were among the first classes of African Americans to graduate from Southern Methodist University. They raised Parish and his older sister, Kimberly, a retired Army veteran, in the same community Donald Sr. grew up in. The Parish family has roots three generations deep in Oak Cliff, a historic neighborhood in the southwest corner of Dallas. Parish’s grandfather, Rev. Robert L. Parish, established the family name in the area when he founded True Lee Missionary Baptist Church in 1938, whose legacy has been continued on by Parish’s father, who has served as its pastor for 27 years.

Parish says that by 17, God was “calling him” to preach, though his father tried to dissuade him from the family trade at that young an age. Nevertheless, he soon began preaching at David W. Carter High School and leading Bible studies. Despite charting his career path as a teenager, Parish knew college was still the next step. “I was raised not as, ‘Are you going to college?’, but, ‘What college are you going to?’” he says.

Parish’s mother says he resolutely decided to attend UT when he was in fourth grade. She was wary of how Parish would adjust, coming from a small, predominantly black community, to attending UT’s massive campus, which at the time Parish enrolled in 1995, was only comprised of 4 percent black students.

This reality hit Parish on his first day of class when he walked out of Jester East to look upon a sea of students who looked nothing like him.

“My heart was beating fast,” Parish says. “I was scared, and in that moment I had to tell myself, ‘Donald, walk down these steps. You deserve to be here, they gave you an academic scholarship to be here, you were accepted just like the rest of these students, you can make it.’ It was a huge adjustment.”

Parish didn’t let the initial shock hinder him, and instead threw himself into community involvement. During his time on the Forty Acres, Parish was president of the Christian fraternity Gamma Phi Delta, led multiple Bible studies, and served as director of the Multicultural Information Center, where he met lifelong mentor Brenda Burt. Even then, she could tell Parish was special. “Donald was very strong-willed and could see beyond other people’s imagination,” says Burt, who spent 34 years at UT serving in various roles, including as a professor, director of alumni and undergraduate relations, university outreach, and the Multicultural Information Center.

“Texas shaped who I am,” Parish says. “It made me grow up, it made me address issues, even racially, in my life. UT was the first time I really felt like I was in a white world. My community was all black, my church was all black—so it was different. But I’m so grateful for it.”

Parish draws on UT to serve as a beacon for what’s possible, and what can be changed. Since 2000, he has led more than 20 tours to UT with the intent of exposing kids in his community to the possibilities that await them in college and trying to improve upon the percentage of black students that attend, which has only climbed 1 percent—to 5—since he was at UT.

“I think his heart, his soul, and his head says to him, as a black man, he needs to do something,” Burt says. “The something he’s doing is trying to encourage and train these young black men to not stay where you are, because the whole world is yours. Within a black community, a white college doesn’t seem like it’s ours, but it is. Texas is yours. This is yours.”

As an undergrad, Parish says he would longingly look at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center as he walked by, some days hopeless he would even graduate, struggling with difficult classes and grades. Last September, Parish was honored in that very building with the Unsung Service Award at the Texas Exes Black Alumni Network’s Legacy Dinner. True to form, Parish focused on others, crediting his parents and dedicating the award to Burt for fostering his leadership.

“That’s been Donald, he just has a gifted heart that never stops,” Burt says. “He never stops giving.”

Parish’s desire to give back intensified when he stepped outside of his own world. On the “good side” of Oak Cliff, his friends were a lot like him:  raised in a two-parent household, college-bound, never arrested. But after talking to his classmates from Carter, and later, at UT, he realized many had a completely different experience—one he found was common in his community and needed to change.

“I had five of my classmates die my senior year in high school,” he says. “It haunts you. I say, you see a hole, fill a hole. You see a need, fill a need. Don’t wait for anybody else to help you. Help is not coming. So I just got back to Dallas and started working.”

For the past two decades, Parish hasn’t stopped.

Even Parish’s parents admit they are just now beginning to realize the impact their son has as people approach them and tell them how much Parish influenced their lives.

“I think there are hoards of things we don’t know that Don has done,” his mother says. “Anytime there was a kid in trouble in the community, he would be the first one there, even just to feed them or give them clothes. He just sees a need and he tries to take care of it.”

Parish describes his desire to give back as inherent in his upbringing.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me to be great, because I come from a long line of great men,” Parish says. “But I had to do things my way. My dad always told me, ‘A light shines brightest where it’s darkest.’ So I tend to pick the darkest areas, or the places that need it the most.”

Kristen McNeal, BS ’10, who has been volunteering with Parish to help launch A Steady Hand, says the program’s early success is due to Parish’s deep ties to the community, bolstered by relationships built over decades of living, working, and serving each group.

“It’s very rare to have a person who’s not afraid of anyone and who’s as comfortable as he is in his own skin,” McNeal says. “But then on top of that, has the education and exposure that The University of Texas provided him, and the skill, drive, and ambition to do things not just for himself, but for the world and community.”

A Steady Hand focuses on three areas: educational exposure, male mentorship, and developing men. This manifests itself through one-one-one mentorship with men from the area and boys from local schools, and group events that encourage community and life skills. Not only does Parish want to emphasize the possibilities for the boys involved, he also wants to provide support to the men volunteering their time. Coming from a nonprofit background, McNeal is all too familiar with the lack of male volunteers.

“If we can have a way of inspiring people to give back and come to these communities where perhaps they’re from or perhaps they’re not from, then our children and our futures will be better for it,” she says.

Leonard Moore, vice president of UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, met Parish a few years ago and says he quickly recognized the authenticity and necessity of his work.

