Love, Magnetized

Written by Leonard Favela


The Lamza's

When Mr. and Mrs. Lorena and Patrick Lamza married, they wanted children. They explored several different options for several years, but each try was unsuccessful. After fourteen years of marriage, they decided, together, to open their home to the possibility of foster care and adoption. 

With the help and training of BCFS Health and Human Services Foster Care and Adoption program, the Lamza family dynamic would soon change to include the highly energetic brother-sister duo of three-year-old Jalisa and her two-year-old brother, Enrique (“Kike,” pronounced KEE-keh, for short). BCFS-San Antonio arranged for the siblings, who had been in the care of an elderly aunt before being placed in the foster care system, to meet their new caregivers, who met the children at their day care, along with a BCFS-San Antonio case manager.

“They came running toward us; they wanted us to pick them up, and when we did, they stuck to us like magnets,” Patrick remembers fondly. That day, the Lamza family doubled in size. From one day to the next, the Lamzas went from going places as a duo to arriving as a foursome, as Jalisa and Kike blended into their welcoming family. Lorena’s eight brothers and four sisters were ecstatic at the news of the two newest family members.

“They loved it,” Lorena smiles. “They always wanted us to have children, so they were very happy for us.”

“We brought them to our family reunion,” says Patrick, “and everyone was happy for us. Surprised, but it was a happy surprise!”

Kike battles shyness as his older sister enthusiastically answers questions about her favorite food.

“Tacos!” she exclaims, adding that her favorite color is blue, and that she will wear a Shine costume (referring to the blue half of the pink-and-blue character duo Shimmer & Shine) for Halloween. She encourages her brother to reveal his costume, lovingly coaxing him toward his Iron Man mask, which he puts on, extending his arm with his palm out, making a whishing sound in his best Iron Man impersonation.

The first-year parents enthusiastically scroll through photos and videos while Lorena remembers the newness that every parent feels the first time they hold their child, and the inevitable thought process that comes with new members of the family.

“At first,” she admits, “we were a little shocked. We used to be able to just pick up and go. I guess when you’re pregnant, you (sort of) know what’s coming…for us, it was one week, and then everything changed.”

In an example of the ancient proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” extended family members checked in frequently to ensure the two newest Lamzas were acclimating well. BCFS Health and Human Services also provides ongoing support services for adoptive parents, including 24-hour emergency on-call, monthly parent support group meetings with child care provided, and free training opportunities.

With a little help, Lorena says, “once we got a routine going, it got better.”

While Jalisa moved in with a bed, Kike, just two at the time, arrived at the Lamza homestead with a crib. Just a few months later, he would grow his way into a toddler bed.

“He had seen my tools in his room,” Patrick remembers, “and asked ‘you’re gonna convert my bed?’”

When Kike got home from school the next day, Patrick remembers with a smile, “he ran upstairs and ran back down and climbed on the couch and gave me three big kisses!”

“They’re good,” says Lorena of her two children. “They’re very loving.”

As Jalisa and Kike play whimsically together in the den, the Lamzas contemplate the answers to somewhat heavier questions about informing their children of their past when the time is right.

“We have thought about that,” she says, mentioning that the children have three other biological siblings.

“It’s really going to be up to them, if they want to pursue knowing them, and wanting to know, but we haven’t thought about how we would even approach telling them. We probably need advice on that,” she bravely admits as a mom who only wants the best for her children.

In their interactions with their new children, though, the Lamzas are most focused on active and engaging fun. Since officially becoming Lamzas, Jalisa and Enrique have been invited to numerous birthday parties for their new cousins, toured a nearby pumpkin patch, and joined in on camping trips and weekends at the beach. The Lamzas have begun noticing the nuance of parenthood.

“Jalisa is very aware of her surroundings and what’s going on,” Lorena says. “Kike is more…he focuses on something, and anything else can happen…Jalisa is more ‘that’s happening here, that’s happening there…’…that’s one of the biggest differences between them that I see.

“But Jalisa is very focused, too. She wants one thing, and she wants it,” Lorena says, “but we are also learning about compromising.”

It’s about making sure that they are taken care of educationally, so that they can one day take care of themselves.

When new and young family members are being integrated into a family, the learning curve for both parents and children will arc gently with love, compassion, and communication, resulting in children raised in a stable and loving home who can grow into stable, loving members of their community.

“It’s important for me that they have a belief that they can trust and love throughout their lives,” Lorena says when asked about her goals as a new parent.

“It’s about making sure that they are taken care of educationally, so that they can one day take care of themselves. As long as they know what they need to do in terms of living a prosperous and healthy life, I think that would be my goal, to set those standards, like my mom set them for us. That would be my ultimate goal for them.”

Patrick adds, “To get them to the point where they’ll be able to take care of themselves when we’re gone. To raise them to the best of our ability and give them the knowledge and skills they need to take care of themselves when we’re no longer here.”

Loving, attentive, and active parents would agree.


This story originally appeared in the 2018 “together” magazine. You can view a digital edition of the full magazine here.

To Live a Cherished Life

On an unexpectedly stormy spring day in East Texas, 420 ladies — weather notwithstanding — came together for Breckenridge Village of Tyler’s (BVT) 13th Annual Ladies Spring Luncheon. Whether showing their support for a loved one, learning more about the great work BVT provides, or sharing some quality time with friends, the intent was the same; to be a champion for the BVT mission, residents, and families.

Each year for longer than a decade now, the BVT Ladies Spring Luncheon is held to benefit the adults with mild to moderate intellectual and developmental challenges to whom BVT is committed. This year, the event raised more than $55,000 for BVT residents and day program participants. The luncheon’s theme, Cherishing Life’s Moments, vibrated through the entire banquet hall as each table wore intricate, thematic decorations reminiscent of special life moments. Themes included a winter wonderland, a dreamy picnic at the park, and marriage celebrations. Cherishing Life’s Moments is not merely a theme, but a motto lived by the BVT community, from the residents and day program participants to the staff members:  The idea that the moments and memories created at BVT are blessings that should be embraced and treasured as God’s own will.

