Bryce Hillhouse knows the value of education. He worked hard and made his own path. Today, he serves as Development Coordinator at the Lydia Patterson Institute a United Methodist-related and church-supported middle and high school in El Paso, Texas. Through their robust scholarship program, Lydia Patterson provides a quality education to impoverished children in Texas and Mexico.
In this conversation, Bryce shares the value of education, the importance of spiritual formation, and the challenges Lydia Patterson has overcome at the U.S.—Mexico border and through the coronavirus pandemic.
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This episode posted on October 30, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
My guest today is Bryce Hillhouse. Bryce is the Development Coordinator at the Lydia Patterson Institute, a school for 7th thru 12th grades in El Paso, Texas. Lydia Patterson is a United Methodist-related and church-supported institution. In 2020, Lydia Patterson met a couple of amazing goals: a 100% graduation rate and a 100% in college placement rate.
In this conversation, Bryce and I talk about the unique challenges of some students who live in Mexico and cross the border daily. And we also chat about the adjustments the school had to make when COVID-19 made them move to all online learning, like so many other schools.
Joe: Bryce, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bryce Hillhouse: Thank you for having me.
Joe: You work at the Lydia Patterson Institute which is an educational facility in El Paso, Texas. Tell me about the school. Tell me about your clientele. Just give me a really quick synopsis of what you guys do there.
Bryce: Well, essentially, you know, we’re a ministry within the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, and for over a hundred years we’ve maintained a commitment towards creating an exemplary educational setting for students to exceed beyond their own expectations. I find, especially now, there’s an oppressive nature within education. And we seek to unbind those students and unlock their potential through faith-based education.
Joe: Tell me more about that. What do you mean by unbind and unlock?
Bryce: Well, for me personally, I’m from Florida. And the high school that I went to, it had a graduation rate of roughly 59%. So Lydia Patterson has maintained roughly a 98% graduation rate every year. And then last year we had 100% during the COVID pandemic. And then 100% of those students we then placed within schools.
Joe: That’s a crazy success rate for your work and a great testament to the ministry that’s happening there. So tell me about the typical student.
Bryce: So we have like roughly a split population between those that are underprivileged and then those that are wealthy and can afford the tuition. As a private institution we have a paid tuition. So, our tuition is roughly about $4500 yearly. So the ones that can afford that are from a wealthy background, whereas some are further in Mexico in the Chiapas region where it’s poverty-stricken. So we like to reach out into Mexico and El Paso, within the school barrio area and provide educational opportunities through paid scholarships towards people that would essentially no longer be able to attend schools as such. In Mexico after you make it through 8th grade it’s paid education for then on either way. So a lot of students stop at 8th grade, and then they go into the work force. We’re trying to negate that.
Joe: Many of us listening and for me growing up, schooling was just something that was there all the time. You didn’t really think about it—the opportunities for education in the United States are free and they’re right there for us. It’s really amazing that the church has done this work to make sure that people receive a quality education who might not otherwise get that. Can you talk a little bit about why this is important in the life of the church and how it’s an important piece in the lives of the individuals who have this opportunity to go to the Lydia Patterson Institute?
Bryce: Where I grew up in Florida, I didn’t have any opportunities like that. I have never seen a school like this. This is created by the United Methodist Church. We are a ministry within the South Central Jurisdiction.
Where I grew up it was pretty hard. So most of my friends and family, and what not, they didn’t have any opportunity to succeed beyond high school. And some of them didn’t even graduate. And then a lot of them, they didn’t grow the correct path. Some of them went towards crime, and some of them went to prison.
But this school…. The teachers, the staff, the faculty, the administration, the whole way down, every single one of them takes an investment in each child’s life to make sure that they keep them on the straight and narrow. They instill values and ethics that they need to succeed throughout the society.
In that sense this is possibly the greatest school I’ve ever seen because of the effort that they put into every student, not just one student, but every single student from when they come in to when they graduate and even beyond when they graduate.
Joe: What are the ages, grades of the students that attend?
Bryce: We teach 7th to 12th grade.
Joe: So you’ve got youth from like 12 years old all the way through 18?
Joe: So having students that are going to school in Texas and living in Mexico, I imagine, do they continue to live there when they’re going to school? Or do they live on campus?
Bryce: They do tend to live within Mexico and then cross the border. So that is a constant issue that we have to monitor—the border relations, you know.
Prior to COVID-19, when it started to tense up a little bit, we had pre-emptively created a relationship with one of the chiefs on the border. I think it was Ponte Libra that we did that, and essentially we established a relationship so that we can maintain border crossings.
So, especially in regards towards when we were going to have our graduation because that was a big deal because it was during pandemic. So we created a memorandum that allowed them to cross with no hassles. It was actually quite efficient, and we were able to have a physical graduation on campus.
Joe: People were able to come to graduation and do all that?
