Michael Ruiz, Houston Middle Assistant Principal, engaging in conversation with Freedom Prep scholars during Houston's annual Giving Day with Agape North.

It really started about 3 years ago.  I was a brand new administrator at Houston Middle School, and Agape North was a fairly new company looking to make connections with local schools.  I met Joe Williams in my office, and he began sharing his vision for how Agape North, a custom apparel company, could partner with Houston Middle School to give school uniform shirts to local students in underserved areas.  Growing up as a missionary kid in Taiwan and working with orphanages in the Dominican Republic, partnering with Agape North seemed like a no-brainer.  I loved their passion for serving others, especially children, and was excited about the opportunity to get involved.  We began to use Agape North as our primary provider for our annual class t-shirts.  Each homeroom designs and wears the shirts for special events throughout the year, including spirit days and field day.  We love our shirts, but more importantly we love what they represent.

Two years ago, Agape North partnered us with Freedom Preparatory Academy in Southwest Memphis.  We had the opportunity to travel to their elementary school and hand deliver school pride t-shirts to each student.  We took a group of HMS students along with us so they could directly witness how their class t-shirts helped create t-shirts for the kids at Freedom Prep.  We were overcome by the welcome we received while we were there and amazed at the discipline and focus of their students.  The teachers and staff at Freedom Prep place a strong emphasis on instruction, student achievement, and college preparedness.  This was evident in the celebration we witnessed where students were called to the center of a circle (created by students and staff) and recognized for their successes.  College memorabilia lined the walls and each teacher provided a personal touch by hanging a flag of the college they graduated from outside their door.  It was truly an inspiring sight to witness.  We knew there was something special about this school, and we asked Jason Baker from Agape North if we could partner with this school in years to come.

Houston Middle visits Freedom Prep to deliver school pride t-shirts and learn about the important work of Freedom Prep Academy.

Houston Middle visits Freedom Prep to deliver school pride t-shirts and learn about the important work of Freedom Prep Academy.

It wasn't until our second year of visiting Freedom Prep that I met Courtney McNeal, a community outreach specialist for the school.  She gave us a tour of their school and also set up some time for our students to interact together.  The students formed mixed groups of HMS students and Freedom Prep students and were given a series of questions to help them become acquainted with each other.  This was such a valuable opportunity for our students to find things in common with students across Memphis who they might not have the chance to meet if it were not for this experience.  They shared laughter and made friendships.  It was an experience that our students continued to talk about even after we left.  Freedom Prep has made an impression on all of us.  Courtney McNeal and I began sharing stories and contact information.  We made a commitment to look for more opportunities to partner our two schools together in the spirit of unity and community.

Houston Middle and Freedom Prep students engage in small group discussion.

Houston Middle and Freedom Prep students engage in small group discussion.

About a month later I received an email from Ms. McNeal expressing an interest in having each of our schools host each other in a friendly basketball game.  I thought this was a great idea, and we quickly set dates that would work for both our basketball teams and cheer squads to be a part of two nights.  On February 16, we hosted Freedom Prep at Houston Middle.  It was important for us to make them feel like they were a part of our family.  After all, we had been to their school twice, but had not yet had the opportunity to host them.  We had a lot of fun having our two basketball teams compete, but what our students enjoyed most was the time following the game where we engaged in a Snapchat challenge.  Our cheer and basketball teams were able to work together to come up with a quick Snapchat video that ranged from hilarious dance moves, impressive flips, and of course - the mannequin challenge.  We also called our friends at Agape North and they provided a shirt for all the students on the teams as well as the staff who helped coordinate the event.  It was truly a night of fun, fellowship, and community with our friends from across Memphis.

A week later we traveled to Freedom Prep where they hosted us in a community basketball game.  They made us feel at home and were so hospitable.  They provided us with a meal, gave each of us a Freedom Prep beach ball (how awesome is that!) and engaged our students in a dance off challenge!  I'm pretty sure Freedom Prep has us beat when it comes to dance skills!  But we all had a great time and enjoyed reconnecting with our new friends.  We cannot wait for the next time our two schools are able to unite for the greater good.  I am grateful for companies like Agape North who truly bring our Memphis community together.  Truly, together we are better.

Michael Ruiz / Assistant Principal, Houston Middle School