Ernie Gomez grew up in Northside Fort Worth. 

Life wasn’t easy. 

His mother died when he was 9 years old. His father was an alcoholic, and later, he had an abusive relationship with his stepmother. It wasn’t long before he ran away from home.

Gomez then moved to Houston to live with an aunt and uncle for a short time not long after his mother died. He was in third grade. Soon after, his father sent for him to come back to Fort Worth.

“It was traumatic because I didn’t know what would happen when I got back to Fort Worth,” Gomez said. “Before that, I lived a fairly normal childhood, outside of the fact my father was an alcoholic. But when I came back, it sent our life on a descension.”

All of his experiences led Gomez to live a life of service in the community that raised him — he is the president of the Children’s Charities of Fort Worth and North Side High Legacy Foundation, organizations that give back to the community through donations and scholarships.

When his father pulled a gun and shot at Gomez, the then-middle schooler fled from home to a friend’s house and would never return to live with his father, his older brother from a different mother, Michael Gomez, said. 

“We didn’t know about getting beat but then it became the norm. In the end, we found it was best we didn’t say anything because it would become worse. We would go to school with bruises but back then you didn’t ask questions — teachers and principals weren’t as involved with kids personally,” he said. 

Gomez said he used his traumatic experiences to give back to his Northside community. He grew up receiving “Christmas presents” from charities. The gifts weren’t always toys, but he said new underwear was just as good.

Gomez has a personal connection to the children of Northside.

“All of these things that happened to me as a kid in the Northside, I know what these kids could go through and have been through, so I feel it because I went through it,” Gomez said. “When I meet them and I see their spirits, it was the same spirits I had.”

This year, the foundation gave 11 scholarships to graduating seniors from North Side High School. While the scholarships don’t fully cover tuition, their money always helps in one way or another, Gomez said.

The students also commit to completing the four years in university when they receive the scholarship, and sending Northsiders to college is part of their effort to shift the culture, he said.

“The parents had the kids working — they needed the kids to work to pay the bills, so we had a hard time early on convincing them that the kids are being provided opportunities and they are gifted and need to go to college to prepare for bigger things,” Gomez said. “We’ve seen progress over the years.”

Michael Gomez shared the same sentiment — they learned about the power of education later in life.

“He realized how education changes a person’s life and changes their demographic drastically because of the knowledge that they can gain and also the financial freedom that they can gain from having a good education,” Michael Gomez said. “Over the years a lot of this has sunk into Ernie. He says this is the key to helping the people who are in similar situations that he was in when he was in high school. And I think that broke his heart — I think that said something to him.”

While the foundation has to reject a few scholarship applicants, he says they’re “all unbelievable. They are all working, they have jobs and are involved in the community or they play sports. They are ready to further their academic prowess and become community leaders.”

Ernie Gomez, the president of the North Side High Legacy Foundation and Children’s Charities of Fort Worth, speaks at a Children’s Charities of Fort Worth event. (Courtesy photo | Ernie Gomez)

Along with the scholarships given by the foundation, a community-donated total of $11,000 was distributed to applicants who weren’t accepted — something that had not happened before.

As Gomez became acclimated to how things were academically and in the community, he said knew he was where he wanted to be.

In addition to his long days at his technician job, Gomez tries to recruit as many North Side High School alum to be active with the foundation. He looks for people who are willing to volunteer. He started as the foundation’s treasurer.

“We are all workers. We are all volunteers. We are so deep in the work,” Gomez said. “After a few years of being with the foundation, I became the president of Children’s Charities of Fort Worth.”

Now, Gomez and his team focus on recruiting volunteers like Erika Barboza, a 2000 North Side High School alum and current treasurer for the foundation.

Barboza has worked with Gomez since 2016 and has since been a crucial part of keeping things together as board members resign or move on to different things.

“We’re just so, so busy with our jobs and we all have families. So volunteer work is just consuming sometimes, but it’s such great work,” Barboza said. “Ernie helps so much. He is always positive. He is a joy to work with and he’s never wavered. He is very consistent.”

Barboza, who will celebrate 22 years of working at John Peter Smith Hospital as an infant care nurse soon, said the work for the foundation is grueling — even her three children question her for it — but it is her way of giving back to her community.

Ernie Gomez speaks at a bowling fundraiser. Gomez is the board president of the North Side High Legacy Foundation and Children’s Charities of Fort Worth. (Courtesy photo | Ernie Gomez)

She grew up in the Northside in the late 90s — so growing up, her perception of her neighborhood and school was negative. She had a horrible experience growing up in Northside, she said.

“Northside doesn’t have that stigma anymore, and it’s not that way. There is a very caring community. There are very caring alumni and people that come together to provide for the students,” Barboza said. 

Like Gomez, Barboza uses her experiences to motivate herself in the work she does in the community like leading the annual golf tournament planning and other fundraising events.

“It’s just amazing the way people get back. It’s just good to know that people recognize and they see what we’re doing,” Barboza said.

Like the Northsiders preparing to go to college, Gomez remains a “visionary,” his brother, Michael, said. 

“He’s a person with purpose. He sees something in the Legacy that will have long-standing effects in the neighborhood for years to come,” he said.

Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cristian is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Christian University. At TCU, ArguetaSoto served as staff photographer at TCU360 and later as its visual editor, overseeing other photojournalists. A Fort Worth...