To Be a Blessing

by Elliott Harris

 

Six years ago, Elijah Brown offered me something not at all unique, and yet just as surely important: a way of looking at the world that would forever change what I saw as valuable in life.

“We are blessed to be a blessing to others,” Dr. Brown said, at the time a humble university professor. And there I was, a less-than-humble college student, jotting down the phrase I had just heard, knowing that even if this sentence never made it to an exam, it was a testament worth remembering. The most meaningful truths are often the simplest.

My biggest regrets and greatest achievements since that lesson have taught me much. But as time passed and things changed, the words of a good professor and greater advocate never faded, and never became less important than the day I first heard them.

Today, I graciously accept one such blessing in my life as I join the BCFS Public Affairs and Communications team full time. In only a few months working alongside the BCFS System in a limited role, I have listened to, read, and shared the stories of many whose lives have been impacted, in ways both infinitesimal and immense, by this organization. They are accounts that have come from both the servant and the served. They are accounts that have been honest, broken, and nuanced, but always filled with hope, and always built on faith.

In this new commitment, I hope to continue building on the relationships I have established and the stories I have come to know. I hope those in the BCFS System who have been so kind and welcoming, from around the world, will continue to share their stories with any and all who may find them beneficial to their own life and applicable to their own circumstances. I hope that the bedrock of service and support which this organization has to offer will continue to grow in the communities that have been established and in communities that have yet to be reached.

Above all, I hope that if you find yourself blessed, you can recognize it is so that you might be a blessing to others.

 

To learn more about the impact of the BCFS System, click here.

Texas Representative Selects BVT Christmas Ornament

 

Since 2009, the Texas Capitol has displayed a Christmas tree in their House Chamber every holiday season. To decorate the tree, Texas House Representatives from each of the state’s 150 districts choose an ornament from an organization, individual, or group that they feel aligns with and is representative of their district’s unique voice and distinct culture.

This year, Representative Matt Schaefer selected Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT) as the inspiration for the 2018 Christmas tree ornament for his district. Two BVT residents, Alex and Brynne, served as the lead artists for the ornament, creating a design that featured the Robert M. Rogers Chapel flanked by pine trees, as well as a red rose accompanied by the words, “Tyler: Rose Capital of the World,” reiterating the Texas city’s claim to fame.

Rep. Schaefer visited BVT to pick up the completed ornament. While there, he took time to chat with residents, discuss future plans with administrators, and take a tour of the campus.

BVT is honored to represent Texas House District 6 this Christmas at the state capitol with their hand-crafted ornament. In doing so, they join a list of past artists that has included organizations from Tyler Junior College, in addition to students from both Grace Community School and All Saints Episcopal School.

The ornament by Alex and Brynne will be on display from Nov. 29 till Jan. 2 on the 23-foot Christmas tree in Austin, Texas. To view more pictures, click here.

 

Discover more of BVT here, or learn about the Christmas tree tradition here.

PAL San Antonio Shares Thanksgiving

 

BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio’s Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program, along with an extensive community of supporting organizations, joined for a Thanksgiving lunch at the Sunset Station in downtown San Antonio, Texas.

Over 200 youth, young adults, and advocates booked a seat in the Arcadian Room for a three-course lunch, including a spring salad, a traditional turkey and stuffing dinner, and a slice of raspberry cake for dessert. Speakers for the event included Chaunice Holley, Miss Black Texas; Shawn Osburn, member of the U.S. Air Force; and Clarissa Acuna, a recent PAL member and future college graduate.

Before lunch was served, Chaunice Holley invited her friend and the lead speaker for the event, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Shawn E. Osburn, to take the stage and share his story. Shawn spoke about his struggles and success as a youth, summarizing his experiences with a reminder on the importance of seeking out a family you can choose; a family made up of close friends and supporters who want the best for your life.

“The world will tell you you’re unlovable and worthless,” said Shawn, “But know this: God says something different about you – the people at BCFS and their partners will say something else about you – you are highly valued and you have a purpose for your life.”

