Weddings help Fort Worth nonprofits raise money for services

In the midst of the Great Depression, a Fort Worth mother started an organization to honor her deceased son’s wish of having a home for children experiencing poverty.

Over 90 years later, Lena Pope is still serving children and families and using a popular landmark to help — Marty Leonard Community Chapel.

Along with Lena Pope, the Center for Transforming Lives and ACH Child and Family Services have tapped into the multi-billion dollar wedding industry by owning landmark venues and using them for social enterprise.

Sarah Proctor, chief financial officer for ACH Child and Family Services, said guests who attend events at Belltower Chapel and Garden may become future clients, donors, volunteers or employees.

“It is kind of a lowkey advertising way to get the word out to the community,” Proctor said.

Social enterprise is a popular business model among nonprofit and for-profit organizations. F. Warren McFarlan, a professor at Harvard Business School, said the model allows organizations to address a social concern while generating funds.

“It’s a non-stockholder organization which tries to operate by doing good for the community,” McFarlan said. “Most of them have a mission statement. They try to provide services to the community and they raise money in a variety of ways.”

The business model can be used by many types of organizations including local food banks, hospitals, large universities and thrift stores.

The state of nonprofits and weddings

An organization must continuously raise money in order for a social enterprise to be sustainable. Some raise money through events, planned giving and capital campaigns, McFarlan said. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic affected Texas nonprofit organizations and event venues.

Out of the nonprofit organizations surveyed for the December 2020 Texas Nonprofit Leaders’ COVID-19 Impact Report, 69% said the pandemic forced them to cancel major fundraising events. It also caused 66% of organizations to face changes to their services for the community and 88% to need assistance with reevaluating their fundraising strategies.

Venues had to reschedule or downsize events and weddings due to safety concerns. The pandemic caused Historic 512 to be 50% booked during 2020. Melissa Cassidy, manager of Historic 512, said it sees things improving. It is already 34% booked for 2022. Historic 512 expects more bookings after the holidays since the New Year is a very popular time for engagements.

Tapping into the wedding industry has helped the community organizations generate thousands in revenue to fund services. The country’s wedding industry may generate $51.2 billion this year, according to an estimate by IBIS World.

The average cost for a wedding in the DFW area in 2020 was $25,786, according to the Wedding Report. The cost was a decrease from 2019 which was $30,300.

Lena Pope received a total revenue of $284,000 from Marty Leonard Community Chapel before the pandemic. Events at Historic 512 generate a $100,000 net revenue for the Center for Transforming Lives each year. Belltower Chapel and Garden returned more than $117,000 to the ACH Child and Family Services during its first four years.

Jennifer Gilbert, a second-generation wedding photographer, has watched the wedding industry go through multiple changes over her 28-year career. Many clients are looking to make their weddings more personable.

“They want to show the true feeling of their wedding,” Gilbert said. “Couples are very much about creating an event that reflects them. That is different than the past.”

The photographer has seen couples throwing out tradition. Couples see each other before the wedding with a “first look.” Wedding procession orders have changed and some couples serve pudding in place of wedding cake at receptions.

Locations can set the mood of a wedding, Gilbert said. Historic 512 sets a romantic, downtown and charming atmosphere while Marty Leonard Community Chapel gives a dramatic experience.

Marty Leonard Community Chapel

Megan Cheatham grew up in Fort Worth and knew of the Marty Leonard Community Chapel since she was a little girl. When booking her 2019 wedding, the architecture led Cheatham to make her choice.

“The architecture of that building, oh my gosh,” Cheatham said. “The architecture is insane.”

Cheatham knew the chapel had a connection to the community. She learned more about the Lena Pope’s work when going online. She said learning of Lena Pope’s work made her wedding extra special.

Lena Pope was created in 1930 and worked as a home for children. The nonprofit has gone through changes over the years and now serves children and families through counseling and substance use services, Chapel Hill Academy, early learning centers, and behavioral and juvenile justice programs.