“I don’t think we talk nearly enough about the impact of fatherlessness on communities and families, but it’s tremendous,” Moore says. “Many of our social problems can be attributed to men not carrying out their responsibilities, so I think [A Steady Hand] is a great place to start. Mentoring programs aren’t flashy, they aren’t sexy, but they’re needed.”

Parish has served as a mentor himself to countless kids in the community, including Tiffany Johnson. Johnson grew up in a house where people constantly sold and used drugs, leaving her with little support at home and an unreliable father. After she started attending Central Dallas Church in middle school, she met Parish, who was working there as a youth pastor.

“Donald was the only father figure I had,” Johnson says. “He came to my cheer events and was always a big supporter of everything I did. He made sure I stayed on top of my grades and took SAT classes every year.”

Parish even took Johnson on college tours, and despite his attempts to persuade her to attend UT, she fell in love with Baylor, and became the first person in her family to go to college, graduating with degrees in psychology and sociology. Now 32, she works as director for a college readiness program and contributes her success to Parish’s guidance.

“Up until middle school, no one had expectations of me, no one cared what I did, and then here comes Donald,” Johnson says. “I’m like his child, and he’s raised so many of us. I don’t know where I would be without him.”

It has been nearly 25 years since Parish attended Carter High School. But walking with him through the halls of his alma mater, as he kills time after a meeting and before he picks up his daughter, Dominique, it’s apparent that he’s not taking a stroll through old stomping grounds or a trip down memory lane. He holds no official job here, and yet somehow, this is his domain. Every person we pass recognizes him. He casually asks the staff about their children, performs secret handshakes with students, and even offers some onion rings from his Whataburger lunch to kids lingering in the halls. “I know you’ll only be nice to me if I give you food,” he jokes with one of the girls. He has a commanding yet compassionate presence, and a sense of humor perfectly prescribed to whoever he’s talking to. He knows everyone’s name and details about their lives, checking in on an administrator’s nephew who works for the University of Oklahoma, or as Parish jokingly calls it, “zero-U.”

“I walk these same hallways where I got in trouble, and it’s cathartic,” he says. “I call Carter my office. I just love everything about it. I love the smell, the feeling I get—and I love the kids.”

The south-Dallas institution is notorious for the story of its 1988 football team, which famously beat Friday Night Lights’ Permian Panthers on their way to claim the 5A State Championship title, only to have it stripped three years later. The infamous scandal that caused the title to be revoked was officially due to an investigation that revealed the school was violating Texas’ no-pass, no-play law, lying about players’ grades. To make matters worse, five days after winning state, a string of robberies began in the community, which were ultimately linked to a handful of Carter football players, some of whom served time in jail.

The events left a stain on the community that still remains, along with underlying issues in the school like below-average graduation rates, low test performance, and violence. Carter was the natural place for Parish to begin his new work, and where, this past September, he launched A Steady Hand’s first initiative, a male mentorship program known as “Men of CC.” The group’s kickoff event featured former NFL player Greg Ellis and a competition among the boys to create a theme song for the organization. The ask of volunteers is a simple one: complete a background check, visit your mentee at lunch twice a month, and attend his sporting events, school performances, or other extracurricular activities.

During the fall semester, men went through background checks and completed trainings in order to become mentors. Volunteer Brian English, an executive coordinator at Concord Church and former director of UT Outreach in Dallas, signed up because he recognized how big the need was. English says he was fortunate to have his father be a big part of his life and how it shaped him, but a lot of people he knows did not have the same experience.

“I just realized I was poured into so much, so I just have an obligation to pour into young men,” English says. “I think Reverend Parish has a unique ability to draw men in, engage them, and call them to action that most people don’t have.”

Carter principal Jonathan Smith says he immediately jumped on board with the Men of CC program. Because Parish is an alumnus, Smith says he understands the demographics and community in a way that ensures success. As for the impact on campus, Smith says he loves walking around and seeing men simply having lunch with students, or being a familiar face in the stands at athletic events.

“It’s a great motivator for our young men to see someone that looks like them, that’s successful, that’s doing great things,” Smith says. “It gives them an aspiration for what they can reach for and what they can continue to work hard to achieve. Being able to see that there is life beyond—and a great life beyond—what they presently know, is really a great motivator for our kids.”

On the first Wednesday of November 2018, Parish, along with Smith and two students from Carter, are in Plano. Outfitted in a suit with a burnt-orange tie and matching pocket square, he’s pitching a partnership between A Steady Hand and Intuit at the latter’s headquarters. Parish enthusiastically talks about the possibilities of working with the company’s African ancestry network—career days, internships, and even organizing basketball tournaments in the office’s courtyard. Eyes light up both in the boys and possible mentors as Parish shares his vision.

This meeting is just one on the list of many Parish has filling his calendar. As interest in Parish’s organization has continued to grow and spread across the country, it only validates what Parish has known for a while: the problems he’s trying to address are pervasive, spread across race, class, and society as a whole.

“The frustrating part of it is, the very systems that are in place to help what A Steady Hand is trying to do have failed our communities for years,” he says. “If other organizations were doing what they were supposed to do, there would be no need for A Steady Hand. My thought is, if I do what I need to do around the country [well] enough, then we should be putting ourselves out of business because the problem should disappear. But right now there are a lot of problems.”

Parish says when he looks at a lot of other nonprofits and organizations, he doesn’t see a desire to truly make a change, and there’s a huge underrepresentation in their leadership of people from the communities they work in. So what’s the seasoned public servant’s advice to those looking to make a real difference in their own communities?

“Stop waiting on someone else to fix the problem,” Parish says. “You have to be relentless. If it’s bothering you, if it’s keeping you up at night, then respond to it. There are a lot of people who talk about it, but you’ve got to be about it.”

Top portrait by Trevor Paulhus. Other photos by Stephanie Drenka.

 
 
 

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