A Very Virtual Christmas

Sites from around BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division (CSD) celebrated Christmas in the creative ways they could this year.

BCFS Health and Human Services-Harlingen delivered gifts to families in their programs following a donation from New Life Family Church. They also attended a socially distant drive thru event hosted by Su Clínica in Harlingen, Texas.

BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene were able to give Christmas gifts to 45 children in their programs thanks to online shopping and donations made directly to the organization.

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio hosted an online Christmas event on December 17 with a visit from virtual Saint Nick. Guests could dress up in their ugliest sweater or most “Christmasy” socks for a chance to win the (perhaps first ever) Christmas Costume Contest. They also learned how to cook a meal of classic/favorite Christmas dishes with the help of Alejandra Quezada, Education Specialist at BCFS-San Antonio, and held a trivia game for a Christmas film they watched together.

Community Services Division Accredited in Harlingen

Two programs at BCFS Health and Human Services-Harlingen were recently accredited by SafeCare Accreditation, which judges agencies using criteria across 13 categories “to measure the quality performance of healthcare facilities,” according to SafeCare.

Both the HIP program (Helping through Intervention and Prevention) and Project HOPES (Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support) received accreditation at BCFS-Harlingen.

“BCFS-Harlingen has been a SafeCare accredited site for five consecutive years,” said Jeff Wolpers, Director of Community Services at BCFS-Harlingen. “This is an acknowledgment of the efforts staff make to demonstrate a culture of quality in the services they provide to our families. We value our partnership with the National SafeCare Training and Research Center and are honored by their recognition of the work that we do.”

Learn more about how BCFS Health and Human Services is making a better life for youth and families in Harlingen.

The Promise of Thanksgiving

It was a Thanksgiving as traditional as could be expected in an unexpected year. BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division locations across Texas were especially thankful last week for the many people and organizations that let the youth they serve enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

A holiday feast was delivered to the residents of by BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene’s Our House for Young Men, a program that offers shelter and other necessities to youth who would otherwise have no home. The Our House-Abilene residents were joined virtually by Kaitlyn Bristow, Case Manager at Our House-Abilene; and Will Meiron, Program Director with BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene.

In McAllen and Harlingen, BCFS Health and Human Services received 40 turkeys from New Life Family Church in McAllen, Texas. H-E-B Grocery Store in Harlingen donated canned corn, green beans, turkey bags, turkey cooking pans and mashed potatoes. The items were delivered to families in South Texas who are part of the programs operated by BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties, so that they could enjoy their own Thanksgiving meals.

Meanwhile, seven residents from BCFS Health and Human Services-Kerrville’s Our House program received gift baskets filled with local goodies as well as a Thanksgiving dinner provided by the restaurant Cracker Barrel. Residents shared the meal from a safe distance via a video call with BCFS-Kerrville staff.

“Thanks was given for family, community, and friendship as the group cherished these holiday moments,” said Kamaria Woods, Director at BCFS-Kerrville. “Everyone laughed and shared stories, and the staff was pleased to see the residents bonding with one another.”

At BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio, youth in the Preparation for Adult Living and Texas Workforce Commission programs had 165 meals delivered to them and their families from the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, an annual, volunteer-powered event in San Antonio that offers a traditional Thanksgiving meal to citizens in need. In addition, 62 families from the Family and Youth Success program received Walmart gift cards to purchase Thanksgiving meals and necessities. BCFS-San Antonio programs work with families in foster care, helping the children, young adults and parents thrive in the foster system.

In Del Rio, 41 survivors of domestic violence received turkeys and holiday baskets filled with all the trimmings. The gifts were a donation from Bar 100, Domestic Violence Alliance, Monica Reyes, the Queens for a Cause, HOSA and students from the Medical High School Group. BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio has, for more than a decade, helped advocate and provide for survivors of domestic violence in Texas.

