Laura and Alex Laywell spend most of their days working with refugee kids in Dallas’ Vickery Meadow neighborhood. At night, they open their home to them.
More than neighbors
Drop by the Laywell’s apartment and you’ll likely find several kids hanging out.
The Laywells and a group of teenagers sit at the dining room table playing One Night Ultimate Werewolf. In this card game, everyone assumes a different role: a villager or a vampire or a werewolf. Players have to figure out which one of them is the werewolf.
After the game and some pizza, they watch the movie "Little Giants." It's one of several movie nights the Laywells host throughout the year.
For the past couple of years, the Laywells have opened their apartment to help kids in Vickery Meadow. People from all over the world live in this densely populated neighborhood in northeast Dallas.
For the kids who live here, Alex and Laura Laywell aren’t just neighbors – they’re friends, teachers and counselors. For Thu Khaing, who's 17, the Laywells are also like parents.
“When I was having problems, I couldn’t tell nobody I was having a hard time, but they see that something was wrong so they speak up, and they talk to me, and they would talk about it and we, we cry together,” Thu said.
Thu was born in Burma and grew up in a village in Thailand. She used to go to the Laywells apartment every day to do homework. Thanks to them, she says, she’s become a better student at Conrad High School.
“They help me with a lot of stuff in school," Thu said. "They help me with my sport, and they help me with my homework to get my grades up. They also help me with reading, so I don’t fall behind in reading.”
Different backgrounds, same issues
The Laywells, who are both 27, met in high school. When they started dating, they realized they shared a passion for working with refugees.
Alex learned about Vickery Meadow from his sister. He felt an immediate connection to the neighborhood. During his last semester at the University of North Texas, he took classes online so he could live there.
Alex started working for Heart House, an after-school program in the neighborhood. Laura started volunteering there and became familiar with some of the issues Vickery Meadow teens face.
“Some of the normal issues that I guess American teenagers would go through are amplified, like body image or dating and any issue that’s normal for an American teen; they also are walking through that," Laura said. "But on top of that, with a different cultural background and their families believing different things."
Video produced by Heart House featuring Alex Laywell and some of the children who live in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood.
Today, she teaches third grade at nearby Jack Lowe Elementary, and over the summer, she’s working for a program that helps Vickery Meadow kids stay in school. Alex is now a volunteer coordinator at International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle refugees in Dallas. For both of them, opening the doors to their home felt natural.
“When we were dating, we talked a lot about we wanted our home to be open and just kind of a place for students to come over, and that was something that bonded Alex and I together,” Laura said.
The couple has also been guided by their faith. As practicing Christians, they say it’s their duty to help others. Alex says he wants the kids who live here to have as many opportunities as he did growing up.
“I want them to be able to do things academically or just simple things like go to Maverick games or have movie nights,” Alex said.
The kids even attended the couple’s wedding. Today, the Laywells take the kids everywhere – to the grocery store, community meetings and their parents’ house.
“The girls and I love to kick Alex out and do girls night where we just get to talk about what life is like as a girl and share and make face masks out of oatmeal,” Laura said.
Alex Laywell said people always compliment them on what they’re doing for the kids.
“I honestly feel like we get just as much or more out of it and, like, though they might be seventh or 12th grade or whatever age they are, they’ve certainly shaped every aspect of our lives," he said.
The Laywells say it’s hard to imagine their lives without these kids in it.
This summer, KERA’s education reporters are profiling folks making a difference in North Texas schools. We’re calling them American Graduate champions.