The Fort Worth District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a local elementary school continue a 31-year partnership

SWF Public Affairs
Published May 1, 2023
31 years and going strong

H.V. Helbing Elementary School counselor, Irma Morin, left, Fort Worth District outreach coordinator, Brittany Scruggs along with two other Helbing administrators pose for a photo during the Valentines Day social in February.

In August of 1992, during National Volunteer Week, more than 100 Fort Worth District employees, led by former district commander, Col. John A. Mills, signed up to volunteer in the adopt-a-school program.

But it was Efren Martinez, a US Army Corps of Engineers employee and his wife who worked for H.V. Helbing who were the catalysts which ignited the bond between the Fort Worth District and H.V. Helbing Elementary school. This couple’s vision resulted in a partnership which has lasted more than 30 years.

According to Brittany Scruggs, the Fort Worth District community outreach coordinator, initiatives and activities included in the partnership with Helbing include the Celebrity Reader Program, Earth Day Project, Pen Pal Program, Spelling Bee judges for 3rd to 5th graders, and science fair judging. District personnel also served as judges and speakers for school contests, participated in field trips and sponsored the Project Charlie Program.

Two of the older programs the Corps sponsored were the Project Charlie and the Celebrity Reader Projects.

Project Charlie was a key drug abuse prevention program for elementary school children based on building self-esteem. The focus was to teach students how to say no to drugs. This very successful program ran from November 1998 through April 1999 and targeted third grade students, who met with district volunteers every Tuesday or Thursday for 17 weeks.

“Celebrity Readers was a program where Corps team members read to Helbing's pre-kindergarten through second grade to increase awareness of the importance of reading,” said former Fort Worth District community outreach coordinator, Denisha Braxton.

The Earth Day celebration is an example of an ongoing event the Corps celebrates with the school. Every year during Earth Day, Corps team members meet with the school counselor and students to teach them about the different types of soils, landscaping techniques, animals, and water safety.

“Currently, with this program we include many of these same types of activities not only on Earth Day, but also throughout the school year as a part of our ongoing STEM outreach effort,” said Scruggs.

Over the 31-year partnership, students who are now adults often recall the positive impacts of the adopt-a-school program,

Athena Leal, a former fourth-grade student at H.V. Helbing who now teaches at the school, recalls meeting her very first professional business lady, her U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pen pal. Leal fondly recalls that each time she received a letter from her pen pal it made her feel grown up.

“I loved it and grew up knowing that because of what was said to me from my pen pal that I could be anything I wanted to be if I just did the work and got a good education,” she said.

According to H.V. Helbing school counselor, Irma Morin, many children are their family’s first generation to attend school in the United States as their parents left Mexico to give their children a good education and a chance at a better life.

“For the children to meet a professional businessperson and to become close to them via writing the letters, listening to volunteers read to them in English, and all the outreach to them personally means so much to the students and their parents,” said Morin, who has been with the school for 32 years.

On the Fort Worth District side of the partnership, many retired and former employees still volunteer and continue to give their support to the program.

For example, former deputy commander, Lt. Col. Andrew Liffring, still sends donations of supplies to the school for the pen pal program no matter where in the states or overseas his assignments have taken him. Liffring began the still popular tradition of the deputy commander push-up challenge back in 2013.

Braxton, who has since moved on to become the chief of media relations, with Headquarters, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has fond memories with her time as the former lead for the Pen Pal program and checks in with the program periodically.

“Being part of the tradition that the Martinez family started and knowing we are still making a significant impact on the students’ lives is very rewarding,” said Braxton.

The 31-year partnership is as strong as ever and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District, will continue its outreach efforts with H.V. Helbing Elementary School with the goal of increasing student test scores in reading, science and math.

Anyone wishing to be a part of the Adopt-a-school program can contact Brittany Scruggs at 817-886-1313, or