Proclamation Delivered Against Trafficking

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz proclaimed January 2020 to be National Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month in Laredo, Texas.

Common Thread, a project of BCFS Health and Human Services, helped draft the proclamation and was invited to take part in the announcement ceremony. Irasema Resendez, national partnerships manager with Common Thread, represented the organization at the ceremony and spoke about efforts to help victims of trafficking in the community.

“[The] Common Thread program has two key elements: immediate response and long-term advocacy,” Irasema said. “Advocates maintain a critically important relationship with the survivor, providing intensive case management and working to build protective networks for them.”

Also speaking at the event were representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Laredo Independent School District, the Webb County District Attorney’s office and the Mexican consulate.

The proclamation grew out of the efforts of Marilyn Bautista, a Laredo community activist who now serves as an advocate for Common Thread. Miranda Calhoun Burke, community advocate supervisor for Common Thread, spoke about how the city’s proclamation came to fruition:

“As a member of the Laredo community, Marilyn Bautista was shocked to learn that so many resources are available to those in need specifically those who have endured abuse and violence at the hands of others. When she learned of these resources’ existence, the desire to ensure that every one of her neighbors has access to information about available help became a driving motivation in her life. Since that time, she has worked tirelessly to bring awareness in her community to the realities of abuse, domestic violence and violence towards women. In this pursuit, she has become a trainer, an event-coordinator and a public voice. In these various advocacy roles, she made important connections with influencers in her community to ensure further awareness. One of the individuals she connected with and advocated alongside (through local holidays and proclamations) was Mayor Pete Saenz.

“When Marilyn heard that BCFS was opening a program focused on supporting victims of sex trafficking, her first thought was, “Our community needs this! No one else is doing this!” and she quickly applied for the role of representing our agency in the Laredo Community. She began eagerly researching human trafficking and sharing what she learned with anyone who would listen. Marilyn is a powerful voice in her community, she stands on the side of those oppressed, and she’s the current megaphone for Common Thread and our efforts in the community! Mayor Saenz is one of the community’s influencers that Marilyn has connected with in efforts to increase public knowledge regarding human trafficking, and the ones who are there to support survivors.”

Marilyn has also been working with the Laredo police department, fire department and EMS to train them on how to best handle situations when they first come across victims of human trafficking.

Read more about this proclamation at the Laredo Morning Times.

Christmas in San Antonio

Youth from BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio attended the annual Christmas Dinner at the Sunset Station in downtown San Antonio, Texas. The formal event hosted youth from the various programs that BCFS-San Antonio offers to youth and young adults from foster care.

Salad, dinner and dessert were served by the RK Group, a long-time partner of the BCFS System and an important collaborator in many of BCFS-San Antonio’s special events. The Brackenridge High School Choir sang Christmas songs, followed by a comedy show from Symply Courtney.

After dinner, guests were treated to a candy-and-cookie bar before hitting the dance floor with music compliments of DJ Xavier Salinas. At the party, guests also enjoyed taking pictures at a photo booth with friends, chatting with Santa Claus and sipping on hot chocolate. Before the night was over, several guests received gifts from BCFS-San Antonio staff.

Throughout the year, BCFS Health and Human Services hosts events during the holidays for their clients and communities. It is as important as much of the work that they do, providing an opportunity to celebrate the time together.

Learn more about BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio.

The Brackenridge High School Choir performs.
The annual Christmas Dinner was held at the Sunset Station in downtown San Antonio.
Symply Courtney needed a volunteer.
BCFS-San Antonio staff celebrate the end of another Christmas Dinner.

Christmas in Abilene

Children, youth and families from two programs of BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene celebrated Christmas over the past week.

At the PAL party, guests play a holiday-themed game.

Youth from the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program enjoyed gift-giving, games and a traditional Christmas meal on December 13. Representatives from both the U.S. Army and Job Corps presented to the youth in attendance about what their organizations could offer. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services presented each of the youth with gift-filled stockings, and Wylie Christian Church, a local donor and partner of BCFS-Abilene for many years, brought gifts for the youth as well as the young adults in the program with children. Several members of the church even came to celebrate with BCFS-Abilene and the youth from PAL.

At the HOPES party, Santa Claus holds one of the younger members of the program with care.

Another celebration took place on the evening of December 18, where parents and children from the Healthy Outcomes through Prevention and Early Support (HOPES) program had their own party with a “Pancakes and Pajamas” theme. Local new station KTAB worked with BCFS-Abilene to give the families in the HOPES programs gifts for Christmas, holding a toy drive that Abilene residents donated to. In addition, private donations were made to BCFS-Abilene to give children winter coats and clothing. In total, each of the 46 children in the HOPES program received multiple Christmas gifts and a new winter outfit.

Throughout the year, BCFS Health and Human Services hosts events during the holidays for their clients and communities. It is as important as much of the work that they do, providing an opportunity to celebrate the time together.