Shawn admitted that making the most of this purpose is not easy, and takes effort, sacrifice, and an honest self-assessment.

“This is the hard part,” said Shawn. “The next part of finding your purpose is looking at your past.” Shawn wanted all in attendance to know that God had a desire for their lives, and that achieving this goal required work and patience; an ability to face life’s troubles with a level head.

After Shawn’s message, the room engaged in small talk and fine dining, provided by the RK Group. PAL members stopped by the tables of case workers, some who they hadn’t seen in years, and caught up on life.

As dessert was served, Clarissa Acuna was invited to share her experience as a former youth from foster care, now a young adult nearing the end of her college career at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Clarissa urged everyone present not to be scared to ask for help from their supporters in life, reminding her audience that no one would understand their needs if they did not first admit they had any.

Clarissa knows because she was once a PAL member herself. When applying for college, Clarissa depended on PAL to help her work through complex government and educational paperwork. She depended on the staff for advice, direction, and resources. What she was given in return was the possibility for potential.

“It’s not our fault that we were born into the circumstances we faced,” said Clarissa, “but it is our responsibility to make our lives better.”

After Clarissa’s message, attendants transitioned to the outdoor pavilion to enjoy outdoor games and further conversation with friends.

Preparation for Adult Living has several more events planned for the holiday season, where they hope to continue fortifying their community and reminding those from the foster system of the help that is all around them.

To learn more about the PAL program, click here.

BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene Bets the Farm This Halloween

 

The entire BCFS Health & Human Services’ Community Services Division (CSD)-Abilene office got in the Halloween spirit this year. The staff decorated doors and dressed up in costumes in a fun, lighthearted farm theme. BCFS-Abilene invited the families served through the Healthy Outcomes Through Prevention and Early Support (HOPES) program and the youth served through Preparation for Adult Living (PAL), Texas Workforce Commission, and Our House to take part in the event.

This year’s party gave families and youth the opportunity to trick-or-treat in a safe, fun environment on a rainy day. Among the families who celebrated with BCFS HHS-Abilenewasa farmer, a chef, a honey-bee, a pig, and even a corn stalk.

CSD-Abilene has more events lined up for the holiday season, including a Christmas Breakfast for youth, and a Polar Express-themed party for those in the HOPES program to include a special guest appearance by Santa himself.

 

A bumblebee buzzes by.

 

Read more about the BCFS HHS programs in Abilene.

BBQ With CERI & Friends Offers Reflection

 

Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) and a humble group of its partners joined together for a night of sweet celebration and barbecue at the home of Jim and Vera Clark in Kingwood, Texas.

The BBQ with CERI Friends annual event was established as a way to say thank you to CERI’s friends and partners and provide an update on the accomplishments of the year. The party began late in the afternoon in the Clarks’ backyard, decorated appropriately for the occasion. Dearing Garner, Director of Pastoral Care, commenced the evening’s festivities with a blessing.

Once the sun set and things cooled down, the event hit its stride as guests settled around the pool where Connie Belciug, Executive Director of CERI, introduced Eileen Purkeypile as CERI’s new Director of Development and Marketing.

Connie then addressed the crowd with a message of appreciation, compassion, and encouragement. “God has built multiple layers of protection and provision around children, so that they would be truly safe and so that their needs would be met,” said Connie. “He created the family to surround children with love, He wrapped a community around the family to provide support, and He situated the community within a nation to uphold the rights of its children and families.”

At the conclusion of the event, Connie thanked all in attendance, as well as the many contributors worldwide who have supported CERI since its inception in 1999. “These are the best gifts you can give an orphan: a path to family here on earth and a path to family in Christ,” said Connie.

CERI and the BCFS System thank Jim and Vera Clark for opening their home for this event, and for their heartfelt hospitality.