Marty Leonard Community Chapel, 3131 Sanguinet St., opened in 1990. It was built by E. Fay Jones as a birthday surprise to Marty Leonard, a board member, who wanted a chapel for Lena Pope’s clients.

It is now a site for community events and weddings. The property also has the Amon Carter Center which is able to provide reception space.

“When you enter — in the architect’s words — you feel as if the heavens open up, and you think your thoughts,” Jody Grisby, then director of development, told the Star-Telegram in 1990. “It’s designed so that when you’re seated, you see the horizon and skylights, not the freeway.”

Cheatham said her wedding at the chapel was like a daydream with the lighting and the music.

Belltower Chapel and Garden

The 3712 Wichita St. property of Belltower Chapel and Garden originally belonged to the Masonic Home and School of Texas.

The chapel was built in 1958 by Donald S. Nelson. ACH Child and Family Services, formerly known as All Church Home for Children, received the property from a developer in 2006. It turned it into its first social business venture and had its first event in 2009.

The organization’s goal for the property was to provide job opportunities for older youth in foster care and funding for its community services.

ACH Child and Family Services is over 100 years old and serves clients through foster care and adoption, counseling, transitional living, a youth shelter and referrals. It served more than 26,000 people in 2020.

Proctor said the organization participated in a year-long project with the Center for Nonprofit Management and Community Wealth Ventures. Several agencies learned how to come up with business plans for social enterprises and received training and workshops.

Belltower Chapel and Garden has a chapel, reception hall, a garden, and the Jo and Holt Hickman Center. The property holds over 100 weddings each year. It had less weddings during the pandemic, but it expects those numbers to return in the future.

“Everything is in one location,” Bridget Pouges said, manager of Belltower Chapel and Garden. “You can have your ceremony, you can have your reception all in one location. Your guests don’t have to get back into their cars.”

The venue has a history in the entertainment industry. A Fort Worth couple on the second season of “Arranged,” a reality show, held their wedding at Belltower and Elliot Suro’s “Siempre Conmigo” music video was shot on the property.

Historic 512

The Center for Transforming Lives and Historic 512 are housed in a building at 512 W. 4th St. It was built in 1927-1928 by Wyatt C. Hedrick and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building was originally an Elks Lodge before it was bought by the YWCA of Fort Worth in 1955. The YWCA broke its ties from the national organization and changed its name to the Center for Transforming Lives in 2015.

Judi Bishop, the director for the organization in 1989, came up with the idea to turn the ballroom, great room and some smaller rooms into spaces for events in order to generate revenue.

Cassidy told the Star-Telegram that the building’s character and not having to do a lot to dress it up are ways it stands out from other venues. A popular feature among guests is the building’s elevator. It is one of the oldest in the city.

The events not only generate revenue, but also help spread awareness on the Center for Transforming Lives’ work. The organization works to help children and women escape the risk of poverty through early childhood education, economic mobility programs and housing services. Many people touring the venue don’t know about the connection beforehand.

“That is one of the first things that I tell them when they first walk through the door,” Cassidy said. “First of all, thank you for coming to visit us and secondly, let me tell you about our very important mission and why we’re here.”

Some of the Center for Transforming Lives’ clients receive pay for helping with events at Historic 512. Cassidy said this helps clients receive job experience.

When finding out about the organization’s work during a tour of Historic 512, Tricia and Christina Cull knew they wanted to book the venue. Tricia Cull said the venue was the perfect fit for their 2017 wedding. The couple liked that the venue was very welcoming.

“For me, it was finding out that it really helped women, single moms, and their kids,” Christina Cull said. “It meant a lot to me that all of the money that we were going to spend for renting a venue would go to something afterwards and it would help the community.”

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Lauren Castle is a social services reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The position is funded with the assistance from The Morris Foundation. Before moving to Fort Worth, Castle was a reporter for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz. and a digital producer for WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tenn. She is a graduate of Southern Methodist University. Castle was a member of the 2019 Journalism Law School fellowship class at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. You can send her tips by email: or on Twitter: @lauren_castle.