“A lot of our youth don’t have the nuclear family anymore,” said Will Meiron, program director with BCFS-Abilene. “They don’t have anywhere to go for Christmas. They’re young adults or young parents on their own. So to give them a chance to celebrate with peers in their same age range and from a similar life path can be really special. What we offer is a family environment with food, fellowship and a good time.”

Learn more about BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene.

A Holiday Tradition

Holiday music played quietly in the background. A Christmas tree, tall enough to nearly touch the ceiling, completed the joyful atmosphere. The smell of spices filled the room. Around a table, 10 youth stood to take part in what is, for many Texas families, an annual holiday tradition.

The youth were visiting BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio for a two-part cooking lesson held December 12-13. As part of the ongoing “What’s Cooking?” series of classes, Alejandra Quezada, education specialist with BCFS-San Antonio, is teaching youth to make a variety of meals in preparation for life on their own. This was the 12th cooking class to date, and since the beginning of the series, youth have had the opportunity to learn how to make dishes like teriyaki chicken, beef and turkey burgers, picadillo, and fried rice.

Their most recent class was all about tamales – a food not to be made by the faint of heart or the short on time. On the first day ingredients were sorted and cooked, prepared to later fill the tamales. Peppers were roasted, corn husks were soaked, beans were slow-cooked and chiles were boiled.

The next day, youth returned to combine the ingredients and then assemble and cook the tamales. In total, they made more than 250 tamales, and each person that prepared the food got to take home a dozen.

“My favorite thing about the cooking classes has been being able to pass down my love for cooking and the ties it has to family,” said Alejandra. “Many of our clients do not have strong familial ties and I like to believe this is a moment in time that they enjoy and hopefully remember.”

A few participants had made tamales before, but it was a first experience for most of the youth. Whether teaching meal preparation, professional success, educational achievement, or healthy relational habits, BCFS-San Antonio consistently finds a way to help youth who are or were in foster care, letting them plan their lives and establish their purpose, ensuring they are given every opportunity to transition out of foster care and into a life of independence and success.

Learn more about the work that BCFS Health and Human Services is doing in San Antonio.

Dads and Daughters Enjoy a Night of Dancing in Del Rio

Fathers and daughters from across Del Rio donned their best attire to attend the fourth annual Father Daughter Dance hosted by BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio on December 12. The event celebrated the special bond between a father and his daughter and gave families an opportunity for a memorable night of fun, music and community engagement.

“We had a wonderful turnout,” said BCFS Director Delia Ramos. “Fathers and daughters spent quality time by dancing away in the Del Rio Civic Center. Door prizes for both fathers and daughters were an added treat.”

To mark this special event, the first song of the evening was “Dance with My Daughter” by Jason Blaine. There were 143 attendees including 78 girls and 65 fathers.

Sponsors who partnered with BCFS-Del Rio on the dance included The Bank & Trust, Brown Automotive, Border Federal Credit Union, Del Rio Towing Company, San Felipe Lions, Las Brisas Apartments and individual community members. Proceeds from ticket sales at the dance will benefit BCFS-Del Rio’s domestic violence program.

BCFS-Del Rio provides domestic violence prevention and treatment, and crisis intervention and counseling for families. BCFS-Del Rio operates the Services to At Risk Youth (STAR) program to help families reduce conflict and prevent delinquent behavior like running away or truancy. STAR works with youth and their families to learn to resolve crises and develop coping and parenting skills.

Gratitude and Community Celebrated at Thanksgiving Lunch

Youth from BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio’s programs shared a Thanksgiving meal together on November 26, enjoying outdoor games, face painting, coffee and pastries while chatting with friends.

Once guests were seated for lunch, they were introduced to Roy Juarez Jr., author of “Homeless by Choice” and a native of San Antonio, Texas. Roy has spoken to thousands of young people around the world, using the most difficult moments of his life as a storytelling tool to encourage those who may feel defeated.

BCFS-San Antonio had the pleasure of hosting Roy as the featured speaker that day, where some of the more than 140 youth in attendance found similarities between Roy’s life and their own.

Roy had a strained relationship with both of his parents from a young age, admitting that he learned how to hate and how to hold a grudge by the age of 7. Roy’s mother left her husband to escape domestic abuse, yet he followed the family wherever they moved, injecting constant fear and chaos into their lives.

By his teenage years, Roy was in foster care, trading houses and families so often that he rarely if ever had the chance to learn what a relationship built on trust and vulnerability might look like.

It wasn’t until Roy studied psychology in college that he learned his parents were broken people from broken places. “As kids, we don’t realize that parents are human; that they make mistakes,” Roy told the crowd. “I am thankful for education because education gave me my family back.”

Roy Juarez Jr. shares his life story.

Roy emphasized that he still loves his family today, and that forgiveness is an incredibly powerful tool and necessary step toward finding peace. Forgiveness lets victims define their lives by more than their survival, allowing them to live with freedom and without limits.