Bryce: Yeah, we kept it socially distanced, though. But we did have a physical graduation.
Joe: Were people able to attend online if they wanted to?
Bryce: Yeah, we had Facebook Live. We even had a drone up in the sky. So you had an aerial view of it. We couldn’t accommodate for all of their parents, but we could have a physical graduation for the students. So the parents that weren’t able to attend, we made sure that they were able to virtually attend. We did a graduation video and edited it made it fancy and pretty and what not and posted that on our website as well as YouTube.
Joe: We’ll have to provide links to that on the notes page for this episode. People can see that. Roughly, how big was the graduating class?
Bryce: The graduating class was 73 and it was 100% graduation rate.
Joe: You mentioned a couple of times about COVID-19. We all know that it became a challenge about whether kids were going continue in school and how things were going happen. How did you guys meet that challenge?
Bryce: Yeah. That was a constant problem here in the beginning. We did close it in March, the physical attending. But with border relations we had already set up safeguards just in case. And in 2013… So we’re going 7 years back. In 2013 we created EIBL online which is a tech-driven educational setting. So with that program we created things such as smart boards in classroom tablets, eBooks, everything to create an electronic learning environment as well as Schoology as our LMS. And then we have Khan Academy.
So basically, like, they can bring their classroom to their homes. And it was already in place ready to go once COVID-19 hit. So we were able to transition immediately.
Joe: So in some sense you had a 7-year head start on all the schools that were trying to figure it out when this happened.
When we talked earlier you mentioned to me one of the success stories, of your school and how some of the kids go from very difficult situations to being high school and college graduates. Can you share one of those stories with us?
Bryce: Okay. There’s this family, So the family’s called Alba. When Dr. Anda, you know, she set aside the scholarship for the family. The 2 sons, and then 2 daughters, I believe. The last daughter is the one that just graduated. They were actually living in a cardboard and wood, you know, a mixture of the two, to create like a shack essentially. And we were able to provide them with paid education to come here. They would never have to pay anything for every one of their kids. And then the last one we just placed at Oklahoma City.
The most recent things I think that happened here is we were recently published within The Dallas Morning News. And essentially they’re just covering a summary of what’s been going on with Lydia Patterson and has been maintained. I believe proper coverage of faith-based institutions, such as our own, is important within the community, as a we across America. And one of the biggest problems is lack of faith. You see so many people full of anger, full of hatred. And I believe that we can instill and calm them, more faith and Christian background. We can help those people.
We have a book. It’s called “Voices of La Lydia.” It was published by Adair Margo. This is essentially a history of every individual story. The whole way throughout our history. So it will give you an idea from a first-hand perspective to see how the students felt when attending and then what they’ve become.
Joe: That’s remarkable. I imagine there’s quite a list of amazing stories that are in that book.
Bryce: We have lawyers. We have musicians. Even our current music teacher, our orchestra teacher, Hilda Rodriguez. She’s a former alumnae. When she graduated she became a touring artist within Mexico. She was actually was in the recording in Mexico City, and she toured throughout Latin America. Eventually she came back and wanted to give back towards the school that gave towards her. And now she teaches here.
Joe: That’s really remarkable, that she’s able to do that and come back and give to those from whom she received.
On a really small scale, in part of my ministry I was a youth pastor many years ago. And one of the great privileges of doing that was being able to be in relationship with these young people. I did learn pretty quickly that—I wasn’t a school—but what I was teaching them was less important to me than being in relationship with them. And I imagine that the relationships that your teachers and staff and other people create with the students must be really deep and profound and probably carry on after graduation?
Bryce: When I first got here—it’s kind of funny—one of the biggest problems, you know, as they might say, is the fact that so many graduates and alumni come back to the school. And they come back during the school hours because they want to connect back with their teachers. You know, they want to talk with them on a personal level. No longer the instructor to student, but thank them for all the effort that they gave towards them. It’s a level of comradery I had never seen before.
There’s this event that they do here, and it’s the senior retreat. And I think that’s one of the biggest forms of connection that they create with the students. We have the senior sponsor as well as several other staff and faculty as well as the principal. They’ll attend the senior retreat. And it’s a spiritual retreat. And from that they’re able to connect with them on a more personal and spiritual level.
Joe: Wonderful. And one of the things you also told me about, too, is that chapel is a normal part of your week. It’s part of the rhythm of the week at the school. Tell me more about that.
Bryce: Right now it’s virtual. But previously we would have a worship every Wednesday. And we have the lay ministry that handles that. We have students that’ll come up. They have individual verses that we’ll cover. And then we have the praise band. They’ll come through and they play praise and worship music.
But our pastor, he’ll lead the worship and guide it along the way – generally in regards towards the specific verses that we pick throughout the week. And then we also have a yearly verse that we pick. Like, last year…. I have it right here. Last year ours was Proverbs 17:17—“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”
So we have a certain method that we do in regards towards the worship.
