Common Thread Recognized at Annual Nonprofit Awards Ceremony

We are pleased to announce that Maria Barquin Sommers, advocate with BCFS Health and Human Service’s Common Thread Project, is a 2019 winner of the San Antonio Business Journal Nonprofit & Corporate Philanthropy Award. This award recognizes people and businesses that have made a difference in the community over the past year.

Maria was recognized and presented with the award during the annual Nonprofit & Corporate Philanthropy Awards luncheon on November 14, 2019.  Maria joined Common Thread in 2016 as an advocate who provides case management to survivors of commercial sex trafficking. She was nominated for the award by Sonya Thompson, executive director of the program.

“Maria was actually the first advocate to come on board with Common Thread for the San Antonio location and in her position she has served dozens of survivors of child sex trafficking,” Sonya said. “Maria has been a leader amongst her peers and we are honored to have her as a member of the BCFS Health and Human Services team.”

Maria manages a special team of advocates at Common Thread who specialize in nurturing and connecting with survivors and coordinating their long-term care and recovery including emergency shelter, residential services, vocational training, transitional living and much more.

“I really enjoy helping people to break the cycles of abuse,” Maria said during her video introduction. “The most satisfying thing about my job is creating an environment where survivors can begin to accomplish their goals one at a time.”

Maria was selected as one of a dozen nonprofit workers across San Antonio who were recognized for their service to the community. The ceremony was held at the Events Center at Morgan’s Wonderland and was sponsored by the Najim Charitable Foundation and The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation.

The award ceremony was held at Morgan's Wonderland.
Maria chats with coworkers in the break room.
Maria accepts the San Antonio Business Journal Nonprofit & Corporate Philanthropy Award.
Award winners came back on stage for a group photo.
Maria and her fellow Common Thread staffers.

Youth Learn About Surviving Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can affect people in every walk of life, and overcoming it can be one of life’s greatest challenges.

That was the message conveyed at a lunch-and-learn sponsored by BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio for youth in the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program. The PAL program provides services to youth aging out of the foster care system to expand their skills and knowledge.

The featured speakers at the event were Patricia Castillo, the co-founder and executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. (Putting an End to Abuse through Community Efforts) Initiative and Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez, who presides over Bexar County Court at Law No. 13.

Castillo’s P.E.A.C.E. Initiative is a coalition of 48 agencies, organizations and individuals as well as the F.A.C.T. (Family Assistance Crisis Teams) program based in San Antonio, Texas. Judge Gonzalez’ court is one of two such courts specifically designated to hear misdemeanor domestic violence cases.

“It takes a lot to survive an abuser,” Judge Gonzalez said, “because it beats down your soul.” That is why it is important to build your self esteem so you can deal with the verbal, emotional and sometimes physical abuse, she explained. “If you can survive that, you can overcome anything,” she said.

Unfortunately, many people do not survive. According to Judge Gonzalez, 211 people across Texas were killed as a result of domestic violence incidents in 2018, and there have been 28 deaths so far this year just in San Antonio, which is a record.

Castillo told the youth that they need to be prepared for breakups at their age and to get themselves out of a bad situation.

“You need to set up a safety plan,” she said. “The victims are not the cause of domestic violence, but there are things they can do to protect themselves and that is important for them to know.”

Learn more about BCFS System initiatives supporting the fight against domestic violence.

Judge Gonzalez and Patricia Castillo address youth from PAL.
Judge Gonzalez leads discussion on preventing domestic violence.
Patricia Castillo reviews making a plan to escape domestic violence.

Never Scared to Have Fun

Three cities served by BCFS Health and Human Services’ Community Services Division (CSD) gathered to celebrate the fall season this week.

This decorated trunk in Abilene featured its own campfire and scarecrows.

In Abilene, Texas, nearly a dozen vehicles parked at BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene, their trunks open and decorated to welcome the public to stop by, grab some candy, learn something new, or just chat.

Alana Jeter, regional director of North Texas at CSD and an Abilene resident, shared that their organization wanted to host a public event so they had a chance to interact with other community members who may not yet be familiar with the work that BCFS-Abilene does.