“Just because we make it to this side, that doesn’t mean we forget where we come from,” said Roy, reminding the audience that success is not something to have and hold onto, but something to share.

After his message, Roy was presented with an award of appreciation by Noel Martinez, program director at BCFS-San Antonio. Several youth and guests met with Roy afterward, either to thank him or to share some of their own story.

Today, BCFS-San Antonio helps youth facing some of the same issues Roy did. The organization aids youth who are or were in foster care by helping them plan their lives and establish their purpose, ensuring they are given every opportunity to transition out of foster care and into a life of independence and success.

Learn more about the work that BCFS Health and Human Services is doing in San Antonio.

Marissa Cano Receives ‘Courage Award’

Angels of Love, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter for abused women and children in the Rio Grande Valley, honored Marissa Cano, regional director of South Texas for BCFS Health and Human Services’ Community Services Division, with its Courage Award.

The award was presented during the 2019 Black and White Awards Gala on November 21 at The Grand Banquet and Conference Center in McAllen, Texas. The Black and White Awards Gala raises funds for Angels of Love as it seeks to open an emergency shelter for abused women and children in South Texas.

Marissa is a survivor of domestic violence who made the life-changing decision to flee her abuser. When she came with her son to the Rio Grande Valley from Fort Worth, it was with only a few things they could fit in their car and no plans on what would be next. But she took that crucial first step to leave Fort Worth, and today has rebuilt her life. In her role now as regional director, Marissa leads a team that works to assist youth from foster care, the juvenile justice system and other at-risk situations. She also consistently supports survivors of domestic violence in the community.

Although it came with much pain and suffering, it seems it was Marissa’s destiny to be where she is today, helping and inspiring other survivors not only with her story but as an advocate as well.

Regional Director Marissa Cano holds the Courage Award at the 2019 Black and White Awards Gala.

“Marissa has a passion for helping others and is a true advocate for issues such as human trafficking, speaking out against domestic violence and sexual assault, child abuse prevention and suicide awareness,” said Karina Luna, chairperson for the Black and White Awards Gala, in a statement.

Domestic violence is a major problem in Texas and across the United States. Nearly 200,000 people in Texas were victims of domestic violence in 2017 and 74 percent of all Texans knows someone who has been a victim or has been a victim themselves.

In addition to her role with BCFS Health and Human Services in the Rio Grande Valley, Marissa also serves as co-chair of the executive team of the Rio Grande Valley Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, co-chair for the Hidalgo County Family Violence Task Force, and president of Delta Tau Lambda Sorority Inc., Theta Lambda Chapter.

It was a bittersweet celebration as Marissa accepted her award on the day after she lost her grandmother and still feeling the pains of losing her father one year ago. Marissa’s father was her mentor, her guiding light and her inspiration. She says he was her motivation for pursuing an education, seeking a better life for her and her son, and helping others. It was evident that both her father and grandmother were with her in spirit.

Common Thread Joins Coalition in Stand Against Trafficking

Common Thread, a project of BCFS Health and Human Services, will be featured in a campaign titled “Not in My City,” produced by The Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition (HOTHTC). The goal of the campaign is to share the impact of human trafficking on a local level, encouraging an end to the tragic realities that victims and survivors face in and around Waco, Texas.

Community Advocate Supervisor Miranda Calhoun Burke on set for the “Not in My City” campaign.

The campaign includes Miranda Calhoun Burke, community advocate supervisor with Common Thread, who will be featured in the latest edition of a video for “Not in My City.” As a representative of Common Thread, Miranda has been a partner with HOTHTC since 2017, serving as co-chair of two subcommittees and working with the surrounding Waco area to support initiatives that prevent human trafficking and uplift survivors.

Allison Denman, program director at Unbound Waco (another important partner to HOTHTC), said that Miranda has been an asset in much of their community work, whether preparing for local outreach or collaborating with other leaders in the area to bring about change.

Miranda began partnering with HOTHTC as a community advocate for Common Thread more than two years ago. Now as a community advocate supervisor, Miranda provides oversight to Common Thread staff in Waco and South Texas. In both parts of the state, Miranda understands the importance of her work and strives to ensure that others understand its importance as well.

“I think [the ‘Not in My City’ campaign] will be successful if community members who haven’t yet recognized the role they can play are able to see an invitation or an opportunity to be a part of something bigger,” said Miranda. “We want to make sure that people watching the video recognize that this is something that can happen and does happen where they live, and that we can all play a part in the fight against it.”

Common Thread, a project of BCFS Health and Human Services, is comprised of social workers and survivors across Texas. The program is evidence-based and survivor-informed, operating with the understanding that long-term, dependable, positive adult relationships are the key to recovery after human trafficking.

Read more about the BCFS System’s work in helping survivors of oppression and abuse here.

Common Thread Recognized at 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.