Nestled among rolling hills and abundant wildflowers in the spring, and smack dab in the middle of Houston and Austin, Brenham overflows with history and community pride. Not only is the town close to the Washington-on-the-Brazos historic site where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed in 1836, Brenham ISD was the first public school district established in Texas in 1875—a point of pride for the townspeople.
Perhaps you know Brenham because of Blue Bell or Blinn College. But locals also know Brenham as the home of the GameChangers.
In 2013, a group of Brenham citizens attended the Texas High School Coaches Association conference, where they saw a video addressing fatherless homes in the United States. The video posed a simple question: Are you willing to do what it takes to change the game? It struck a chord with the group, who recognized that children in their own community could benefit from more positive role models. Heather Thielemann remembers asking her fellow attendees on the way back home to Brenham, “What now?”
“We’ve got to do something with this,” Thielemann, cofounder and president of the Brenham GameChangers, said at the time. “We can’t just go back to our jobs and do nothing.”
That simple realization led to the birth of the Brenham GameChangers. Ask anyone involved with the organization to describe their movement, and they will probably tell you the same thing: “We are a team of people who has changed our attitude to make a difference.”
“We have passion for our community and for the young people who live here,” explains Kaylee Roznovsky, a third-grade teacher who handles social media for GameChangers. “We come from different backgrounds, and each of us has our own ‘why.’ But each of us, when you get down to our core, needs grace, hope, and faith, which is all we are trying to extend to others.”
GameChangers weaves through many fabrics of the Brenham community, meeting children where they are and aiming to fill the gap in character education, practical life skills, and funds for extracurricular activities. ATPE spoke with members of the GameChangers to find out what makes their unique movement work.
Starting with the Core
The foundation of GameChangers lies within the schools, primarily through implementing the Core Essential Values curriculum. Each month, elementary students learn a new “value word.” When a student demonstrates that value, a teacher can hand out a “value-able” card for a free meal at a local restaurant. During April, the word was “hope.”
“The Core Essentials are what leads students into thinking about things they can do for people,” says Roznovsky. “Even if you don’t need to be constantly thinking about hope because you have it, you might need to shed light on someone else and help them have hope. It’s them taking ownership of these Core Essentials and knowing they can put them into practice and help other people experience them.”
High schoolers are getting in on the core action as well. Steve Puckett coaches football and track at Brenham High School, sits on the board for GameChangers, and teaches Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL). His PAL students excel at demonstrating core values.
“PAL 1 students mentor younger students from elementary through middle school age,” explains Puckett. “They do that in addition to the Core Essential Values. Our PAL 1 class puts up signs all around the high school with quotes so that every time a kid is walking down the hallway, they’re going to see some sort of sign that deals with whatever the core value is that month as encouragement.”
PAL 2 students go even further by getting local businesses involved, thanks to the PEACE (Public Education Ambassadors for Community Engagement) Program, which is supported by the GameChangers and the Washington County Chamber. Nearly 25 local businesses are involved with the program. PAL 2 students meet with business leaders to discuss how to implement the core values.
“My students actually sit down and conduct an interview with that business owner and talk about ways the business can incorporate that core value externally with customers, whether it be signs on the door or table cards with quotes. They also talk about how that business can encourage that core value internally among staff,” says Puckett.
Puckett adds that not only does his PAL class learn how to speak to adults, but the employees gain something, too. “They talk about how much it meant to them and their staff to have these kids come in and do this and the positive energy that their business has now because of this program.”
The connection between students and businesses helped embed GameChangers in the community. “Now we’re starting to see kids knowing these values and living them out,” says Thielemann. “We’re planting seeds.”
Learning How to Adult
How can you expect a child to know what they’ve never been taught? GameChangers aims to solve this question by hosting events such as mock interviews and etiquette dinners.
“It’s those practical things we take for granted sometimes, that we think every kid gets from their mom or dad,” says Dr. Walter Jackson, superintendent of Brenham ISD and a GameChangers board member. Jackson joined the district in 2015, and one of his first stakeholder meetings was with the founders of GameChangers. He recalls being “blown away” by their mission and vision. “GameChangers has afforded all of our kids a more equal footing,” he adds.
Fellow board member Michael Groves echoes Jackson’s sentiments. Groves has managed several successful companies and helped create the organization’s mock interview training using his contacts in the area. He recalls seeing people show up for interviews unprepared. GameChangers realized that most people have not been taught how to interview, especially students right out of school. Groves felt obligated to help those who may not receive the preparation they need at home.
“I grew up with two parents, and I always knew I was going to college,” Groves says. “Not everybody has that, and there’s too many kids who just fall through the cracks. Anything we can do to help seal some of those cracks, I think we need to try to do. We wanted to have kids go through as real of an interview process as they could, so that when they actually sat down for an interview, they would be more comfortable.”
