Three young men formed a bond forged by friendship, football and community that will carry on in college.
Although their time playing at Western Hills High School is over, Aaron Martin, Keyon Butler and RJ Moilan will continue to be together at the University of Central Missouri.
Western Hills, near the long-neglected neighborhood of Las Vegas Trail, is like most of Fort Worth ISD schools in that the majority of students are from low-income families. In response, nonprofits LVTRise and Cougar Pride Alliance come together to provide supplies, clean clothes, hygiene products and food for students in the neighborhood.
Martin, Butler and RJ Moilan are recipients of such support and credit the community rallying behind them as part of their success. They are looking forward to a future in a new state, with new friends, new experiences and a new opportunity to play the sport they love, said RJ Moilan, who plays center.
“I’m going to be with my friends and leave my family, that’s the hardest part really, but playing sports is my main objective,” Aaron Martin, who plays cornerback, said.
Butler grew up in the neighborhood and knows how much neighbors are willing to do to help one another, he said.
“It just means so much to me for everybody to see my process and what I’ve gone through and the way I’ve grown up and how much I wanted this,” said Butler, the team’s quarterback and District 6 4A-1 MVP. “Everything that I’ve ever wanted is starting to come to me and for everybody to be so supportive of it, I love it.”
A community need met
Nestled between portable buildings on the Western Hills High School campus, the Cougar Corner is stuffed to the brim with clothes, soap, feminine hygiene products and enough food to feed an army.
The portable building is Patty Pressley’s domain. The students call her Miss Patty, and every day she packs up dozens of meals for Western Hills students.
Miss Patty “always has their back,” said RJ Moilan, whose dad, Blake Moilan, is the head coach.
Pressley attended Western Hills high school in the late 1980s. After hearing the school needed basic supplies like food and hygiene products, she returned to create a nonprofit called the Cougar Pride Alliance.
The students she serves at Western Hills feel like her own children, Pressley said.
“These kids get a bad break because people talk about Western Hills, ‘It’s the school that’s by Las Vegas Trail, there’s so much crime and prostitution and whatnot,’” Pressley said. “But it’s nothing like what you hear in the media or from other people. I mean, these are really good kids.”
In Western Hills High School, 87% of families are economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency. An overwhelming majority of students are students of color. The friend group is aware of the perceptions people outside their community have about Western Hills High School.
“If you go anywhere in Fort Worth, not even just the west side of Fort Worth… there’s always going to be something negative to say about anywhere. Nobody’s perfect. Nothing’s perfect,” Butler said. He hopes more people follow the example Pressley sets when helping others. She’s genuine and looks out for students, Butler said.
In 2017, Las Vegas Trail was the subject of a Star-Telegram investigation that revealed decades of neglect by the city and county. An excess of substandard housing and lack of services in the neighborhood led to widespread poverty and crime.
City leaders took notice and improvements continue to be made, most recently the funding of an affordable housing project.
It’s empty nesters and retired people’
The area surrounding Western Hills High School looks very different compared with the late 1980s when Shawn Doherty, chairman of the Cougar Pride Alliance board, attended the school.
“If you look at the residents around here, it’s empty nesters and retired people with no attachment to the school,” Doherty said. “The lack of community involvement with the high school is so different now than when we were here 35, 40 years ago.”
The need to support students isn’t isolated to Western Hills. Schools across Fort Worth ISD are looking for ways to help students meet their basic needs. A similar portable building is set up at Morningside Middle School and other campuses where students can access clothes and hygiene items.
A few years ago, a community meeting about Las VegasTrail brought neighbors together to find solutions to community issues. Coach Moilan said an assistant coach attended the meeting and said his team — and the rest of the students — needed help feeding themselves. They often came to school hungry.
Coaches were providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches so the players could eat something before heading out to practice and games. Many of the students couldn’t afford the deposit due at the start of the year to purchase meals before games throughout the season.
On the same day the coach voiced those concerns, he left with food for the kids, Blake Moilan said.
Now, the athletes get to have real meals before games — like spaghetti and meatballs or chicken alfredo.
“I don’t know that Patty imagined what it would turn into and I think that it has been a huge help for our kids,” Blake Moilan said. “If you look at the success rate at Western Hills over the last four years, there’s definitely a correlation between it.”
Case in point: After last making the playoffs in 2010, the Cougars advanced to the bi-distrct round in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Cougar Pride Alliance is supported by alumni of the school, churches in the area and the Rainwater Foundation. The support allows Pressley to purchase supplies and expand what she’s able to offer students. Pressley now provides about 1,000 meals to students every month.
The Cougar Corner serves as a resource for all students. Recently, Pressley was able to collect 75 prom dresses to be worn by students. She often keeps clean clothes stocked in the pantry for students who may not have access to a washing machine at home.
“People like Miss Patty are a perfect example. She’s a great genuine person and without her a lot of this stuff wouldn’t happen.” Butler said.
Community makes progress near Las Vegas Trail
The Cougar Pride Alliance is not the only nonprofit working to support schools in the area.
LVTRise, a nonprofit founded in 2018, supports several of the schools in the area through programming.
The organization’s mission is to provide resources for the community, particularly in the areas of education, employment and housing. Recently, LVTRise purchased prom tickets and graduation gowns for students at Western Hills High School.
“ZIP code shouldn’t matter, you should get the same opportunity,” Paige Charbonnet, executive director of LVTRise, said. “We want to make sure that the students here have the same opportunity to go to prom and get to go and walk the stage and have a cap and gown just like everybody else.”
LVTRise has received several rounds of investments from the city of Fort Worth in support of their work. In 2019, the city purchased the Westside YMCA and converted the building into the RISE Community Center. In 2021, the city established a public improvement district in the area. The funds are used for such things as increased police patrol and litter abatement.
The volunteer work continues.
LVTRise, alongside the Cougar Pride Alliance, are raising funds to provide Western Hills students with college supplies such as laptops and dorm bedding. And Charbonnet is currently working to establish a workforce training program for students after they graduate.
In order to expand the nonprofit’s capacity, Pressley and Charbonnet said they need more than just Western Hills alumni and Las Vegas Trail’s surrounding communities to get involved. The revitalization of Las Vegas Trail has to become a citywide and county issue, Charbonnet said.
“This is not something that’s going to be fixed in the next six weeks sort of thing,” Charbonnet said.
Despite myriad needs, there are many people already working in the community to create change, Charbonnet said.
“All you hear is the bad, the bad, the bad, the bad, there’s so much good,” Charbonnet said. “There’s so many people that care, and they will fight tooth and nail for kids like Keyon and Aaron, and RJ. They’re good kids, and they deserve the world.”
During this past season, the community support helped the Cougars earn a 6-5 record and playoff berth. And despite losing that game, Butler said, his time at Western Hills High School felt complete.
Moilan and Martin agreed – they stuck together for four years and became a family. Now, they’re looking forward to their future with a new team in a new community.
Pressley is sure that she and the rest of the Western Hills community will keep supporting Butler, Moilan and Martin — even from over 500 miles away.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the name of Patty Pressley.
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rachel Berhrndt is a local government and accountability reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com.
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