Though Thanksgiving was different by necessity, the gratitude shared by members of BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division was no less meaningful this year. The BCFS System is grateful to partners throughout Texas who kept the promise of this holiday: we all have a reason to be thankful.

BCFS Health and Human Services Receives $7.5M Grant To Launch ConnectEd

BCFS Health and Human Services was awarded $7.5 million over five years from the Office of Family Assistance, an office of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to operate ConnectEd, a new program in Bexar County, Texas. ConnectEd, developed and to be administered by BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division, will advance services for youth exiting the foster care system. The program will serve young people ages 16 to 24, working to improve the quality of the service population’s relationships, marriages, parenting and economic outcomes by mitigating the trauma-related barriers these youth experience.

The program will use evidence-based interventions to help participants learn and practice positive relationship skills, pursue and retain meaningful employment, and develop a network of healthy peer support critical to overall success.

ConnectEd will augment BCFS Health and Human Services’ existing suite of effective and highly respected programs that have a proven track record and strongly support youth when leaving the foster care system. Often these individuals have endured not only the abuse and neglect that led to their entry into the system, but also relational trauma and harm inflicted by the very adults charged with caring for and protecting them.

BCFS Health and Human Services is excited to partner with the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in rolling out ConnectEd. UTSA will conduct an impact evaluation of the program. Other community partners of ConnectEd include Family Violence Prevention Services and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “We are very excited about ConnectEd,” said Kimberley Rodriguez, Regional Director of Central Texas at BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division. “This program was thoughtfully created understanding the challenges that our youth in foster care experience, learned by working with this population for over a decade. ConnectEd aims to provide our youth with the relationship skills needed to help them in their personal lives as well as a work environment, which is one of the main challenges that our youth in foster care struggle with. We expect to see a substantial increase in our youth getting jobs and keeping them. In addition, we also expect to see them attain stable housing and a reduction in youth in crisis.”

Youth Treated to Virtual Visit by Author Sandra Cisneros

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio hosted award-winning author Sandra Cisneros at their virtual fall festival for youth from foster care in San Antonio, Texas.

Cisneros calling from her home in Mexico.

Cisneros, author of works such as “The House on Mango Street” and “Woman Hollering Creek,” charitably shared insight into her life on a video call from her home in San Miguel de Allende, four hours northwest of Mexico City. In more than an hour of conversation, Cisneros told heartfelt stories of family, betrayal and belonging, capturing the attention and imagination of those served by BCFS-San Antonio.

“A lot of people know about the things that made me famous, but no one knows about the things that made me fail,” Cisneros said.

Case Manager Nathaniel Orona led a drawing workshop as Bob Ross.

Cisneros shared that becoming a notable author, as with every success in her life, was not a miracle but a journey made poco a poco, little by little. Her family’s journey, too, is a grand adventure made of many small steps. In the early 1900s, her family were landless residents of Mexico, fleeing north to avoid the violence of a revolution but struggling to find a true home. Their travels took them to El Paso, Colorado, Kansas City and finally Chicago.

Cisneros spent many years of her adulthood in San Antonio, where some of her works are based. However, like her family, Cisneros has wandered and traveled plenty, experiencing “death and rebirth” as she describes it, learning who she was along the way. Today, more than 100 years after her family was forced to leave Mexico, Cisneros shared that she has returned to the same land her family could never have afforded to own in their lifetime, land that is now her home.

“We were so excited and fortunate to have Sandra Cisneros join us and share her story,” said Celeste Garcia, Executive Director of BCFS Health and Human Services Community Services Division. “Her life is filled with things that most can relate to, but I think this is especially true for our youth.”

Closing her story, Cisneros stayed to chat, answering a few questions and giving advice on how to live meaningfully. The rest of the fall event was spent enjoying the traditions of the season: participating in a costume contest, watching the family-friendly movie “Hocus Pocus” and learning how to draw and cook with BCFS-San Antonio staff.