Table set at the Luncheon

Susan O’Donnell, Program Director for Tyler-area radio station KVNE, 89.5 FM, delivered a heartfelt and inspiring keynote address, evoking just as many belly laughs as tears as she spoke candidly of leaning on her faith through her trials and triumphs as a single mother to two daughters. She encouraged the luncheon audience to remember that God is always present, and to love unconditionally. 

Upon arriving at the campus, Susan was immediately captivated with the welcoming community and lovingly attentive staff.

“In only 20 years, Breckenridge Village of Tyler has become just what is was supposed to be at its inception…a home for adults who have special needs. [A] place that will care for them throughout their life, just as their own parents wanted them cared for.”

“Residents are loved, encouraged. I know it was the dream of Jean and Robert Sr., but I think even they would be surprised to see how much it has grown and how many people have been touched by the work that happens because of Breckenridge Village.”

To date, the annual BVT Ladies Luncheon has raised a total of more than $800,000 for the residents and day program participants at BVT.   

The 13th annual luncheon concluded with an original poem by Linda, a BVT resident for12 years.

Valeria Villaseñor


Cherishing Life’s Moments: A Poem.

Written by: Linda J., BVT Resident

It is important to cherish life’s precious moments.

From the birth of an infant to adulthood

We all must pay heed to the wonderful world around us.

Like the spreading wings of a monarch butterfly

To the flourishing roots and arms of a sycamore tree

Life is a balanced tapestry of colors and light.

Life gives us a rainbow of pleasures.

Each moment is a lesson to treasure.

As we partake of friendships and the many facets of life

Each day is a blessing from God.

To appreciate creation and the beauty all around us

The foamy deep blue sea

The scalloped mountains that point to the heavens

It is important to cherish life and its empowering moments.

Dreams of love and stories of hope and courage

Every person is beyond measure.

So priceless like a gift

God gave us life to uplift others.

To spread harmony and faith

Every moment is a pearl.

Every moment is a breath to be taken.

The pathways we take are filled with delight with our Lord.

As we talk and commune with him

Being grateful for the years we have on this earth

However few or many

We are given time to fellowship with one another.

To appreciate flowers and the seasons

To acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses

To cling to our savior and hold on to his almighty hand

Life gives us moments to cherish.

Let’s make the best of it.

Be happy for who we are and what we have been blessed with.

Peace in our hearts

Let us sing a song and worship our Heavenly Father.

Let us be thankful for our provisions.

Each moment is sacred.

Every wind that blows

Every leaf that falls

Every star that shines like a diamond in the sky

It is important to cherish life’s moments.

Allow yourself to soar like an eagle.

Find yourself floating high above the ground with wings of exultation.

Then you will be filled with joy.

As you dance and be filled with the radiant moments of each day.

You Can Do It With PAL!

At 17 years old, Meydi Pineda is not only gearing up for college, but also juggling – and excelling at – being a mother, wife, caregiver, and role model for other youth growing up in foster care. But it hasn’t been easy.

Meydi is the oldest of four children. Her mom, a single mother, worked full-time, and often tasked Meydi with taking care of her three younger siblings. When one of the younger kids got sick or needed someone to watch over them, it was Meydi who had to stay home from school to take care of them.

Newborn photos of baby Kincaid.
Newborn photo of baby Kincaid.

Child Protective Services became involved in Meydi’s life when she was twelve years old as a result of physical and emotional abuse taking place in the home. Her younger siblings, now aged eleven, six, and two, have remained in the care of Meydi’s mother.

For the three years that followed, Meydi spent time in and out of various foster homes and juvenile centers. At fifteen, she became pregnant… and gained a new perspective on life.

“I decided I wanted to be the parent I never had, for my daughter.”

But how?

Meydi enrolled in the Texas Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program provided by BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio after being referred by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). “Taking [the classes] really helped me gain confidence in myself, and reminded me that I could – and was – thriving after foster care. In the program [I learned] to manage my finances, plus how to maintain good credit and keep up with my bills.”

Meydi also enrolled in an academic credit recovery program to make up for the schooling she missed. At the age of sixteen with an infant at home, she graduated high school. She began working to provide for her family, and then got married. The new family’s plan is for her husband to be the primary earner while Meydi takes care of their two daughters and prepares to start college.

I see a bright future ahead for her because she sets goals for herself and doesn’t let anything get in the way of her ambition.

Baby Pineda

As one of Meydi’s PAL Training Facilitators, I got to work with Meydi for thirty hours spread out over several days of fast-paced life skills training. PAL Training classes bring youth in foster care together to learn and work as a group. Meydi made an impression on me immediately with how quickly she learned and used her knowledge to take on a leadership role within the group. She took the initiative to schedule her classes with me and ensure that she had transportation to each of them, all while taking care of her family. I see a bright future ahead for her because she sets goals for herself and doesn’t let anything get in the way of her ambition. She has become resilient through life’s challenges with an impressive grace, and her positivity and maturity at 17 years old sets an example for other youth in the program.

In college, Meydi plans on majoring in criminal justice. She credits BCFS-San Antonio’s PAL program with preparing her for this next phase of her life.

“Ms. Bailey and Mr. Christopher really made the class informative and easy to understand, while providing a fun, comfortable environment,” she says, “which helped me take in the most out of the classes… I plan on putting everything I learned to good use.”

“It’s rare to see a young person be so proactive and take control of their own future,” says BCFS-San Antonio PAL Training Facilitator Christopher Hansen. “Meydi is only seventeen, but she has worked hard to create an environment in which support and love is constant. We are eager and excited to be a part of her continued success.”

by Bailey Stewart


What is “PAL?”

BCFS Health and Human Services provides the State of Texas’ Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, which ensures older youth in foster/kinship care are prepared for life on their own after “aging out” of state care. At any given time, there are about 3,500 youth 16 years of age and older in substitute care throughout Texas.

Preparing youth for adulthood is much more than how to balance a checkbook and sign a lease (though those lessons are included, too!). PAL encourages and empowers youth, in turn building their self-esteem and their ability to make responsible decisions. PAL helps youth be prepared to face the challenges of adulthood and independence.