The Trunk or Treat event featured several local partners, including medical-service providers, counselors from a drug and alcohol recovery clinic, guests that help victims of human trafficking, representatives from the city of Abilene, and U.S. Air Force members.

A few hundred miles south, BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio gathered more than 60 friends and family from their programs into a venue spooked out with lights and festive decorations. The Fall Festival included competitive games, dinner and dessert, pumpkin and cookie decorating, and dancing.

Partygoers dance to the Cha Cha Slide

A mummy relay challenged two teams to see who could wrap their partner fastest. Meanwhile, a play on the classic cake-walk invited guests of all ages to try their luck walking between paper cutouts of pumpkins on the floor, stopping when the music did in hopes that their number would net them one of several prizes.

In South Texas, BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio celebrated with a trunk-or-treat similar to the event in Abilene. Staff passed out more than 4,000 pieces of candy to the community and hope next year to invite other local partners to their event. This was BCFS-Del Rio’s first fall event of its kind, celebrating both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos.

Across Texas, CSD helps teens and young adults in eight cities with a range of services that increase access to education, counseling, housing, and more. The organization serves youth that often face a statistical risk for negative outcomes.

Learn more about what BCFS Health and Human Services provides to youth in Texas.

Guests are mummified in San Antonio.

Benefit Hunt Celebrates 3rd Year

by Alana Jeter

This past Saturday, October 26, marked the third year of a new tradition for BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene: the Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt.

From left to right: Will Meiron, Marshall Davidson, Alana Jeter

It all started with Marshall Davidson from the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), who had the vision to host a special event for foster youth. Marshall had been a hunter since he was a boy and felt that the youth in the foster care system were missing out on this Texas tradition. He developed a way to have them not only hunt, but also learn some important life lessons. When Marshall partnered with BCFS Health and Human Services, the Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt was born.

At the third annual hunt this weekend, eight excited youth from 12 to 17 years of age arrived in Sterling City, Texas, at a ranch hosted by Double Barrel Outfitters. These youth were selected by case workers to take part in the hunt and had passed a hunter safety course the month prior.  

The hunt began before dawn on almost 30,000 acres of West Texas ranchland. Volunteers included guides for each youth, the Sterling County Sheriff’s Office, local EMTs, cooks, and DFPS caseworkers. On hand to represent BCFS Health and Human Services were Program Director Will Meiron, who served as a guide, and Regional Director of North Texas Alana Jeter.

The full-day event included fellowship, lunch, and pumpkin carving. The teens were able to leave behind the worries of daily life and simply enjoy being a kid on a ranch for the day, and the youth who participated were able to take home venison for their families.

The Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt expanded to the Texas Panhandle last year, and the region’s second annual hunt will take place on November 23, the opening weekend of mule deer season.

Read about last year’s hunt in Abilene here.

Advocates and Survivors Unite in South Texas

Inside Plaza Del Sol Mall in Del Rio, Texas, a group dressed in purple set up chairs in front of a stage draped in bunting with balloons. Every decorative piece was a shade of purple for what was to be both a festive and a solemn occasion, calling attention to the problem of domestic violence in their community which had recently cost the life of one of their residents.

In the same way that pink is used as the symbol for breast cancer awareness, purple is the color for domestic violence awareness. On Tuesday, Oct. 22, that color was everywhere as the local staff from BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio prepared for the 9th Annual Domestic Violence Candlelight Vigil. Soon the seats were filled and the courtyard inside the mall was packed with people. Dozens of elementary school children from the San Felipe Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District crowded onto the stage to sing “Song of Peace” and “One Small Voice.” Members of the Del Rio High School Dance Company also performed.

Staff from BCFS-Del Rio and other parts of the BCFS System attended the evening event.

Tracy Wayne Richardson, a local pastor and a family support specialist with BCFS-Del Rio, welcomed the crowd and led them in a prayer for the 212 victims of domestic violence across the state of Texas this past year. One name on the list was of special note. Amanda Riojas died in April 2019 as a result of a domestic violence incident, leaving behind five young children who are now cared for by her mother, Rosemary Gutierrez. Rosemary was also a guest speaker that night, who struggled to hold back tears as she spoke about her daughter and how her loss has impacted the family.

