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From Seedling to Branches

Branch to Hope seeks to address youth, family issues


It may have appeared to the roughly 750-800 people who attended the inaugural Day of Hope at the brand-new Branch to Hope Community Center on Sunday, May 20, that the whole operation just appeared out of thin air. It’s only been a couple of weeks since the organization took possession of its new 23-acre facility situated just between Aledo and Annetta.

While things have moved quickly the last few weeks, the machinery has been in motion for a while now.

The catalyst for the organization may have been the death by suicide of Hayden Hunstable, just four days shy of his 13th birthday, on April 18, 2020.

The Aledo community rallied around the Hunstable family, but the pain of the loss motivated Brad Hunstable, Hayden’s father, and MJ Bentley, who now serves as the Branch to Hope chair, to do more than just grieve.

“MJ was my neighbor when we lived in Bella Flora, and when Hayden passed she was one of the most important people in our lives to help us through that,” Hunstable said.

The family decided to move, and since Bentley had recently moved to Walsh, the Hunstables followed.

“I don’t know why, but I called MJ four or five days [after Hayden passed] and knew she had a brother that made movies.”

Bentleys brother, Bill McAdams, Jr., shot the movie Gallows Road in Aledo in 2015. Bentley is a partner in Fort Worth Studios, a multimedia production company.

“I’m calling you — I don’t know how this works. But I feel like I need to talk about this. And I don’t know why,” Hunstable told Bentley.

Hunstable had just recorded a Facebook video with the title “COVID killed my son, but not in the way you think.”

The video went viral and gained national attention, with Hunstable receiving sometimes 10,000 messages a day from “people who were concerned about what’s happening in the world — what’s happened with our kids, concerned about the polarization of the country, that lack of faith in the country,” Hunstable said.


The seedling

Bentley put Hunstable in contact with her brother Bill on about the fourth day after Hayden passed away. The result of the collaboration was the award-winning movie “Almost 13,” which raised the awareness of suicide.

(“Almost 13” was written and directed by McAdams, and produced by Bentley and Therese Moncrief. The story of the development of the movie will be in a future issue of The Community News. Watch it at https://haydenscorner.org/almost-thirteen/)

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10-17 year olds. In fact, the three leading causes of death among teenagers in the United States are accidents, suicide, and homicide.

Hunstable saw a connection between some of the technological change and youth mental health.

“You’ve seen the data around what’s happened since 2006-seven-eight where the iPhone was introduced, the Xbox was introduced, Facebook was introduced,” Hunstable said.


The roots

During the last few years Bentley has been leading bible studies and volunteering her time in the community. In that experience she has seen the pain and struggles of many young people.

Depression and suicide have both been rising among adolescents in recent years.

Bentley felt the need for a “safe, intentional, educational, caring, fun place for kids and their families to use the neighbors around them to help navigate through the tough times.”

She reached out to Hunstable.

Hunstable feels that schools in many ways have shifted from being places where students learn good life skills to more academic topics like math and science and preparation for standardized tests. Broken homes and families, divorce rates, and the pandemic added to the mix.

“There’s just so much pain and suffering and division and we both love this town and so I think through seeing our experience, she (Bentley) started thinking about all these things and when she came to me around this idea of this community center, I was 100% all in. Cook Childrens’ Hospital has recorded a video last week and the number of suicide attempts are through the roof,” Hunstable said.

“A lot of it is just bad foundational skills in life, something to teach kids — how do you react to a bully? Why should you not vape? How do you know how to deal with anxiety and hearty stuff that just happens? How do you deal with something that’s tragic in life?”

But it’s not just the kids; the parents also lack some of the required skills.

“Conversations are the first step to safer kids,” Hunstable said. “For parents, it’s tough to know how to do that. And so when she (Bentley) said that we can build foundational skills for kids, we can be a place for parents to come and learn some of this as a community and help their own kids. And we do it with a underpinning of faith. You know, to me, it just seems like a very logical thing and hopefully we can branch these out across the whole country.”


The growth

The seed was planted, it sprouted, and quickly branched out into a fully-functioning community center.