The Power of Prayer

It’s common, when called upon to pray, to respond by saying, “Let’s bow our heads and close our eyes,” but in one particular instance, the deacon I had asked to pray inadvertently said, “Let’s bow our eyes and close our heads.” He doesn’t remember saying the reversed phrase, and neither did anyone else, but I have always remembered it as a commentary on how we approach the greatest privilege of our lives. Our minds are so often closed to the power and effectiveness of talking directly to God. Fortunately it is not that way throughout the BCFS System. We believe in prayer.

Dr. Dearing Garner
Dr. Dearing Garner

It is a privilege for me to serve as the Director of Pastoral Care for the BCFS System where one of my tasks is to invoke and encourage prayer. It is not always the first option that comes to mind in a crisis, admittedly even for myself.

Once I was leading a medical mission in the Central African Republic when we depleted our inventory of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Our physicians were fiercely writing prescriptions, trying to keep up with seemingly unending lines of sick and hurting people.

When one of the pharmacy volunteers told me, “No more Tylenol,” I could not believe it and was frustrated that we now had fewer options to treat the hundreds of patients waiting to see an American doctor.

Then, a young team member who was a college student at the time (she has since become a physician) said to me, “We can pray for them.” I thought, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” because, after all, this was our mission.

And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

We immediately started another line for prayer. Friends, let’s not forget the importance of prayer! I am honored to come alongside each of you in this regard to pray with and encourage you, both in your professional capacities at BCFS System locations and programs, and in personal or family situations, as well.

Here is a wonderful verse about prayer with a promise from the Lord: And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” John 14:13 (King James Version).


Dearing Garner is the Director of Pastoral Care for the BCFS System, providing spiritual guidance and prayer for staff throughout the agency. He can be reached at dgarner@bcfs.net.

Partnership in Progress – Holding Hands, Changing Lives

Caring for more than 130 disabled or terminally ill children, Sarah’s Covenant Homes in Hyderabad, India has spent the past 10 years offering shelter to children no one else was willing to take. Two years ago, when Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) learned about their work, we were immediately inspired by their vision – to transition to a family-based care model and find families for each and every child in their care.

Today, we are proudly assisting Sarah’s Covenant Homes in the process of deinstitutionalization (releasing the residents from the institution to find care in the community) and family reunification, work that most would say is impossible in today’s India. What follows is the context to our partnership, and a story that best explains why this work is so important.


In 2016, CERI started training the Sarah’s Covenant Homes (SCH) team on alternative care for children and family strengthening (ways to safely keep children in their own families). While the topics seem simple and straightforward to someone living in the Western world, in India, children with disabilities are stigmatized, shunned and hidden from the rest of their society. Children with a disability or terminal illness are often placed in orphanages, forgotten about, and left without support or hope in life. Grim but true.   

When SCH started their activity in India 10 years ago with the statement, “Children deserve families,” they were faced with a stark reality and a tough question: What to do if the families don’t want them? What to do if communities in India do not accept them?

The stigma and shame associated with children who have disabilities was the biggest stumbling stone SCH faced in implementing their vision. When CERI started a partnership with SCH, we helped them look at families in a different light. We re-conceptualized the reason behind the lack of acceptance of these children by their families and communities. Maybe it wasn’t that they did not want their children, but that they were simply overwhelmed and incapable or unable to care for them. Do we remove the child from the family, or remove the problems from the family? We chose the latter. 

CERI trained SCH with a logical framework, designed to look at a family’s five fundamental needs – living conditions, family and social relationships, education, physical and mental health, and household economy – and support those areas through case management, preparing the family to care for their children with disabilities. SCH became one of the first organizations  in India to reintegrate children with disabilities in their biological families.

  Reintegration Potential
  Total Children Not eligible Low Med High
Home 1 15 4 8 1 2
Home 2 24 3 15 1 5
Home 3 24 3 12 2 7
Home 4 17 0 15 0 2
Total 80 (100%) 10 (12.5%) 50 (62.5%) 4 (5%) 16 (20%)

Our investment in the SCH team grew. In early 2018, we conducted an ample case review of the 80 children housed in SCH’s four small-group homes, evaluating their connectedness with their family, and helping them identify the cases that qualified for family reunification. Roughly 20% of SCH’s residents scored high in the possibility for immediate family reunification, while 5% scored medium in their family reintegration potential. However, 75% of SCH cases needed long-term family intervention before they could be reunited with their family.    


Soumya’s Story

Here is a perfect illustration for how family reintegration worked for little Soumya, a six-year-old girl born blind with very little light perception.

Soumya’s mother died when she was only four, leaving her father depressed and in despair, feeling incapable of caring for Soumya and Anusha, her seven-year-old sister. Soumya’s father transported goods for a living and was often gone from home all day. He felt that the children would not be properly supervised if he were to keep them, so he sent Anusha to the village to live with her grandmother, and placed Soumya into an orphanage.

Soumya

The conditions Soumya faced at the government-run orphanage were indescribable, but luckily SCH found Soumya and took her into their care. When Soumya arrived at SCH from the orphanage, she was very weak. Although she was four years old at the time, she was so malnourished that she was not yet able to walk. At SCH, Soumya began progressing in many ways. She quickly gained weight and strength, and began walking. She learned English and is now bilingual, speaking English and Telugu. Soumya is learning to read braille, sounding out small words, and mastering many pre-literacy skills for her age.  

CERI worked with SCH’s social workers and Soumya’s father to draft a clear family reunification plan. The father was eager to learn more about the next steps in family reunification and accept the responsibility to do his part. As he is getting ready to remarry, CERI and SCH have been providing counselling for him and his new wife, helping them create the best home environment for Soumya and Anusha to live in. The father is also looking forward to building a sustainable local transportation business and enrolling both children in a school where Soumya’s needs will be fully met. The team at Sarah’s Covenant Homes commented: 


Pictured are SCH case managers, Soumya’s father, and Ian Anand Forber Pratt (CERI Global Director of Advocacy)
Pictured are SCH case managers, Soumya’s father, and Ian Anand Forber Pratt (CERI Global Director of Advocacy)

We have been trying for 1 ½ years to reintegrate Soumya with her father. He loves her and after all our attempts we had lost hope. With the tools that CERI has offered, we know we can get Soumya back home in a safe, supportive and loving way

A Story of Redemption

Family reunification works for parents just as well as it works for children. The story of one couple who abandoned their two children (days old and two years old) at the hospital to run towards the train tracks and commit suicide moved us to tears. Luckily, the couple was unable to fulfill their plan, and today we are able to share their story.