Joe: That’s excellent. You’ve mentioned a couple of times that music is an important part of worship, but also part of the education one of your students went on to become a musician. What other programs do you have that are kind of beyond math and science and history and those things?
Bryce: So, we have two different music ones. Well, actually three. We have the worship team. We have orchestra and then we have mariachi. And then beyond that we have robotics club. We have junior honor society. We have journalism. And then obviously we have sports. So those are the primary ones that we cover.
Joe: Wow. I mean, there’s a full curriculum for everybody to be involved and to grow and to connect with coaches and directors and all of those people that are part of the staff there. That’s really exciting.
I want to talk a little bit more about some of the challenges you guys must face with immigration, with the border crossing.
What are some of the unique difficulties that you have from time to time? You mentioned some of the ways that you’ve worked some of that out. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Bryce: One of the most consistent problems, yet minor, is tardiness because of the border crossing. So it doesn’t matter when you show up to cross the border, you could be held up for a while. And then some students, you know, they don’t drive across, they’re not driven by their parents. They have to walk. And that’s a few blocks. So it takes a little bit to come over here. So we have to count for tardiness. For the most part if we know ahead of time it’s not an issue, but that’s a consistent situation that we have to deal with.
Our president, she created a relationship with the chief over there. That way we could avoid any hang-ups for our children crossing. That one was done peremptorily for the graduation so that that wouldn’t be an issue. Because before, you know, COVID-19 it was never something anybody anticipated. And then it created a plethora of restrictions and what not. So we had to account for that and ensure that it wouldn’t create a negative effect upon our students because it would be pretty bad if they weren’t able to have a graduation after all the effort that they put into education. You know? We wanted to avoid that issue.
Joe: I imagine that’s a huge event every year, right, the graduation.
Bryce: That’s a big one. There was another event that we had planned previously. We weren’t able to do it. We do this yearly segundo barrio night. And basically it’s like an extravaganza, gala, what not, where we invite the community to come to our school and we provide them with services that they wouldn’t have. Free of charge. Completely charitable and what not. We give them food. We give them health checks, haircuts. And then fun activities, almost like a carnival. So it’s a big thing. And it’s unfortunate but this year we weren’t able to do it because of COVID-19 and the restrictions.
Bryce: So this neighborhood is called the Barrio, and this is called Segunda Barrio Day.
Joe: Which means what? Help me.
Bryce: It’s second ward. Like Secundo barrio. Second ward or second neighborhood.
Joe: Yeah, Okay. That’s really cool.
Bryce: It’s a wonderful little event. Primarily it’s to give towards the community that’s accepted us for over a hundred years.
Joe: And the students serve and are a part of that as well, I imagine.
Bryce: Yep. As well as local community partners and other educational institutions, as well as health providers and what not. They come out here and they give checkups and….
We raise the money ourselves to put it all together. And we create events. We have a dunk tank. We have bouncy houses. Basically we want to just create a fun event for the whole community as well as provide them with services that they are denied because of poverty.
Joe: As you may not know, but some of the people who listen probably know, I am a bit of a Methodist history nerd. And one of the things I really like learning about these things is that this is so much in line with, going all the way back to John Wesley. One of the things that he did was found a school for the kids back in the day, in the 1700s. Not everybody went to school for free. And so he made sure that the miners in town outside of Bristol, England would be able to have a school. And so he created Kingswood which is one of these schools that’s still in existence more than 300 years later. And that’s right in line with this work. So it’s part of who we are as United Methodists, to make sure that people are getting the education that they need and that they receive.
Tell me about, like, what do you see in the spiritual growth of the students. Where do you see…do you see like a spiritual maturity in some of them that’s different than you would have expect from a typical 16-year-old?
Bryce: Oh yeah. A lot of them become faith leaders within the community. And they eventually, as they grow throughout their years at Lydia Patterson, a lot of them pursue pastoral work. You see these small…because they come in at 7th grade. So they’re little. And then they eventually grow to adults. And it’s beautiful to watch because as they physically grow you watch as their faith and understanding of Christianity grows.
Joe: Yeah. That’s remarkable. And I imagine you get the younger ones who are probably reluctant to be part of that outreach to the community, and by the time they’re juniors and seniors I’m guessing they’re excited to do that service work.
Bryce: Oh yeah. I agree entirely. The main thing that we always try to maintain is, you know, Christian love isn’t simply projected towards an individual, but transcends individualistic approach. If God is love, then love is aimed at the entirety of humanity rather than the soul of one. But the soul of the individual is important. But, humanity as a whole, that’s the goal. And that’s what we try to do here.
We don’t necessarily proselytize because you want them to want to come to faith. You know, you don’t want to push it upon them. You want them to make the choice to come towards God.
