‘Love them into believing in themselves’: Waco nonprofit targets poverty cycles

Many families have felt the effects Talitha Koum has had on their lives as the organization serves southeast Waco. Photo courtesy of Susan Cowley

By Josh Siatkowski | Staff Writer

In southeast Waco — a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest poverty rates — the Talitha Koum Institute has combined science and faith for over 20 years, providing childhood development from birth and breaking generations-long cycles of poverty.

According to the United Way of Waco, 29% of children in McLennan County live in poverty. Compared to the report’s national estimate of 17%, children in Waco are almost twice as likely to be poor and thus more likely to be victims of abuse, drop out of school and remain poor all their lives.

Talitha Koum — Aramaic for “my child, rise up” — is unassuming on the outside. Located in an old boys and girls club on Clay Avenue that was once a World War II aircraft hangar, the building doesn’t look like a bustling center for child development.

However, with an inside tour from Kyle Knighton, Talitha Koum’s family partner, it becomes clear it’s more than just another building on the block. It’s the workplace of about a dozen individuals, a laboratory that studies the science of learning, a ministry of Christ, a meeting ground for loving and stressed parents, and a place of hope for some of Waco’s most at-risk children.

Susan Cowley, Talitha Koum’s co-founder and executive director, said part of the reason the institute is such a “Swiss army knife” of an institution is its unique beginning.

“It started with four women doing church together,” Cowley said. “It happened much more organically [than a typical school would].”

The predecessor to Talitha Koum, the Ministry of Hanging Out, began in 1988. The ministry operated in a house on 11th Street that was purchased by CrossTies Church and that was across the street from a public housing development home to many low-income families. Many of the mothers who lived in these apartments brought their children to the ministry, just to talk.

Cowley said the ministry was as laid-back and noninvasive as the name suggests.

In a 2023 newsletter, Cowley wrote, “We were not there to take a survey or fix problems. We came to listen, learn and love. For eight years, we did just that.”

As that eight-year period ended, the ministry had another seven years before it became what it is today. During this time, Cowley and her friends worked with students in CrossTies Church’s teenage ministry. However, after Cowley said they got tired of “going to more funerals than graduations,” the group decided they had to start younger to give at-risk children the best chance at a healthy life.

Cowley and the other women who would start Talitha Koum took this goal to a local elementary school, where they asked what the biggest problem was at the school. According to Cowley, the administrator responded, “By kindergarten, their mental health is shot, and they can’t learn.”

Knighton emphasized the importance of beginning education at a very young age — “working upstream,” as he calls it.

“They have missed so many … necessary experiences that make possible the wiring of their brains,” Knighton said.

After hearing the words of the elementary school administrator, Cowley and her friends decided the best way to help was to create a child care program that begins at birth — and they did just that. But shortly after beginning the program, Cowley said her colleague, Carol Selvesen, knew they needed to take a more empirically backed approach to generate results.

“You’ve got to develop the brain through their sensory system,” Cowley said.

After combining a long-standing dedication to faith with an evidence-based curriculum, the Talitha Koum Institute officially began.

Since opening in 2003, Talitha Koum has operated under a three-pillared program. One of these is the family partner program, in which parents meet monthly with each other and Knighton to remain engaged in their children’s lives.

Another is the mentorship program, which provides families who complete Talitha Koum with the opportunity to stay connected to the organization through an uplifting relationship with a participating family.

Providing a foundation for the entire institution, however, is therapeutic education from birth to kindergarten, which adopts principles of cognitive science like proprioceptive input and Dr. Bryce Perry’s neurosequential model of development.

The curriculum allows children to learn through methods that are proven to combat adverse childhood experiences. Children even receive yearly examinations in which their brain development is compared to the national average for their age.

According to statistics from Talitha Koum, its methods are working. 83% of Talitha Koum’s children graduate high school, compared to the national average of 64% for children in poverty. Of that 83%, 86% matriculate to higher education. Furthermore, 96% of Talitha Koum’s children meet or exceed national benchmarks in approaches to learning as well as social and emotional development.

Cowley and Knighton are full of anecdotes of caring yet stressed parents who, along with their children, have been completely transformed by Talitha Koum. Cowley shared the story of a child whom she mentored until she graduated high school. The mentee, who was once a very shy young girl, received a full scholarship to college and graduated in 2023 with a degree in child and family studies. Her own son now attends Talitha Koum, making him one of two second-generation children in the institution’s history.

As Cowley walked through life with her mentee, her mentee’s mother was able to secure her first full-time job since Cowley had known her. Cowley said this movement toward self-sufficiency and self-love is one of the main purposes of Talitha Koum.

“Our job is to love families into believing in themselves,” Cowley said.

Talitha Koum requires a three-to-one student-teacher ratio to give its children the best care. There are only 30 children enrolled, and the 75-child waitlist remains full at all times. Talitha Koum now has the funding to create another 9,000 square-foot facility in the lot behind the original building, and it is in the very early planning stages. This addition will more than double enrollment, creating space for 38 more students.

Knighton said he is incredibly grateful for the generosity of the people of Waco, as over 70% of Talitha Koum’s funding comes from individual donations.

“Waco is a city with a big heart,” Knighton said.

For big-hearted Baylor students or Waco residents who want to help, inquiries can be made through the website’s contact page.

Josh Siatkowski is a freshman Business Fellow from Oklahoma City, with majors in Economics and Professional Writing and Rhetoric. Josh is in his first semester at the Lariat, and he's excited to find interesting and important stories to share with his fellow students. He is still undecided about his post-college plans.