‘BVT Bridge’ Offers New Path for Community

Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT) is no stranger to change. The nonprofit organization, a relatively small campus in East Texas that has a big heart for adults with mild to moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), stands on the shoulders of a community that has often experienced a change in life plans.

“When we first went into quarantine, I thought, ‘Are we going to regress in social skills?’” said Ann Abrameit, a mother worried – as most have been – about the effects of COVID-19 on the social and educational development of her children. Her daughter, a high-school senior with IDD who can be anxious when separated from family too long, had been part of BVT’s day program for less than three months before COVID-19 hit. “I worried we wouldn’t be able to exercise her ability to connect with people outside her comfort zone.”

Abrameit’s daughter poses in front of a heart mosaic she made during quarantine

BVT’s day program lets local youth and adults who are not full-time residents come to the campus every weekday in a setting much like school or camp, where an expanded BVT community can socialize, play and work together. But like many in-person events, the day program at BVT came to a temporary end in the middle of March, an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In June, however, Day Program Coordinator Rachel Parker started BVT Bridge, a virtual solution for BVT’s day program participants that lets them connect online with their friends and take part in a variety of activities.

“Our son is very social person,” said Michele Sanders, whose son has been with BVT’s day program for two years. “He likes to be in contact with his peers at BVT, and [BVT Bridge] has been a great avenue for him to see them and interact with them.”

Sanders said she wasn’t sure her family would be able to “maintain relationships and be active in different roles in the community” when COVID-19 first came to Texas, but since quarantine began and the family has spent more time together, Sanders and her husband have taught their son the board game Rummikub, now playing nightly. They’ve put together puzzles and learned to enjoy “doing little things we don’t normally make time to do.”

Meanwhile, Abrameit says her daughter gets online almost every day BVT Bridge has an event, citing everything from a large exotic bird to a game of hangman as the types of activities she bonds with her BVT friends over. “Probably the most important thing it does is it gives her something to share with the family at dinner. Everybody else has things to share from their day, but she wouldn’t without that interaction.” Abrameit admitted she even stole a good idea for a virtual game from BVT Executive Director Steven Campbell, using a similar format for a recent family reunion hosted online.

In addition to fun, BVT Bridge also gives support and growth to its members. This is especially true in their twice-weekly morning chapel, a time to foster spiritual development. During last Friday’s chapel, Campbell led a message about the importance of prayer in life, especially in times when we feel hopeless. “If I don’t pray, then I’m cut off from my only source of strength,” Campbell said. He invited one of the BVT members on the call to end chapel with a prayer. A resident named Erin volunteered, ardently praying to “let us be the shine in your light, Lord,” and closing, “We pray in the holiest name of Jesus, amen.”

For those who witness BVT’s work almost every day, as the Sanders and Abrameit families do, Erin’s prayer was one moment in a pattern of BVT’s approach to their mission.

“To hear [the residents’] trust and faith has been very faith-building for me,” said Abrameit. “I can’t say enough of how impressed I’ve been with the organization…. It’s the staff that makes the difference.”

Sanders said she appreciates BVT, especially now in an uncertain 2020. “They’ve kept us very well informed of the situation. [BVT has] gone above and beyond, actually coming out to our homes and dropping off gifts for our son,” she said. “He has found that to be very special that they continue to think of him during this time.”

Both families seem to have found at least a few reasons to be thankful amid the chaos and canceled plans, much like us all. “Going forward, hopefully when all this subsides and we become busy again, we can keep some of these new traditions in place,” Sanders said.

Learn more about BVT’s commitment to provide hope and home to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Planning for an Independent Life Ahead

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio held its annual Independence Day conference for youth from foster care, hosting the event virtually for the first time. The conference is part of the BCFS-San Antonio Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, and is meant to give youth from foster care the opportunity to ask questions about what they can expect as future college students.

“The Guardians of Five Points” by Diana Kersey

Following last year’s trip to the University of Texas at San Antonio, youth this year got to hear from faculty at Northwest Vista College, one of five schools in the Alamo Colleges District. At the full-day event, youth visited with current students who had been in the foster care system, asked questions of professors at Northwest Vista and spoke to BCFS-San Antonio staff about the benefits available to them as college students.