On that fateful day, the couple (who suffer from HIV and Tuberculosis) felt hopeless. While they loved their two children, they felt unable to give them the life they deserved. It was a tragedy, as they didn’t see a reason to live without their children, but felt that their children’s lives would be much better if their parents were no more.

Pictured are SCH's two case managers and the couple going through counseling.
Pictured are SCH’s two case managers and the couple going through counseling.

After a failed suicide attempt and several months in a hospital, the couple began to recover physically and mentally. The father gained employment and the mother gained hope. Thanks to SCH who cared for their children and had the capability to reintegrate the children with their family, this couple is now actively working toward family reunification. Both mother and father are ready to fulfill their new plan and bring their children home.

The mother commented, “We finally have hope. We are both orphans, but thanks to our case managers, we know we are not alone.”

CERI’s partnership with SCH has been rewarding beyond measure as it has allowed us to witness how two families and four children have been reunited in a wonderful way. This is just the beginning. Our goal is to continue expanding SCH’s capacity for case management and community-based services so that more children will be able to find their forever homes and be raised in families. CERI also aims to educate and train more residential institutions to do the same thing – grasp the importance of family, commit to deinstitutionalization, and build partnerships that will keep families and children together for generations to come.

Written by: Ian Anand Forber Pratt

All in This Together


One of the most important ways CERI positively influences the lives of youth across the globe is through  sponsporships provided by generous CERI sponsors.  In developing countries, a CERI sponsorship grants a child access to CERI’s Foster Care  and Transitional Care programs, enabling them to fully participate and benefit from all the services and relief brought to them by CERI staff, foster families, and local and international Christian mentors.

Child sponsorships encourage the development of a healthy, positive, and lasting interpersonal relationship between the sponsor and child. Such a relationship, supplemented by the social services offered by CERI staff, has the capacity to empower a child and help him/her  develop into a resilient young adult.

The following is a testimonial from a Moldovan youth who credits a CERI sponsor with altering the direction of his life, reaffirming that we are all connected, and that love, acceptance, and friendship  can change lives.


A Letter from Eugeniu Vasilachi

Hi! My name is Eugeniu and I would like to tell you about my life. I am young, and while I consider myself a regular guy, I believe my life story could change the way you think about your own life, and maybe help you think about what you might do with it in the greater cause of helping others.

I was born in Chisinau, Moldova, into a family where my mom fulfilled the responsibilities of both a mother and a father! I had a very difficult childhood. When I was only two years old, my mother took me to a child care institution where I would spend five days and nights a week, from Monday morning to Friday evening. On Fridays, my mom would pick me up and take me home. Well, not actually a real “home,” because it was actually “anywhere” – anywhere we found a place to sleep, with a roof to protect against rain or snow, we called “home.” This is what my life looked like until I turned seven, and my mother, after listening to the advice of some, decided to take me to an orphanage.

Eugeniu posing infront of his home


I don’t remember my first year at the orphanage, but I do remember the first summer. At the end of the school year, all the children from the orphanage (there were about 700 of us) were taken to a summer camp outside the city. That summer, I learned about a new nation and met a new group of people – Americans.

A group of Americans was volunteering at our camp, mentoring, and running the Vacation Bible School program. One day I met two sisters – Rebekah and Jessica Beasley – two of the most special and most loving people I have ever met. They became my friends, and that summer, we spent an unforgettable time playing and talking about our lives. At the end of the summer, Rebekah and Jessica gave me some news that would, though I didn’t know it at the time, have an overwhelmingly positive effect on my life; they decided to become my CERI sponsors.

I felt like I had a family. I knew somebody was there for me, to love me, and support me.

After that memorable summer, Rebekah and Jessica, together with their parents and friends, came to our orphanage’s summer camp every year to visit with me and the other children. The best week of the summer was the week when they were there. I felt like I had a family. I knew somebody was there for me, to love me, and support me.

During the school year, I wrote the Beasley sisters letters that CERI staff translated and passed on to them. The summer of 2008 was the last summer I saw them, for that year, Rebekah married a strong and wonderful young man and they started a family. You may be asking how I know this, and it’s because the Beasleys kept sending me correspondence: emails and letters and pictures from every single special event they had! As they considered me part of their family, they always kept me in the loop!

In the spring of 2012, I went to technical college in Moldova. While I was pursuing my Physical Education degree at the (Ion Creangă) Pedagogical College, I enrolled in CERI-Moldova’s Transitional Care program where I learned life skills, got involved in volunteering in the community, and gradually worked toward my own independence. All through this, the Beasleys were my sponsors. Four years later, I had earned my P.E. diploma and applied for a scholarship program at a university in neighboring Romania, where I am now a student in the Physical Education and Mountain Sports Department. In the summer of 2018, with the help of an Erasmus Exchange Program scholarship, I spent a semester studying in Spain.   

Shortly after I moved to Romania to pursue my Bachelor’s degree, I graduated from CERI’s Transitional Care Program, but I still kept in touch with the Beasleys via email and social media. When I learned that Rebekah was coming back to Moldova to serve and bless other children in need of a family, I could not believe I would be seeing her after 10 years! I was so excited about seeing her again and meeting her husband! Through nerves and overwhelming emotion, I purchased a flight back to Moldova to see Rebekah. I was unsure if we would be able to connect and relate to each other like we had before, but all my fears vanished the moment I saw her. I will never forget our strong and powerful hug that day. I was so happy to see her, and I was so glad to meet Michael, a strong and heartfelt man. Though it had been ten years, we picked right back up where we left off and spent the next several hours talking and crying.   