Joe: I think every parent knows exactly what you’re talking about. You don’t want to berate them into being people of faith, and just to continue to catch it from the people around them who are helping them grow spiritually.
Bryce: Exactly, because too often when you just pushing and preaching God upon people that don’t want to hear, you end up pushing them away.
Joe: Yeah. And I love that image of sharing the love with everyone because everyone has value, right? We’re all children of God.
I think you and I talked about before the image of God that’s present in each person. And it’s interesting that that’s one of these things that I’m hearing a lot about today as we go through, in the United States, with this crisis over racial justice. I keep hearing over and over again is that we need to recognize the image of God in people who we might see as different than us. Really we are all one big human family and we should be sharing the love with all of those, whether they’re members of the school or the people in the community, whether they’re from the United States or living in Mexico, whether they speak English primarily or Spanish primarily.
You guys just have this wonderful example of what it looks like to me to be the body of Christ growing up together. And it’s an exciting example.
What’s the most exciting thing to you about your work, about the school? What gets you excited to come to work in the morning?
Bryce: A lot has to do with my past. The main thing that I love about coming to work and creating here is the fact that I can go ahead and help kids like me and like my friends that didn’t have anything, didn’t have any opportunities. The opportunities that I’ve made I made for myself. I had to join the military to go to college and then pursue further and beyond. But I don’t want other people to have to go through those hardships.
So when I go out there and I’m trying to fund raise and I’m trying to grant write and I’m trying to create opportunities for kids here, I’m trying to do so that the next generations of Americans, immigrants, whoever comes over here, that they don’t have to go through the difficulties that I went through. That they can be afforded the life that they deserve, that God wants for them.
Joe: What gave you the desire to do something different?
Bryce: I guess it was more than one thing. But I have to say it was probably my father. I was raised by a single parent. My dad raised me the entirity of my life by himself essentially. And he really pushed me to persevere and exceed beyond the expectations that were set forth for many like me growing up. I would say he kept a firm hand and continued me along the path essentially.
Joe: Kind of wouldn’t let you go where you might have gone.
Bryce: Exactly. He wouldn’t let me make the mistakes. No, but he would, but then he’d help me. He’d guide me up and what not.
But me as a person as well. I guess I took a step back. I looked at the big picture of what’s going on around me. And I saw many of my friends, they weren’t really going anywhere. They were just moving along with the current. And a lot of them never even left the town or made it beyond where they are. They’re still in the same place and they’re not trying any harder. But I think one of the main things is the lack of faith within the community. I think that plays a big part towards direction of youth.
Joe: And one of the big things that you guys are building there is… the kids connect to one another as people of faith. Right? They’re building their own kind of community.
Bryce: These kids are constantly worshipping. When I say we don’t proselytize, but this is definitely a house of God in itself. Everywhere you look there’s words, there’s Scripture. You can talk to every teacher. We consistently make apparent the message of God.
Joe: It’s one of those things, too. We usually think of peer pressure as a negative thing. But it can be positive, right? When you’re surrounded by people who are doing good things, you want to do good things, too.
Bryce: Exactly. Every path is open. We have a multitude of paths that we can go on as people. There’s a path that God wants for you. But he’s not gonna push you to that path. He’s presenting it in front of you, and it’s up to you with your free will to pursue that path.
We try to guide them in the right direction, guide them down the path to faith. Me personally, I don’t believe that faith is essentially something you have a quantity of. I believe faith is more or less a path between you and God, on a personal relationship level.
Joe: Well said. I like that a lot. That leads me into my final question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape, which is simply this: what helps you keep your spirit in shape?
Bryce: I like solitude and being able to pray towards God. I like to have more of a dialog with God. It’s not necessarily like I’m hearing him talk back to me, but more or less seeing it through what’s in front of me. I reach out to God and then I see as he provides in front of me, where we’re going. I like to consistently maintain a positive and personal relationship with God.
Joe: I think you’re hitting on something that I like a lot, too. I’ve often talked about a sign of some spiritual maturity to a certain degree is being able to see the sacred in the every day. We don’t just see God in worship, but we also see God, like you were just talking about, our day-to-day living, and it becomes this conversation.
I like the way you said that. It was just having a conversation with God, maybe not verbal all the time, but there’s a give and take there, where you talk to God and you get signs and signals from him as well.
Bryce, this has been a really good conversation. And thank you so much for spending some time with me today.
Bryce: No, thank you so much for having me. It was an honor.
Joe: That was Bryce Hillhouse, Development Coordinator at the Lydia Patterson Institute a United Methodist-related and church-supported institution. To learn more about the great ministries happening at the Lydia Patterson Institute and to see the video of their 2020 graduation that Bryce talked about, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the notes page of this episode. We’ve even put a link there where you can support their work with a donation.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that’ll help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.