At a student panel, Krizia Franklin and Matthew Campos – former youth in foster care now enrolled in higher education – spoke in depth about their experience as college students.

“Growing up in foster care, there were a lot of things that were taken from me,” said Franklin. “I started thinking, ‘What’s something no on can take from me?’ And the answer is knowledge; they could take a diploma or a plaque, but they couldn’t steal my knowledge.”

Campos said one thing he wished he had realized the importance of was “creating a network where you can develop a support system…. It’s hard enough going to college and feeling like you’re all alone, and you don’t have to feel that way.” He referenced people like Migdalia Garcia, Coordinator of Service Learning at Northwest Vista College and a dedicated liaison for former youth in foster care, who joined both students on the presentation as a moderator.

“I’m happy to have these two students today because they personify what it means to overcome obstacles,” Garcia said at the start of their panel. After answering a few prepared questions, Campos and Franklin were able to answer comments that came in live from the youth and young adults attending the Independence Day conference.

In one of several panels held with professors from different concentrations of study, future students met with Don Lucas, Ph.D., and Diana Kersey, professors in the psychology and art departments, respectively.

Lucas encouraged future students to “Do what you’re intrinsically motivated as opposed to what you are extrinsically motivated to do,” and not to be surprised if interests change with time. “Don’t think, ‘I should be doing this.’ Do what motivates you to wake up every day and pursue what you want.”

“My career has been all about me having a conversation with the material,” said Kersey, whose art has been commissioned publicly by the cities of San Antonio and Harlingen, Texas, and will soon be privately commissioned for a new office tower in San Antonio. “I love working in the arts. It’s not that anybody told me to do that, it’s what I love to do.”

The conference also featured a virtual tour of the Northwest Vista College campus and a presentation from Roy Juarez Jr., a motivational speaker who spent many of his childhood years homeless or in foster care, and who has spoken to the youth before.

Taken together, the Independence Day event gave an encouraging message from the voices of those who know what it’s like to be in an environment they may feel life has not prepared them for.

“At first I suffered from imposter syndrome,” said Franklin. “You hear people using big words or talking about things you’ve never heard of before. I wish someone had been there to tell me that I was good enough and smart enough to go to college.” Now with two bachelor’s degrees and currently pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, Franklin knows that, while higher education is not easy, it is possible.

Everyone who addressed the youth at the Independence Day conference reinforced the idea that there is no ceiling to their potential other than the limits they place on themselves – something BCFS-San Antonio will be there to remind students if and when the university life tests their limits.

Stories from Quarantine: Corpus Christi

BCFS Health and Human Services-Corpus Christi has found new and creative ways to provide programs and services to youth and families in the Coastal Bend region ever since the first major spread of COVID-19 through the U.S. Their ability to transition and meet needs in new ways has proven to be a success!

Much of BCFS-Corpus Christi’s programming is about connecting youth and families to resources, or providing them assistance on a path to a better career or education. Services like those have translated well to an online world, but not everything has been as easy – especially not for their community.

Robin Soto, Director of BCFS Health and Human Services-Corpus Christi, along with her staff, have worked hard to find ways to uplift the children, young adults and families served by BCFS-Corpus Christi in 2020 during these unprecedented times.

They’ve been helping people like Lena,* a 22-year-old mother with one young child and another on the way. Before COVID-19, she had a job at the local school district. But unfortunately, due to the pandemic she found herself out of work. BCFS-Corpus Christi stepped in and proactively sent the mother a weekly job list and was able to help pay a month of rent while she went through this transition. BCFS-Corpus Christi then connected her with Foster Angels of South Texas to provide a crib and other resources for the baby. Today, she’s working again and anticipating the arrival of her second-born.