 Eugeniu and his sponsors, the Beasleys
Eugeniu and his sponsors, the Beasleys

This is my story. With CERI’s help and the Beasleys’ sponsorship, not only have I achieved independence, but I have found a path to an education that can help further my plans and life goals. My message to my brothers and sisters in America is that Moldova is a small and impoverished country that needs you. The children without a family in Moldova need your support. CERI sponsorships work. A child’s life can change for the better from the investment into a child sponsorship. I encourage you to learn more about the great work CERI is doing in Moldova, and in other parts of the world where children’s lives are at stake. Your sponsorship could transform a life forever.

Eugeniu Vasilachi

Securing Families in Transit

One of the greatest tragedies of the death and injury caused by vehicle accidents is that, many times, the problem can be prevented. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that three out of four children’s car seats are not properly installed, and, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) motor vehicle injuries are a leading cause of death among children in the United States.


by Monica Calderon


The colonias of Webb County, Texas, are neighborhoods faced with substandard living conditions, often occupied by families impoverished and in need. The new-born infants and toddlers in these communities, like all children, require special care when traveling from place to place in a vehicle. Seeing the need to protect children, no matter the financial situation of their families, BCFS Health and Human Services’ Healthy Start Laredo program (HSL) was awarded a grant to provide car seats to low-income families

Proper installation of a child seat

Since beginning work with vehicle safety, HSL has teamed up with the Texas Department of Transportation to support child safety initiatives across the state. Recently, HSL became a member of the Safe Riders Child Safety Seat Distribution and Education Program through the Texas Department of State Health Services. As members of this community service program, HSL can conduct educational classes and distribute car seats to families in the regions that need it most.

By providing safety seats to families, not only does HSL reduce the number of potential injuries and deaths that come from children being improperly secured in a vehicle, it also ensures families are able to comply with state laws requiring children under the age of eight to ride in a car seat, lowering the chances that financially-struggling families will have to add fines of up to $250 to their economic uncertainty.

In addition to the donation of car seats, Healthy Start Laredo provides families with training to properly buckle up children when it’s time to travel. HSL staff received extensive training from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which they now pass on to families in Webb County.

BCFS Health and Human Services is the first health and human services agency to be part of the Safe Riders Child Safety Seat Distribution and Education Program in Laredo, Texas. HSL is enthusiastic about the opportunity they’ve been given to secure lives through the empowerment and education of the community. The program identified a need and built an initiative through a variety of opportunities.

Making a positive difference deep in the heart of Texas, one child at a time, HSL’s car seat only one example of how a dedicated program is having a big impact on a community in need.


by Alana Jeter


The D.R.I.V.E. Safe Coalition creates awareness about the critical importance of properly installing a car seat, harnessing a child correctly in a car seat, and reducing the number of traffic-related injuries and deaths on Texas roads. With the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), D.R.I.V.E Safe and BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene have partnered to deliver traffic safety knowledge to families in Abilene.

Through BCFS Health and Human Services HOPES (Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support) parent education course, parent educators have integrated traffic safety as part of a curriculum designed to provide community-based, family-centric programs that support families with young children 0-5 years of age to work through any barrier they may be facing.

BCFS-Abilene’s Parent Educators have been educated through traffic safety training, earning certification as a Child Passenger Safety Technician. Their certification enabled a partnership with the D.R.I.V.E safe coalition that allows parent educators to attend monthly Car Seat Check-Up events co-hosted by the Abilene Fire Department and other community organizations.

The Car Seat Check Up events help keep kids and families safe. Together with other technicians, HOPES parent educators provide individualized, hands-on instruction to parents for correctly installing a child safety seat into their vehicle, the different adjustments that allow a parent to customize the car seat based on their child’s height and weight, and how to correctly secure a child in a car seat. Parents can also find out if a car seat is expired and make arrangements for an exchange.

The partnership between BCFS-Abilene and the D.R.I.V.E Safe Coalition allows our parent educators to effectively add transportation safety education to an array of case management services and resource referral with the mission of providing wraparound services to help a family succeed, both at home and on the road.

CDC seat belt statistics

Hope + Hard Work = Success

By Lakita Oats

At 18 years old, I had no permanent address, no income, and a three-year-old daughter who was not in school. I was in Chicago at the time, relying completely on the support of friends and family to get by. I was truly homeless, about to move into a shelter with my daughter before a friend offered me a place to stay temporarily. After that, I moved between other friends’ houses, still desperate and in need of something more permanent and stable. One day a friend referred me to what I thought was just a nice daycare. It turned out to be so much more.

Latika Oats and her mother
Mother and Daughter

In 2008, I enrolled my daughter in the Head Start program. It was everything we needed as mother and daughter: education, support, resources, even a second family. I was excited to be part of something so positive during a time in my life that was not. I joined the program’s Parent Committee and Policy Council, and even became a Policy Council Secretary (a position that grew skills I would use later in my career). I also had some college hours which the Family Support Specialists encouraged me to build on by getting back into a university. So, I enrolled at a community college and started taking classes.

During my second pregnancy, Head Start remained involved with my whole family, continuing to support our goals. While life was still not exactly where I knew it could be, I continued taking college classes and started living with my aunt and uncle, who had graciously opened their home to me though they hardly had space left to give.

Around the same time, program staff asked if I would like to be a part of a new Doula program they were offering to pregnant mothers. I was grateful for this additional path of support, receiving assistance throughout my pregnancy. Within eight weeks of my second daughter’s birth, I was able to enroll her in an Early Child Education program, where she received a tremendous amount of support from the staff just as my older daughter and I had. The second family I had grown to know and love at Head Start was helping my immediate family grow to know and love each other.

Now a mother of two, I started to transition my focus from ensuring a healthy pregnancy into establishing an opportunity-filled life for both of my girls. I could not completely support them without first supporting myself. So, I enrolled in a job placement program offered through the state of Illinois, and soon found employment.

In less than two years, I had grown from a frightening time in my life as a homeless single mother to a stable parent with the promise of a future for her children.