“We never think about having to bury our own children,” Rosemary said. “But I know that if we all come together and unite as one, we can help to stop this violence.”

Afterwards, Rosemary’s grandchildren passed out flowers to audience members in remembrance of her daughter. Staff members from the BCFS System took turns reading the names of other domestic violence victims who died in the past year.

Delia Ramos, director of community-based services at BCFS-Del Rio, urged people to support efforts to help domestic violence survivors by becoming ‘community angels’ – an email database where they would be contacted whenever a local survivor was in need.

“Everyday, BCFS Health and Human Services strives to help survivors of domestic violence and be their advocates, giving them a voice when often times they have no voice,” Delia said.

Like the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” likewise it sometimes takes a whole community to come together to reduce the incidences of domestic violence.

“The responsibility of ending domestic violence comes to this community,” Delia said. “We need awareness prevention that brings change in the views and cultures of our community. We all need to be part of the change.”

Learn more about how BCFS-Del Rio helps their community.

Local students attended the service.
Rosemary Gutierrez, who lost her daughter to domestic violence earlier this year, was a guest speaker.
People crowd inside the Plaza Del Sol Mall.
Members of the Del Rio High School Dance Company perform.
Family members snap pictures of their children in the choir.
Elementary school students sing "Song of Peace" and "One Small Voice."

Oh Baby!

More than a dozen excited mothers and fathers attended a baby shower hosted by BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio on Sept. 26 to celebrate early parenthood. The festive and informational event, complete with pink and blue balloons and two cream-colored cakes, was an invite-only affair for soon-to-be parents and parents of newborn children in San Antonio, Texas.

Janie Quinonez answers questions from participants.

Janie Quinonez, a registered nurse from Methodist Women’s Services, gave a presentation on young-adult childbirth, after which attendees were given time to discuss questions they had with the speaker as well as any of several other community partners at the event.

“Janie was really honest with participants about what they could expect,” said Victoria Martinez, PAL1 Training Lead at BCFS-San Antonio. “Because of that honesty, I think they were more open and vulnerable with their questions.”

Like any traditional baby shower, Thursday’s event came complete with party favors, baby-themed games, confessed worries of new parents, and friends to lean on when support is needed most.

Every family who attended received diaper bags and other baby supplies, and six lucky winners took home a new stroller with a car seat. One of the winners decided to give her stroller and car seat away to a soon-to-be father. The mother said she was fortunate to already have one and, seeing a greater need, felt it was the right thing to do.

This was the first time BCFS-San Antonio hosted a baby shower for parents in their programs. The clients that the organization works with – typically youth in their late teens and early 20s with inconsistent support from older role-models – have the chance to receive invaluable benefits from events like this one.

“I think childcare education is probably the most important to them right now: how to burp your baby, how to breastfeed,” said Victoria, “simple things that you aren’t sure parents need until you give them a safe place to ask.”

To learn more about BCFS-San Antonio’s work with youth, click here.

BCFS-San Antonio thanks the following sponsors for their contributions to this event:

1 Preparation for Adult Living

EMD takes part in Abilene tornado recovery celebration

On May 18, 2019, a tornado ripped through a populated section of Abilene causing damage to homes and impacting 147 families. Since then, more than $370,000 in assistance has been distributed to help people recover. Homes have been restored, windows replaced, roofs repaired, and a community continued to work on healing.

This week, at the city’s National Night Out celebration, Abilene residents expressed gratitude for their recovery at the new Abilene Police Station and Municipal Court building. BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division (EMD) was invited to participate in the festivities which included brief remarks by Mayor Anthony Williams and Police Chief Stan Standridge.

Immediately after the tornado hit, BCFS Health and Human Service’s EMD was on hand to help coordinate that recovery effort, working closely with Abilene’s Emergency Management Director Vincent Cantu.