A family living in the Coastal Bend area has been grateful for BCFS-Corpus Christi’s parenting classes. “If you have a couple kids, it can be a lot to handle,” said Soto, “but this mom is home with four.” Through BCFS-Corpus Christi’s lessons and one-on-one training, the family has been able to identify the root causes behind some of the children’s more troubling behaviors and improve being homebound with four children. An added blessing for families completing the parenting classes includes grocery gift cards and board games perfect for quarantine.

BCFS-Corpus Christi has been assisting many other families in the Coastal Bend during COVID-19. Through their relationships with other nonprofits and local leadership, BCFS-Corpus Christi has acted as a trusted source of information for locals, especially through engagement on their Facebook page.

With COVID-19 expected to broaden the disparities that already exist between the most and least fortunate, the service of BCFS-Corpus Christi remains instrumental in maintaining a healthy community, perhaps now more than ever.

Learn more about BCFS Health and Human Services-Corpus Christi.

*This name was changed to preserve anonymity

Welcome Project Angel Fares to the BCFS System

On May 15, BCFS System President and CEO Kevin C. Dinnin welcomed Project Angel Fares (PAF) as the newest addition to the BCFS System of nonprofit organizations. We wanted to give you a closer look at this amazing organization that helps make dreams come true for children and families from all over the country. Founded in 2012, PAF is a San Antonio-based nonprofit that works closely with Morgan’s Wonderland, the San Antonio-based theme park for families with children who have special needs.

Since 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland has provided an opportunity for children with special needs to experience the joys of a theme park that is designed to cater to their unique life situation. And beginning in 2016, that includes the water park Morgan’s Inspiration Island. Both parks offer free admission to any and all children with special needs. However, for families that must travel long distances, that is just a small part of the cost burden.

This is where Project Angel Fares comes in. PAF works to help provide families with children who have special needs this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the joys of Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island with a 4-day, 3-night trip with all travel expenses paid.

Also joining the BCFS System family is PAF’s Executive Director Sharon Krietzburg. Sharon works tirelessly on increasing awareness of the organization in the local community and beyond. By expanding financial sponsorships and growing the donor base, she has been able to expand the number of families PAF can bring to Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island.

Sharon Krietzburg

Sharon joined PAF in 2016 after meeting the founder, Kevin Johnson, at an event in San Antonio. She had retired some years earlier in Nevada and she and her husband, Jack, had built their “dream home” in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But she said it wasn’t long before the dream changed and they decided to move to San Antonio to look for their next adventure.

Sharon said she thought she would be a puddle of emotions before taking on her new job, but most days she finds it to be pure joy. “Once anyone comes to the park, it touches you,” she said. “Seeing the look on these children’s faces. You see a calm wash over them as they get to do things they had never been able to do with their families. It is pretty special.”

Like so many other nonprofits, PAF is adjusting to the new normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic which dictated the decision to close Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island for the 2020 season. PAF also made the difficult, yet prudent, decision to postpone its annual fundraising golf tournament that had been scheduled for later this summer. But work continues to help more dreams become reality starting in 2021. Sharon will office at the BCFS System Headquarters building later this year. Welcome Sharon and Project Angel Fares to the BCFS System Family!

BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio Receives Gift From Garfield Elementary Student Leadership Team (StuCo)

Even in troubling times, we see the good in people. This week Kasey Ristow, StuCo Advisor for Garfield Elementary School, which is part of the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District, made a donation of gift bags filled with essential toiletries put together by the Garfield Student Council.

Gift bags included shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste and a cozy pair of socks! They will be given to families in need, including victims of domestic violence.

Kasey presented the gifts to Delia Ramos, Director of Community Based Services at BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio, under careful COVID-19 safety guidelines at the organization’s office in Del Rio, Texas.

“We are so honored to accept this thoughtful donation on behalf of those we serve,” Delia said. “I want to thank StuCo for thinking of BCFS-Del Rio and for their kindness even in the darkest times. It’s truly uplifting.”