Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

Catherine Rosas grew up in a single-parent household. Her mom worked while going back to school, but the money she earned went toward living expenses — not a college fund. Without help from the Exchange Club of East Dallas, Rosas never would have been able to attend college. 

“Getting out of that situation was the goal,” says Rosas, a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate. “It wasn’t just me and my mom fighting. It was the community fighting. The Exchange Club was a big part of that.”

Since 1948, the group of 50 men has raised money to meet the needs of public school children in East Dallas. Each year, the club donates books, new coats and “wish list” items to students at Woodrow Wilson, J.L. Long and eight elementary schools.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio. 

“We have some high-needs schools, and raising funds from neighbors is hard to do,” Exchange Club treasurer Tim Webster says. “We want to help the disadvantaged schools compete.”

Despite its small membership, the club multiplies its efforts through partnerships with retailers and nonprofits like Essilor Vision Foundation, which trains club members to perform eye exams and put glasses on children who need them.

“I remember asking a little girl if she could see OK,” Webster says. “She said, ‘I can see better now because the teacher moved me to the front of the class.’ Now that little girl can sit anywhere in the room she wants.”

Despite significant fundraising efforts, club members wanted to do more. In 2015, they hatched an idea for a signature event that would allow them to continue current programs while raising money for student scholarships.

The inaugural event kicked off in 2016 with Eric Nadel, voice of the Texas Rangers, as the keynote speaker. Table sales, raffle sales and two auctions netted more than $100,000 for the community. Since then, the fundraiser has featured Brad Sham, voice of the Dallas Cowboys, and “Blazing Saddles” actor Burton Gilliam, who donated boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali for the auction.

In four years, the signature event has raised more than $420,000. Members hope that total will continue to grow with former First Lady Laura Bush headlining this year’s event. The education advocate, who wrote the children’s book, “Our Great Big Backyard,” will speak for about an hour.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

Rosas, now a junior majoring in environmental geoscience at Texas A&M, will introduce her. Rosas was given the honor after giving a poignant speech at last year’s event. As she recalled the hardships of her childhood and the struggle of commuting 30 minutes each way to attend Woodrow’s International Baccalaureate program, the audience was moved to give $10,000.

“I know without this scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college at all,” Rosas says. “It’s not about how difficult your situation is. It’s how you’ve used what you’ve gone through in a positive way.”

The four scholarship recipients, who receive $5,000 annual scholarships over four years, are perhaps the greatest fundraisers, just by sharing their stories.

“We had a scholarship winner a few years ago who said, ‘You gave me a coat when I was in kindergarten and a scholarship when I was a senior,’” Exchange Club president Erik Ward says. “That’s pretty powerful stuff.”

The work the club accomplished sparked interest among several men in the community. Until a year ago, they had to wait for years on a waiting list before they could join. The club’s popularity prompted the president to create eight new associate member positions, but the idea is to keep the group small in case members need to mobilize quickly to meet an urgent need.

Members meet every Wednesday for lunch at the Lakewood Country Club, where they develop plans for upcoming events. In fall 2020, the group hopes to launch its inaugural charity golf tournament, which could add between $30,000 and $50,000 to the budget, Ward says.

Plans are also underway to expand Woodrow Fest — a night of food and drink that raises money for the scholarship fund. For the past five years, the festival has taken place at the Pour House on Skillman Street. Next year, it will move to a park where neighbors can play games, eat from food trucks and listen to live music outdoors.

“Every member has a giving heart, and everyone who has been inducted in the last two decades has heard, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ at their induction ceremony,” Ward says. “It’s not our motto, and it’s not in our bylaws, but everyone lives by that.”

A Life of Firsts: An Evening with Laura Bush

When: Feb. 8

Where: Lakewood Country Club, 6430 Gaston Ave.

Cost: $5,000-$30,000 for table sponsorships. Individual tickets are not for sale.