Once I started working, I was able to move into an apartment of my own. My oldest daughter went to kindergarten prepared for what was to come, and my youngest started in her new program. In less than two years, I had grown from a frightening time in my life as a homeless single mother to a stable parent with the promise of a future for her children. Every move I made, I made for my girls and for the future of my family, and while the success I found would not have been possible without my drive and desire to achieve the life I knew was possible, I was so appreciative for every person who helped shape the woman I was becoming and the mother I was so proud to be.

Latika and her family during graduation
Latika and her family

I was in my own apartment with my children for more than a year until I moved to Missouri to join my future husband. There, I enrolled at Columbia College, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in human services. I wanted to help others the way others had helped me. I wanted to prove to people what they were capable of when they were given the right tools to accomplish what they wanted.

I worked toward my degree until 2015. By then, I was married, had three daughters, and was on my way to South Korea, accompanying my husband on a deployment in the U.S. Army. I had to put my educational goals on hold during my two years in Korea, as the time difference and busy schedule made even online courses a difficult option. However, during the break from college, I gained valuable experience as a Child and Youth Program Assistant, serving children in classrooms and after-school programs. My time there reaffirmed that I was on the right path: I definitely wanted to continue working with children and families.

When my family returned to the U.S., we moved to South Texas, where I learned about the opportunities available through BCFS Education Services. I took a position as a Family Specialist with BCFS Education Services, helping people on the other side of a story I had lived only a few years before. I continue to serve families in this way today.

Thinking back on where I’ve been and where I’m going, I credit what I learned from the Head Start program years ago as a teenage mother. The family specialists who served me showed me what was possible. They revealed a path that eventually gave me work experience, educational advice, maternal support, and most importantly, hope. I was able to take those pieces and build something truly meaningful and lasting. It was not always obvious where I was headed along the way, but it was always clear that I was moving.

In 2018, I earned my degree from Columbia College with a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services. I travelled more than four hours to the graduation ceremony so that I could walk across the stage and receive my diploma. I did this intentionally. I did it in the presence of my three children, to show them what was possible – to make a point that life was only as good as you worked to make it.

Am I doing enough for the parents and children I work with? Am I doing as much as what was done for me?

Latika celebrating her graduation
Hard work and success

Now that I am serving as a Family Specialist, sometimes it can feel like I am not living up to the level of service that I was given as a young mother. Sometimes I question, “Am I doing enough for the parents and children I work with? Am I doing as much as what was done for me?” Still, I recognize that I am new to much of this, being on the other side of the situation. Coming so far does not mean I have made it; it means there is still a long way to go. For now, the most important thing I can be is a support for the families who need someone strong to lean on. The best gift I can give is my time and my openness to communicate, my willingness to provide whatever is needed to give families a future.

Even though I am staying busy in Texas with three daughters, a husband, and a new career, I still find time to visit Chicago every once and a while. Whenever I visit, I always enjoy meeting up family Specialists that were so important to my daughters and me. You could call it a second-family reunion.

Becoming the Cornerstone

The teen years are a formidable time-span for anyone, and during Bethany’s fourteenth year, she lost her mom after a brave two-year battle with breast cancer at the age of 41. While each family member struggled to cope with the immense loss, Bethany’s father turned to alcohol, which led to the neglect of his children. Before long, her two younger siblings were sent to live with their grandparents, and Bethany found herself as a ward of the court in the foster care system.

As an adolescent managing all the life changes going around her, Bethany was thrust into a mindset of self-preservation, deciding that she did not want to be placed with a foster family.

“I already have a family,” she reasoned, then, navigating her way through an emergency shelter for a short time before moving to a transitional living facility in New Braunfels, Texas, sharing space and stories with other youth going through their own life changes. Today, she admits her decision was based partly in the rejection of her father, and partly in the lack of institutional supervision at a private home.


Bethany standing with her mother and siblings
Bethany and her family

“The fear of rejection was a really big part of it,” she says. “In a facility, there was more oversight to make sure that I was safe, rather than living with a family left to their own discretion for how to parent me.” 

As Bethany had effectively lost both parents, her mother to illness and her father to alcoholism, she didn’t want another set of parents, much less of a set of strangers who might make her feel less safe.

“I didn’t really want to go through that,” she says.

Bethany moved again, this time, to a Portland, Texas-area temporary children’s shelter, a time and place she recalls fondly.

“It was really strict, but it was also really fun,” she says. “The workers there made it fun, but the rules were strict. I took it well, but some others didn’t. It was hard for a lot of the kids there.”

Bethany mixed the fun with some productivity, earning a high school diploma by the time she was 16 and enrolling in a community college satellite program from San Antonio. When she was 18 and firmly in control of her own life as a legal adult, her father reached out to her, asking her to come home to Bayside, Texas, near Corpus Christi. She did.

“Because I have younger brothers and sisters, I decided to return home,” she explains.

She stayed the educational course she had charted for herself, however, refusing to give up the vision she had of herself in a cap and gown at college graduation. She transferred to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, but just a week later, Bethany recalls, her father decided he didn’t want her and kicked her out of the house, sending Bethany scrambling for stability.

She went into survival mode again, assessing her resources for achieving her own autonomy. She lived with a friend for a short time and then moved into university housing, refusing to abandon her studies.

“I did have to stop one semester, the first summer session, because of all the moving around,” she says. “It was really hard for me to get registered and get to my classes.”

Having become acquainted with BCFS Health and Human Services during time she spent at another group home, she reached out to BCFS-Corpus Christi for guidance and support. BCFS-Corpus Christi serves youth from the foster care system to help them build their skills and knowledge, strengthen their self-confidence, create healthy community relationships, and help youth learn positive self-guidance.

Bethany enrolled in BCFS-Corpus Christi’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, a program designed for youth preparing to age out of the foster care system; and the Education and Training Voucher (ETV) program, a state government-funded program that ensures college tuition to an in-state university for youth with experience in foster care. In addition, BCFS-Corpus Christi works closely with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and they helped her seek and find on-campus employment in an afterschool program for schoolchildren.

When Bethany was unexpectedly dismissed by her father, BCFS-Corpus Christi stepped in to offer support.

