Even though he started out differently than others, with the help of Azleway and self ambition, he’s become very successful.
By Jo Lee Ferguson | Photos by CJ White
Today, the 47-year-old Longview resident owns a small empire — two salvage yards, a collision repair business, a towing company and rental properties. He and his wife of 29 years, Lynn, have two children and five grandchildren. They work hard, and they play hard, he says.
It’s a life he realizes he might not have had if it hadn’t been for his stay at Azleway Boys’ Ranch in Tyler, which was a foster home when he lived there from the time he was about 14 until he was about 17. Back then, it was just a group of youth living with Azleway founder Bill Partridge and his wife, Dana.
Currently, Azleway is known as one of the largest foster care systems in East Texas. The organization serves more than 1,100 children from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Houston, with a range of services for boys and girls.
“It helped make a better person out of me,” Evans says. “It helped me realize where I’m at today and where I could have been. I could have been in the penitentiary … I’m not saying that they’ve changed me 100 percent. I had a choice in life, and I took that choice to be the way I am now.”
Azleway was for “juvenile delinquents,” he says, for “mean kids,” but he added he wasn’t a bad person. He had a good mother, he says, but he ended up doing things he shouldn’t have. He wound up at Azleway when he took the blame, as a juvenile, for something someone else did so they wouldn’t go to prison, he says.
Bill Partridge, who is no longer the head of Azleway but continues to work for the organization, recalls Evans’ arrival during the first year the Partridges opened their foster care home.
“Rickey was just easygoing,” he says. “He was so good-natured. He was such a good kid. He had parents that really cared about him. He had some issues, but all I had to do was tell him I was going to call his mom, and he’d do it.”
Before opening Azleway, Partridge and his wife had been living in Fort Worth, running a foster home as part of another system. That home, on Azle Avenue, also was known as Azleway. That home later closed, and the Partridges returned home to Tyler, disillusioned.
He says God wanted him to start a boys home.
“Why did God call me? I don’t know why. It was a burden on my heart was the best way I could put it,” he says. “Even today we still do things with kids. I’m supposed to be retired, but that isn’t quite working out that way.”
They were in Tyler for about four or five months before they opened Azleway as a foster home, taking in their first foster child April 9, 1979.
“It was a mom-and-pop operation, and Dana worked for the money and I worked for the kids,” Partridge says of his wife. “Dana had a job. That’s the only way we survived those early years.”
A week after opening their doors with one foster child, they welcomed four more children.
“Six months after that we were in a building project, and it’s grown ever since,” Partridge says.
Today, the Azleway Boys’ Ranch includes a food pantry, recreation center, charter school, counseling center and maintenance shop/vocational training building. Azleway Children’s Services serves more than 1,100 foster children a year. Other services include a girls’ home in Tyler and transitional living programs for children aging out of the foster care system. The organization has offices in Corsicana, Nacogdoches, Humble, Arlington and Tyler.
“When (Azleway) started out, the concept was to have a foster home for about eight kids, and the founder … and his wife were going to open up a little foster home and take care of kids until they retired and moved off into the sunset,” says Gary Duke, Azleway’s executive director. “God essentially had a much greater vision than Bill or any of us did.”
The rewards for people who are part of Azleway are the success stories such as Evans, Duke says.
While there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of Azleway success stories during its 33-year history, the odds for children who pass through foster care in general are not good.
“Unfortunately, 80 percent of the prison population in the United States is composed of children who, at one time or another, were in foster care,” Duke says. “It’s horrible. These kids get moved from home to home to home to home. They begin to suffer academically. Most of our kids have been abused, neglected or abandoned. They’ve experienced a lot of trauma in their lives.”
Then when they turn 18, they don’t have anyone to support them. That’s why Azleway has started transition, job training and other types of programs to help foster care children prepare for and adjust to life on their own.
“That’s why we exist — to literally help these kids, to provide homes for these kids and to provide opportunity so these kids can be successful in life,” Duke says, adding that Azleway wants the children they assist to become contributing members of a community, much like Evans.
Evans has taken an active interest in that goal as well. He and his wife have served as foster parents — including five siblings who still call he and his wife mom and dad — and he’s always remained involved with Azleway, including serving on the board for seven years. Today, he serves on the board of directors for the Gregg and Harrison Counties Child Advocacy Center.
“I always go back to Azleway. If they’re doing something, they know they can call and I’ll be involved in it,” Evans says. “They did a lot for me when I was there. They helped me realize I was fortunate to be there. At the time, I might not have realized it. I realized it more when I got older.”
He’s been blessed, he says, and if he can help someone, he will.
“I’ve always really spoken highly of that place, and the reason why is I know what they do for kids over there,” Evans says. “They’ve got a chance in life.”
This past Fourth of July, Evans and his wife provided hamburgers, a fireworks show, music and other activities at Azleway Boys Ranch. He’s helped place children in jobs and helped them find a car they could fix up to drive.
“He is an avid supporter of ours and has been for many years,” Duke says. “I can’t speak highly enough of Rickey Evans. He is one of those people who gives so generously of his time, his energy and his resources.”
Partridge recalls that Evans showed back up at Azleway within two years of leaving, at first just to show support at the open house, but his involvement grew over the years.
“He’s one of those guys who didn’t just give back financially,” he says. “It blows my mind that we have a man that is so concerned and compassionate about kids.”
When Evans joined the board, he told Partridge to call if Azleway needed any help, and Evans answered, call after call after call.
“And when he’s around kids, they know he’s interested,” Partridge says. “They know he cares. … He’s blessed our hearts in special ways.”