Dallas Morning News, August 30, 1998
Box 655237,Dallas,TX,75265
(Fax 972-263-0456 ) (E-Mail: DMNEditor@aol.com )
( http://www.dallasnews.com )
A lesson in kindness: Bar company provides support, gifts for adopted grade school
By Christine Wicker / The Dallas Morning News

JR's is an Oak Lawn bar and grill with a $4 million-a-year liquor business. Sam Houston Elementary is Dallas' oldest school and one of its poorest.

The distance between them is exactly a block. But until last fall, they were worlds apart.

Then, as principal Ricardo Weir likes to say, destiny intervened.

This fall, JR's and three other gay bars owned by Caven Enterprises Inc. are adopting the entire school. They're planning Halloween parties, Christmas gifts for every child, Valentine celebrations and an Easter egg hunt.

Sam Houston has some new playground equipment this year, courtesy of JR's. Its yard is free of cockleburs for the first time in a long time. Teachers were welcomed back this fall with a pizza-and-Pepsi party. The children have more than $1,000 in new school supplies. The number of tutors signed up to read to the children once a week has doubled, from 35 to 70.

It all started last fall when JR's manager, Donald Solomon, was looking for a small Christmas project. Bar employees had collected Christmas toys for the school in previous years.

But Mr. Solomon wanted to do something more. He wanted to provide Christmas for a few families who live in the little neighborhood of frame houses behind the Cedar Springs Road bar.

"If you want to say no, it won't hurt my feelings," Mr. Solomon remembers telling assistant principal Bernette Austin.

Christmas is for children, Mr. Solomon said. "We don't have kids," he said. "Some of our families reject us."

So the assistant principal considered the offer. Sam Houston is the seventh-poorest school in the district, Mr. Weir said. Free lunches go to almost 97 percent of the students.

The principals told Mr. Solomon they couldn't pick one or two children from a class of 22. So the bar manager sighed and said, "All right, we'll take a whole class. Pick one."

The principals thought about it. But once again, they couldn't choose. "How can we choose one kindergarten class when the other eight are equally in need?" they asked.

"How many children are in the kindergarten class altogether?" Mr. Solomon asked. One hundred and seventy, came the answer.

Mr. Solomon went back to his employees and took a vote. "Can we adopt the entire kindergarten class of Sam Houston Elementary School for Christmas?" The vote was a unanimous yes.

As Christmas approached, the children wrote letters to Santa. They signed their first names only. The letters were posted on windows of the upstairs bar at JR's.

When the big day approached and many children's letters remained unanswered, customers began to pick them off the windows. Some customers took 10 or 15 letters. One wealthy man bought toys for 30 children.

JR's employees built the replica of a huge stocking in the hall of the school and filled it with stuffed animals, one for each class. Mr. Solomon and friends had won them by tossing dimes at the State Fair of Texas.

"Bartenders," he said, shrugging. "We spend a lot of time flipping bottle caps."

Children wrote essays, and the winners went home with an animal.

Then came party day.

"We were the unknown Santas," Mr. Solomon said. While the children were in P.E. class, JR's employees sneaked into the school, decorated the rooms, set out refreshments and delivered the toys.

"One hundred and seventy kids, and all of them got what they wanted and more," Mr. Weir said. "I'm not talking little toys. I'm talking skateboards, Barbies. The teachers were in shock. They told me they'd never seen anything like it. Nobody had ever adopted a whole class before."

"We had these little kids going home lugging these big boxes," Mrs. Austin said.

The teachers had planned to have a Christmas party of their own, but at the last minute a sponsor backed out. Mr. Weir was mulling that over one day when Jack Polachek, Mr. Solomon's boss and owner of Caven Enterprises, came by. The principal and bar owner are longtime friends, and Mr. Weir and his wife and Mr. Polachek are godparents of the same children.

"I told him we needed some money, thinking maybe he would give me $200," Mr. Weir said.

Mr. Polachek asked: "How much do you need?"

A thousand dollars.

"I'll write you a check," Mr. Polachek said.

And so the relationship grew.

The Dallas Independent School District oversees all such partnerships, said Michael Ralston, the district's director of community relations.

"We meet with partners to see if the business ... [is] appropriate to working with schools and children," said Mr. Ralston, a former Sam Houston PTA president.

As for Caven Enterprises, the company has done tremendous work at the school, Mr. Ralston said.

"They're giving the school books and funds and school supplies," he said. "Everything that these schools are lacking, this group is stepping in to bring them. I think it's great that this is an opportunity to set a precedent."

Rebecca Bermudez, president of Sam Houston Elementary's community council, said she's grateful that JR's has stepped in to help.

"I'm very much attuned to the fact that this is a gay community. ... They are our neighbors, and, by golly, they support the kids. They've done some wonderful things," Ms. Bermudez said.

When the school runs out of ice, someone goes to JR's.

"We can ask and don't have to feel miserable about it," Mr. Weir said.

Teachers park in the club's private lot. "I have 71 employees and 35 spaces," the principal said. "Jack gave me the key to the gate of his parking lot."

At Easter, JR's employees rented a school bus to transport kindergartners to an egg hunt at Lee Park. Two thousand candy-filled eggs were hidden.

"We held three to four hundred back to make sure that everyone went home with at least three or four eggs," Mr. Solomon said. "We didn't want anyone crying."

The club also gave each child a stuffed bunny, chick or duck.

Mr. Solomon said he never required that anyone volunteer, but employees couldn't resist the chance to help the children.

"There's no hate in the children's faces," Mr. Solomon said. "They don't know about hate."

Early this summer, someone noticed the school's playground. "It was really sad," Mr. Weir said.

In 100-degree heat, JR's bartenders picked up burs and painted equipment. One of the bar's liquor suppliers heard about the effort and donated a $3,000 wooden playset.

The bar's employees also bought slides for the playground, which had none. A lawn company helped with the yard at half price.

JR's buying power gives Mr. Solomon contacts with businesses across the country, and he uses his power for good.

"I don't beg," he said. "But if I tell them the situation, and if it makes them feel good to do something, I accept."

He does state the situation boldly. "Some of these kids are so poor, they aren't even allowed to talk about Christmas," he said.

One day Mr. Polachek was visiting Mr. Weir when the principal said, "Isn't that interesting? We're such good friends. You have four businesses. I have a school with four grades that need to be adopted. It almost seems like destiny, doesn't it?"

So Mr. Polachek went to the employees at the three other Oak Lawn bars he owns and asked them if they wanted to follow JR's lead in adopting Sam Houston classes. They did.

Mr. Polachek and his employees are careful that no liquor references or ads accompany anything at the school, he said. "We don't want to offend any parent," he said.

Mr. Weir said no parents have complained.

"They're our neighbors," he said. "We're not going away. They're not going away. And we need them."


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