“The ETV program helped me tremendously,” Bethany says, “especially when I was kicked out and on my own. It helped with student housing, my books, and helped me gain access to a computer for school.”

“When Bethany came into the office,” says BCFS-Corpus Christi PAL Case Manager Noemi Gomez, “she had a goal already set to finish college because she wanted a better life for herself. “She’s incredibly self-motivated, smart, and a hard worker,” Gomez continues. “She knew what she needed and knew that we could help her obtain it.”

According to the American Council on Education, factors like a lack of familial support, frequently changing schools, and the likelihood that youth in foster care are tracked in basic education courses, rather than college preparatory courses, coalesce to make youth in foster care drastically less likely to go to college, much less graduate.[LF1]  The National Foster Youth Institute calculates that across the country, only about half of youth raised in foster care finish high school, and less than three percent graduate from a four-year college.[LF2] 

With the help of BCFS-Corpus Christi, Bethany is using education to propel her toward a successful, independent adulthood. She is on schedule to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Science and Child Psychology, and plans to pursue a graduate degree. Her experiences in the foster care system have resulted in her crafting and sharing an important message for youth in the system.

Bethany Graduating

“I want other kids in CPS (Child Protective Services) to know that there is so much help in BCFS and PAL to help you live on your own, especially with the tuition waiver. Out of all the children that I have lived with – and it was a lot – I am pretty much the only one who went to college. We all had the same opportunities; they just chose not to take it for whatever reason. More kids in CPS should take advantage of the opportunities.

“College seems hard,” she continues. “Everyone that I talked to, they felt like they didn’t fit in there. We really do belong there, and it is possible. It’s definitely worth it.”

After completing her education, Bethany plans to advocate for youth in the foster care system, drawing from her own experiences to found a center where youth in the system can go for support.

“I heard stories from some of the kids I lived with, and they are horrible stories,” she says. “I would like to make a nice residential treatment center that focuses on education and helps build awareness of the resources available.”

Seasoned by her experiences and choosing to seek harmony and balance, Bethany, today, at 21 years old, has learned that forgiveness is paramount to the love and commitment she has always felt for her family. With the help of his employer, her father obtained treatment for his alcohol addiction, remarried, and is raising Bethany’s two younger siblings.

“I actually have a pretty good relationship with my dad, now,” she smiles.

Her mind returns to all the kids she has met in her journey, and how each has their own set of challenges they are managing.

“I got asked the other day if I wanted to talk about my story. I thought it could be a cool opportunity to talk about what happened in my life, and maybe inspire some others in theirs.”

Bethany is in the middle of her first year as a graduate student in business school after earning a bachelor’s degree in applied science with a focus on child development.

“I believe this degree will help me on my path to eventually creating and operating a residential treatment center of my own,” she says. BCFS-Corpus Christi will certainly be checking the mail for the next graduation announcement. Keep up the great work, Bethany!


 [LF1]https://www.higheredtoday.org/2017/12/11/foster-care-youth-postsecondary-education-long-road-ahead/

 [LF2]https://www.nfyi.org/issues/education/

PAL for Life

One of the ways BCFS Health and Human Services uplifts communities is through the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program. PAL is a way for youth aging out of the foster care system to build their skills and knowledge, fortify their self-confidence, create healthy community relationships, and ultimately learn self-guidance.

Throughout Texas, BCFS Health and Human Services is active in communities, guiding youth from the foster care system toward a stable adulthood through education, life skills training, and access to supportive and caring adults that can offer life advice and answers that can help a young person see a bright future through a past that, at times, may have seemed hopeless.

The following stories are testimonials from three youth with experience in the foster care system who received services through the PAL program. Each writer tells their story selflessly, in the hope that their experiences and stories might shine a ray of hope upon a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for another.


Alana

Writing about myself has always proved to be rather difficult for me. I see myself as both a dreamer and a doer, but I am also a tad bit of a procrastinator. I have overcome an abundance of obstacles these past few years, and, at the same time, accomplished more than I expected.

My upbringing was not ideal, but I managed. I grew up in a household with my four other siblings, my grandmother, and my mother. I was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, so there were numerous doctor appointments. My birth defects posed a huge challenge during elementary school.  There were times I’d get bullied, and I couldn’t do anything besides sit and listen. I might have been young, but I knew people would always have something to say about my appearance. I also struggled in school. I remember crying my eyes out as I did homework, and no one at home provided any assistance.  It wasn’t long before I realized I was on my own.

Alana standing with her family for graduation
Alana Martinez

During middle school, I decided that I had to work hard because I did not want to struggle like my mother. I was already aware that college for me was a must. I was inspired by so many compassionate people in the medical field that I set my mind on being involved in health care. By the time I reached ninth grade, I felt a little more confident with myself. I had joined marching band that summer, and was placed in a selective advanced math course with other peers. I was on top of the world…for a little while.

Over time, the feeling faded. Since my mother was elsewhere, I had to juggle paying house bills, purchasing groceries, setting doctor appointments for my siblings, and running other errands for my family. When my mother did come home, it was utter chaos. Arguments sprouted everywhere! There were too many times when she was physically, verbally, mentally, and emotionally abusive toward my siblings and me, but it all went unnoticed. I began feeling overwhelmed, and decided to quit band. It was time consuming, and I thought it would be better if I turned my attention solely to academics.

I enrolled in dual enrollment courses – courses that earned college credit – in my high school and stayed involved in clubs and other extracurricular activities. I was very stressed, but I could not afford to give up. I needed to do better for myself. I would not settle for less.  Slowly, I began climbing my way up the class ranking.

During my junior year, my life took another turn. My biological mom was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Child Protective Services (CPS) intervened before life at home could get any worse. Two of my younger siblings and I were taken to a shelter in Laredo, Texas, and my little sister stayed in a behavioral institute.

I had lost everything. I was withdrawn from the rigorous classes I had worked so hard to obtain.  The clubs and extracurriculars were gone. My friends were out of reach. Eventually, my siblings left the shelter without me. I remained there for two whole months. Alone.