“So you can see that this is such a beautiful place of 23 acres of lots of stuff here,” Bentley said, referring to the property the Branch to Hope organization had just purchased. “It was $2.1 million. So it takes money to actually make this happen and purchase this property. So we went out fundraising and I had raised a significant amount of money for the down payment for our loan to purchase this. Well, that money was raised from people in the community.”

Bentley said she prayed, asking God what the organization should be.

“This is your (God’s) place because that was the main thing, is this is all God, not us. He’s just using everyone here at the table.”

Gordon Jones, owner of Chicken Express in Willow Park, texted Bentley and said he had a dream that the logo was a tree.

“And it has fruit and it’s all about the fruit and it’s Genesis and he starts quoting Genesis,” Bentley said. “And he said ‘I just wanted to let you know that that’s what the Lord laid on my heart.’”

Around the same time Bentley was driving to school and a notification popped up on her phone from Bobbie Cox.

During the pandemic, Cox was looking for a way her bible study group could continue.

“One day I was sitting, reading Second Corinthians 1:11. And I looked at my clock, and it was 1:11 p.m. And the scripture says, gather and pray,” Cox said. “So the Lord said, pause at 1:11 every day, send out a text to your group and say, ‘Let’s pause and pray for our country and each other.’”

Eventually she had an app developed called “Branch to Hope.”

It was that app that popped up when Bentley was driving to school.

“I went, ‘oh my gosh, it’s a tree. I forgot it’s a tree!” Bentley said. “And so I looked at my daughter and I said, ‘Maddie, what if we just partner with Branch to Hope? She’s the online community center. I’s a massive worldwide online community center to gather people and pray. Why couldn’t we be the first brick and mortar for Branch to Hope?”

The women quickly agreed, and that’s when Bob McCarthy came along.

McCarthy had a non-profit that was no longer active, but he never filed the paperwork to dissolve it.

“I didn’t resolve it for a reason. I didn’t know what the reason was. Now we do,” McCarthy said.

So the new Branch to Hope organization quickly had a 501(c)(3) non-profit designation. Quickly, as in three days. All they needed was a place.

They had their eye on the 23 acres for some time.

That’s when Aaron Valencia and Stacy Lynch from Lynch Legacy Group came along. They were keeping their eyes peeled for properties that would meet the needs of Branch to Hope.

Valencia has two children who graduated from Aledo High School.

“I’ve gotten invested in the youth here and in Aledo and the school,” Valencia said. “I love our school district.” Valencia wanted to be on board.”

As a new agent, he approached Lynch, and the two of them searched for properties. Both Lynch and Valencia had family experiences that moved them to participate.

Valencia said he knew of other youths who have attempted suicide.

Bentley actually found the property, and Lynch took on the job of handling the real estate.

“I’m a very faith-based person so I believed in what their vision was and Aaron and I just started working together on it,” Lynch said, sitting in what was to be the Welcome Center at Branch to Hope. “We sold this house twice to a residential person but it doesn’t have a master bedroom. So the house never really worked (for residential). It was on the market almost a year.”

But Bentley saw the property as a place for the community center, and events accelerated.

“It just started clicking,” Lynch said. “We’d come out here and I felt the Holy Spirit. I could feel him moving in this place. And things were clicking quickly and once you own the vision, and you believe in it, then God takes control and he makes it happen.”


Flowering branches

The final piece was having appropriate financial guidance, provided by Brad Manning.

“I was in this meeting that Stacy was referring to — it was just a business meeting that all of a sudden became a passion and I stuck around,” Manning said.

And Manning shared future plans for the 23 acres. The welcome center is the main structure as the property stands.

“The Welcome Center is the place you come to where it starts,” Manning said. “We’ve got in our master plan a 20,000 square-foot community center, basketball courts, community rooms, on deck to be built. We have a private school that is set up — that doesn’t mean the public school system won’t be able to use this. But we’re offering options and opportunities for everyone. Now I know everybody laughs — I’m the CPA, I’m the numbers guy. And it has been the most amazing journey, watching what God has done.”

For more information, visit www.branchtohope.org.


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