“We always stand ready to support fellow Texans, especially in locations where we have an established presence,” said Dakota Duncan, executive director of EMD, addressing the crowd. BCFS Health and Human Services has had a presence in Abilene with its Community Services Division for nearly a decade, providing services to local youth and families through a variety of programs.

Dakota Duncan, executive director of EMD, thanks community members for allowing BCFS Health and Human Services to partner with them in their recovery efforts.
Dakota Duncan, EMD executive director; Cathy Ashby, Abilene United Way; Steve Hannemann; Reynaldo Torres; Alana Jeter; and Mary Cooksey, 211 Texas.
Abilene Police Station
Dakota Duncan, Steve Hannemann, Alana Jeter and Reynaldo Torres.
Aerial view of some of the tornado damage.

“We truly enjoyed our time here working closely with everyone on these recovery efforts,” Dakota said. “And we want to thank everyone for welcoming us and allowing us to partner with you.”

Also representing EMD at the event were Steve Hannemann, who served as incident commander during the event, and Reynaldo Torres, who worked with our partner groups such as United Way and 211 Texas to ensure that everyone was working together efficiently. Representing BCFS-Abilene was Alana Jeter, regional director for North Texas.

After the program, the public was invited to tour the new Abilene Police Station which now occupies a former K-Mart building that has been completely remodeled and refurbished.

To learn more about BCFS EMD click here.

Professionalism and Fun Collide at Local Event Center

About 30 youth from BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program were invited to Main Event on Sept. 12 to enjoy pizza and recreation at no cost to them. The event melded work and play by providing youth from the PAL program with information about job opportunities at Main Event.

Mark Koenig, general manager at Main Event and the speaker for the day, said that after he became aware of the PAL program a few weeks ago, he invited the organization to come out and enjoy the venue as well as experience what a day in the life of an employee might look like.

Mark Koenig delivers a message to youth from BCFS-San Antonio’s PAL program

“This is a fun place to work and we want them to have a good time while also learning about the opportunities we have available,” Mark said.

The youth were treated to an afternoon of bowling, arcade games, pizza, drinks, laser tag, and a brief presentation on employment at Main Event. Mark said that Main Event, which has two locations in San Antonio, employs more than 100 people at each site.

“We get a lot of first-time job seekers here and that is OK,” Mark told the youth. “You have to start somewhere. If you did extracurricular activities at school, were in team sports, or just like to work with people, those are the things that help us to connect you to the right job. There is a fit for everyone.”

Mark said he has a great time in his career and feels it is important for people to find work that they enjoy doing.

“Find someplace where you can grow and learn and work your way up,” he advised. “Learn as much as you can about the company before you interview. See if they have a mission statement and what their values are.”

This event, the first of its kind for BCFS-San Antonio, is one of many that the organization offers to clients throughout the year, such as the recent health and back-to-school fair and tour of UTSA.

Preparation for Adult Living provides services to youth aging out of the foster care system to expand their skills and knowledge, strengthen their self-confidence, create healthy community relationships, and learn self-guidance. The program aims to prepare young adults for their independence.

Learn more about how the PAL program is helping youth from six Texas cities establish their futures.  

BCFS-San Antonio Helps Families Start the School Year Right

On Saturday, August 10, local families were invited to a fair put on by BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio at the Sunset Station, located in the historic St. Paul’s Square of downtown San Antonio, Texas. The fair, which wove together healthy habits with back-to-school preparation, was an opportunity for featured community organizations to engage with families in the Alamo City.  

Partner organizations set up booths where they offered information directly to attendants about what they could provide them and their families. At the Methodist Healthcare Ministries table, nurses Eydie and Rose focused on the health consequences of consuming soda and other sugary drinks. The Texas Diaper Bank shared information on classes and resources they have for families with small children. Meanwhile, San Antonio Threads chatted with guests and answered questions about their mission to give new clothes to youth in need.

As part of the event, the RK Group served lunch with healthy options like assorted vegetables, pasta salad, and cold-cut sandwiches. The light and tasty meal was a cool refresher to the hot day.