Like many other individuals in the shelter, I developed a negative perspective about life. It took me by surprise that, early in 2017, I was placed in the Lopez family home where I was welcomed with open arms.  Since that day, they have treated me with utmost respect and kindness. Mr. and Mrs. Lopez always make sure I am doing well. Besides them, my caseworker, Carla F., and attorney, Latoya C., were always there to support me.

When I enrolled at Porter Early College High School, my foster parents encouraged me to continue taking dual enrollment classes and to remain focused. As a senior, I did just that. I even joined clubs such as HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) and BPA (Business Professionals of America) where I advanced and placed in competitive events. Without the support from many individuals, I do not know how I would have graduated with so many achievements. I definitely did not expect to graduate number nine in my class.

I ended my senior year with two certifications in Medical Billing and Coding and Medical Administrative Assistant. I volunteered at VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), which allowed me to give back to my community and impact low-income families positively.

I look forward to attending the University of Texas at
Austin this fall. I will be part of the College of Natural Sciences and major
in biology. I have been accepted to the
University Leadership Network program (which comes with a scholarship), the TIP
Scholars program, and the Freshman Research Initiative Program. I earned a
few other scholarships, and they’ll surely assist me financially. My ultimate
goal is to someday become a prestigious cardiothoracic surgeon. I look forward
to being able to give back to my community and others in foster care someday.

All in all, even though I’m still in foster care, I feel it is for the best. I am in a more stable environment that allows me to exceed even my own expectations. I cannot deny that, while I was with my biological family, I acquired key principles such as being responsible and determination. After all the obstacles and achievements, I feel more mature. I’m excited for the future, and live by Nelson Mandela’s wise words: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” 


Elvia

I was a lonely child.  My mother gave birth to me in the prison she and my father were held in in Tamaulipas, Mexico. My sweet grandmother, since the day I was born, took care of me as if I were her own child. I grew up in a lovely, humble home with my grandmother and a very close aunt.

Unfortunately, my grandmother started to get sick when I was in my early teens, which led me to move to Texas. It was challenging moving to a new environment and culture. Plus, my grandmother being sick made it more difficult for us. 

At first, my life in Texas was very strenuous because I didn’t speak English. Time passed, and my grandmother got worse, to the point that I wouldn’t go to school so I could take care of her. The weariness and fearful thoughts made me feel exhausted day and night. 

Elvia in graduation gown
Elvia De La Cruz

I started using drugs to calm myself down, but in the long run it only made me feel more ill. I tried to stop using the drugs, but it made everything ten times harder. I had to ask for professional help, which led me to a rehab recovery home for teenagers. After successfully completing my time in rehab, they were investigating to see whether I could go back to my home. Sadly, they found out that my grandmother was not capable of taking care of me anymore, which made them call Child Protective Services as soon as they saw that I had nowhere else to go. 

At the age of sixteen, I was moved to San Juan, Texas, where I lived with my first foster mother. To this day, I am still in foster care, even though I could have gone out of care at the age of 18, I decided to stay for a better life for my grandmother, and for me. 

Entering into the system was uncomfortable at first because you do not know the people you are living with and feel left out. With time, everything got better in many ways. I graduated high school and got a well-paying job. I appreciate all of the organizations that have helped us make our life a little easier. 

BCFS Health and Human Services helped me get a job and be prepared for it. They also helped me open my very first bank account, and make a smooth transition into adulthood.

This is just the beginning for me. I am aiming for success, not giving up, and living to make my grandmother proud.


Andrew Luke

My biological parents were really bad drug addicts and I was born positive for cocaine. When I was two years old, they were so drugged up that my father beat me and tied me in a dark closet. I was found a couple of hours later by my brother, Dionicio, who was about six years old at the time, and he called the authorities.

I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. The doctor told CPS and the authorities that it was a miracle that I even made it to the hospital alive. CPS took me and my older brother (Dionicio) and my little sister (Karissa) out of our home and placed us with relatives.

We were there only for a couple of months until they were not able to care for us. When I turned four, we were adopted by Eliseo and Celia Reyes from a small town named Rio Hondo. I loved them as if they were my own parents. I remember when I got to the home, I ran around the house just laughing and crying tears of joy. I loved that family.

Things were awesome until I turned fourteen. As soon as I hit middle school, I became a victim of bullying. After some time I would not want to even go to school. Then when I did, I would come home and take out the anger on my family. It got so bad that one day the police were called and I went to juvenile lock-up. 

In the detention center, a CPS caseworker came to visit me. I figured it was probably to talk about what happened when I was younger, but I was wrong. The CPS worker told me that when I was to be released, I would be taken into foster care. That night I cried knowing I made the biggest mistake in the world. 

It was also the first time I tried to commit suicide. 

I tried to cut myself with broken glass from the mirror. Luckily, a guard saw me and restrained me and transported me to the medical room to get attention. I was released a week later. 

The very first foster home I went to was the Esquivel Family. We grew close, but then problems started that had nothing to do with me and I had to leave.

I moved from foster home to foster home until I was seventeen, when I landed in a residential treatment center. There, I got my first job and learned about BCFS Health and Human Services. 

One day I was told that I would be moving back to my hometown to live with the Moreno family. I was 18. When I got there, I was welcomed with open arms. Frank Moreno taught me and molded me to the man I am today. He was tough on me, but it was necessary. I helped him with yardwork and a backyard project.  After about a year, though, I made another mistake and decided it was best for me to leave, after I had problems with him. 

I turned 20 on the Fourth of July in a homeless shelter. I am still living in the shelter, but things are different. I needed to be homeless – completely down and out – in order to see my place in the world. 

I’ve been accepted into college and I start in the Fall. It may not sound like it, but right now, I’m successful for two reasons:  One is that I’m still alive. And two is that I haven’t given up – and won’t. There might be people that have nothing going for them, but for me, I know soon I’ll be where I belong. 

To every foster youth out there in the whole world: Even if you feel alone, you are not, and these feelings and hardships will pass. Never give up and you will succeed with your goals in life. To be honest, I may still be staying at a shelter, but I’m in college now and will be working soon. I’m happy and I owe it all to the Lord and people who made a positive impact in my life.