By STEFAN MODRICH
A group of retired teachers in Fort Bend County has found a variety of ways to give back to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fort Bend-Harris Retired Educators (FBHRE) is a local unit of the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA), an organization of retired public-school employees. The group is composed mostly of retirees from Fort Bend ISD and Stafford MSD.
For the past seven years, FBHRE had joined with other organizations to support the FBISD’s Shared Dreams Holiday Cheer Event, which has traditionally provided meals for students in need.
In a year unlike any other, the group had to get creative and efficient with its efforts to feed those in need. Instead of scaling back, Kathaleen Eppler, a retired Sugar Land middle school teacher, said the group raised the bar, increasing its goal to feed 75 area families.
And FBHRE did so, receiving more than over 300 large cans of soup and 150 boxes of crackers in just four total hours, in two drive-up collection periods that took place in October and November.
Eppler said a team of six or seven retired teachers helped with the influx of canned goods from more than 40 people who drove up with cars stocked full with food donations.
“In previous years sometimes we would have to go out and (spend from) our budget just to buy some more soup if we didn’t get the quota that we thought was necessary,” Eppler said. “We collected more than enough. We collected a tremendous amount of food this time.”
She said the opportunity to volunteer was a welcome change of routine for members of the organization, which has been meeting virtually via Zoom since August.
In addition, Shared Dreams added a food pantry for non-perishable goods specifically for students to help those who may not have access to a district-provided meal on weekends.
The FBHRE also participates in the TRTA Children’s Book Project. The chapter selects an FBISD elementary school to receive new or lightly used books its members have donated during the year and collects school supplies for new FBISD teachers.
Normally, the organization would also do a fundraiser breakfast for local schools, an opportunity that has been closed off due to the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s really hard to even get anything into the schools,” Eppler said. “We have to call, we have to get permission from the principal, they have to meet us outside if we want to take it in. So it’s become very difficult this year.”
Eppler said another key part of the group’s mission is to be active in advocating for retired and active teachers, petitioning the Texas Legislature for pay raises for teachers.
She said she was concerned that House Bill 3, which was signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 and mandated increases to teacher salaries, would not be fully funded because of budget shortfalls related to the pandemic.
Eppler added the Fort Bend area has been fortunate to have representatives who have supported teachers. But during the upcoming legislative session, she said they will be lobbying for cost-of-living and pension increases for members.
“They passed some very nice legislation during the last session,” Eppler said. “With COVID coming up and all of the money has been distributed, we can hear them when the legislature starts, ‘Well, maybe we aren’t going to fund quite as much as we said we were going to.’ And we’re going to be right up in their faces if we Zoom with them, if we go and see them personally.”
People interested in volunteering for Shared Dreams can call 281-634-2916 or visit https://www.fortbendisd.com/site/Default.aspx?PageID=198 to donate or learn more about the program’s mission.