The confidence students gain is palpable. They also get introduced to prominent community members who may be able to assist them down the road. Putting students in a position to succeed extends to the etiquette dinners GameChangers hosts. Here, students learn everything they need to know about attending a business dinner or luncheon, including how to dress, when to put cell phones away, which fork to use, and where napkins go.
“A young man came up to me and said he’d never used a fork and knife before, and he was always embarrassed to ask,” Thielemann remembers. “It choked me up! Here he was learning how to hold it the American way, the European way. They also learn how to calculate tip. It’s all about meeting them where they are.”
Some of Jackson’s favorite GameChangers moments have happened at etiquette dinners. He likes to say that his middle name is “Service” because he believes it’s vital that the students see adults modeling service and leadership.
“When we teach our students etiquette, I put on the bow tie, white shirt, and apron, and I serve them,” Jackson explains. “I felt humbled when I was able to walk around and serve the students as they were learning how to handle etiquette. We know there are not a whole lot of times they’re going to need to do that, but you never know when you’re going to put a kid in a position like that, and it saves them from social embarrassment. We’re teaching kids life skills and how to interact with various layers of society.”
Funding the Extracurriculars
The town of Brenham, and Washington County as a whole, is buzzing with festivals, Little League games, and other after-school and community happenings. Because of this, GameChangers made funding scholarships for extracurricular activities for the town’s students its next focal point.They have awarded $10,000 in scholarships since fall 2018.
“We have so many extracurricular things going on,” explains Roznovsky. “Most of the time, it’s the same group of people because there are some kids who just can’t financially do that. If we can solve the financial piece, then we can have a lot more diversity in these activities.”
“Extracurriculars are a huge deal,” she continues. “If kids can get involved in something they are passionate about, they are more likely to succeed in all aspects of life. Kids need to be around people and to interact, learn how to win and lose with grace, learn how to disagree without hate, communicate, work as a team—the list could go on. We want to help as many as we can.”
One simple way the organization has raised money is through selling Brenham GameChangers T-shirts throughout Brenham ISD, a fundraiser made even more popular when Jackson allowed staff members to wear jeans with the shirts on the first Tuesday of every month. When educators purchase the shirts, organizers use the opportunity to share information about the scholarships.
“When you give to us, it’s not just you buying a T-shirt and getting to wear jeans,” says Roznovsky. “You’re also paying the registration fee for a kid to get to play soccer or go to piano lessons.”
For Randy Wells, it’s about “transforming and empowering lives.” Wells is an associate pastor at Mount Rose Missionary Baptist Church in Brenham and sits on the board of GameChangers. He believes GameChangers has revolutionized the school district and parents’ involvement in the community.
“I think sometimes, particularly in at-risk and minority communities, there’s a disconnect between the school and the parents, but GameChangers engages the parents to feel like they’re part of the process. Instead of being something that we do to the children, this is something that we do with the children and their families,” he explains.
Wells sees how GameChangers has positively influenced every facet of Brenham’s community—educational, ministerial, political, business—and how the shift in attitude has allowed GameChangers to develop academic, cultural, and athletic support. Perhaps no fundraiser has been more successful than the Purse Bingo event.
For this event, organizers sold tickets for tables or individual seats. Attendees were given Bingo cards, and winners received designer purses (Coach, Louis Vuitton, etc.) and other items. During the evening, GameChanger members showed a video featuring several scholarship recipients—a reminder of what the program is all about. The event was a massive success.
“That event converted to scholarships to help kids who want to do things like little league sports. Some kids don’t do baseball not because they don’t like it but because a glove is $100, a bat is $50, to sign up is $200, so to be able to offer scholarships is really important,” says Wells. “You never can underestimate the seed you sow in another person’s life and how that can turn into a great harvest.”
“It takes a village to raise the youth” is an adage Brenham and its GameChangers take quite literally. Serving and providing for the community is part of the town’s persona. “People show up here,” Roznovsky says simply.
For Jackson, service to each other is also the “core fabric” of America. “We are all servants, and we’re modeling that in front of students. When the superintendent says, ‘I want to come and serve with you,’ it makes people want to follow them. When people see your genuine commitment to serving others, it inspires them to want to do that. That’s what I’m trying to do with my leadership.”
No doubt Brenham is extraordinary in its community-wide efforts, but Groves emphasizes that the GameChangers model can work anywhere. “I think sometimes people don’t know how they can make a difference, but everyone can do something,” he says. “You just have to keep looking.”
“We all need a gamechanger,” concludes Thielemann. “Sometimes you’re the gamechanger, and sometimes you need the gamechanger.”
To learn more about the Brenham GameChangers, visit brenhamgamechangers.com