Throughout the event, guests were invited to participate in health-focused activities appropriate for all age groups. Chris Winstead of Onsite Youth Training led courses in “ninja training” that combined flexibility and creativity to keep everyone limber. A team of trainers from Camp Gladiator challenged participants to a workout session that was half race and half aerobics. Cynthia Calzada Medellin led children and adults in a Zumba dance that challenged their rhythm as much as their heart rate.

When it was time for something a bit less demanding, guests enjoyed taking photos with local celebrities such as The Batman of San Antonio, Sparky the Fire Dog, H-E-Buddy, and McGruff the Crime Dog. Many other local heroes attended the event, including first responders from the San Antonio Fire Department and San Antonio Police Department, medical technicians from Acadian Ambulance Service of Texas, local volunteers, and staff from BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio, who work every day to better the lives of families in their community.

BCFS-San Antonio held a raffle and gave away prizes to a few lucky attendees. All the children and families who attended went home with a free backpack, school supplies, and a hygiene kit. In total, BCFS-San Antonio prepared 158 backpacks ready for distribution.

Saturday’s fair showed what is possible when communities unite in an exercise of faith, supporting and promoting one another in beneficial ways; strengthening ties and deepening trust.

Discover more of the BCFS System’s work with health and education initiatives around Texas.

Cynthia Calzada Medellin dances Zumba with attendants, keeping things groovy.
Local heroes line up in Sunset Station's Arcadian Room.
Members of the San Antonio Fire Department pose next to Engine 3, which was available for tour.
Sam Fuller twists balloons and stays busy.
First responders from Acadian Ambulance Service of Texas stand with an emergency-response vehicle.
BCFS-San Antonio prepared 158 backpacks for distribution.
Methodist Healthcare Ministries had visual representations that revealed the surprising amount of sugar in popular drinks.
Sparky the Fire Dog (right) and Sparky's human (left).
Staff from BCFS-San Antonio stand in the foreground alongside the San Antonio Police Department, including McGruff the Crime Dog.
A trainer from Camp Gladiator leads one of several exercise routines during the event.
BCFS' Mayra Carter (center) stands with members of the San Antonio Fire Department.

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio thanks the following organizations and individuals for taking time to make this event so special for so many:

Youth Visit UTSA for Independence Day Conference

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, in partnership with the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), hosted the annual Independence Day Conference this year on July 23 at UTSA’s main campus, where approximately 100 prospective students from PAL and similar programs came together to learn more about the details involved in a college career.

The Independence Day Conference allows teens and young adults who are currently or were formerly in foster care to dialogue with college representatives about what they can expect from higher education and what higher education will expect from them. Experiences like these offer vital opportunities for young people from foster care, statistically at a disadvantage when it comes to education, to thoughtfully engage with their futures and think critically alongside partners who can offer realistic answers to their most pressing questions.

Youth take a tour of UTSA’s main campus in San Antonio, Texas

“We owe these young people a better future. We can do so much better and I believe higher education is the best path forward in doing so,” Peggy Eighmy said in coverage from UTSA Today. Mrs. Eighmy, the first lady of UTSA, was one of several speakers scheduled to offer encouragement and advice to students throughout the day. President Taylor Eighmy, Coach Frank Wilson, and Judge Charles Montemayor also addressed the group.

Frank Wilson, the head football coach for UTSA, shared how he focuses on who and where he wants to be eight years from now as a measure of personal success. “Every time you set a standard, you raise the bar yet again, and yet again. If ever in life you feel ‘I’ve arrived; I’ve made it,’ that’s when things go down,” the coach said.

After the morning’s speakers, attendants were treated to a campus tour, complimentary lunch, and workshops focusing on subjects from engineering to social work. In the afternoon, Dr. Megan Piel led a student panel where attendants were invited to discuss the college experience with peers who have lived through and know that experience. The final hour of the day was spent at UTSA’s Recreation Center, where youth were invited to play basketball and boardgames, or to climb the facility’s rock wall.

The PAL Independence Day Conference, held now for at least three years, continues to prove its importance as a guiding tool for prospective students from foster care looking to make a positive difference in their own lives and the lives of those around them. Sharing the advantages of higher education and the importance of a college degree lets students build a stable plan to achieve the goals they set for themselves.