 

To learn more about Children’s Emergency Relief International, visit cerikids.org

Domestic Violence Awareness in Del Rio

 

Each October, BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio joins organizations nationwide in support of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

In a country where intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime, and where one in four women have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their life, BCFS-Del Rio works diligently to engage the community and share knowledge to identify and prevent domestic abuse.

As part of the month-long movement, a Candlelight Vigil was held October 16 at the Paul Poag Theatre. BCFS-Del Rio joined in honor of those whose lives had been altered or lost to domestic violence. “136 victims passed away in 2017 due to domestic violence,” said Delia Ramos, Director of Community Based Services at BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio, in an interview. “We want to show our community that love shouldn’t hurt – to show how important it is to walk away from a violent situation, and although it often very difficult, it’s ok to ask for help.”

Bruno R. Lozano, Mayor of Del Rio, presented a proclamation against domestic violence. In its eighth year, Delia said the Candlelight Vigil remains an effective tool at spreading a message that can prevent harm in the Del Rio community, creating knowledgeable warriors for a worthy cause.

Later in October, a few days after the Candlelight Vigil, local representatives gathered for an interagency meeting. More than 50 individuals from over 11 organizations met to discuss how domestic abuse could most effectively be averted.

“It’s a great time to get to know names and faces of our community organizations,” said Delia, noting that the annual meeting is an important avenue for understanding how entities throughout the Del Rio community can work together to reach common goals.

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BCFS HHS-Del Rio recognizes and thanks the organizations and government representatives who attended this year’s interagency meeting (which include but are not limited to) :

  • Laughlin Air Force Base
  • Office of U.S. Congressman Will Hurd
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Val Verde Sherriff’s Department
  • Val Verde Regional Medical Center
  • Consulado de Mexico
  • Consulado de Guatemala
  • Early Childhood Intervention (ECI)
  • Serving Children and Adults in Need (SCAN)
  • San Felipe Del Rio Independent Consolidated School District
  • Del Rio Police Department

Read more about how BCFS Health and Human Services-Del Rio is working to end violence in their community.

Benefit Hunt Indicates Growth, New Activities for Youth

 

In only its second year, the BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene’s Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt brought an increased turnout, with this year’s event hosting seven boys and two girls. The hunt provides youth from foster care an experience that ties them to the culture, tradition, and community in which they live.

“Here in Abilene, deer hunting is a bragging right,” said Alana Jeter, Regional Director of North Texas for BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene. “We try to give youth some of the opportunities they might have if they weren’t in foster care” said Alana, who attended Saturday’s hunt as part of the Community Services Division leadership who made the day and its events possible.

Every young adult who attended the hunt went through a selection process that required a thorough and thoughtful assessment from foster parents and the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS). The selected youth were given Hunter Education Certification in the weeks before the event, which gave the participants safety training and a hunting license.

Bright and early on Saturday, October 27, nine youth ages 15-18 ventured out into the 10,000-acre lease provided by Double Barrel Outfitters. Each of the young hunters was accompanied by a hunting guide who stayed with them throughout the day, providing supervision, assistance, and direction when needed. Will Meiron, BCFS Program Director at BCFS-Abilene served as one such guide.

Will remembers when the Children’s Benefit Hunt was merely an idea, and can appreciate what it has grown to become. “Finding the hunting guides – that was easy,” said Will, “but finding people to actually back the event was difficult.”

Kevin C. Dinnin, President and CEO of the BCFS System, had the infrastructure to make the event possible. “Kevin provided medics, insurance, and an ambulance,” said Will “He said, whatever you need, we can make it happen.”

Throughout the day’s hunt, BCFS-Abilene staff, local law enforcement, emergency medical technicians, and the sheriff’s department all encouraged a stellar experience by serving as a friend and support to the youth who attended. Taylor County even provided one of their own ambulances at the site for the day.

The Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt has not only provided something special to youth in the Abilene area, but has also helped other individuals and agencies understand the benefits of activities meant to give youth from foster care a unique yet unifying experience. Two similar outdoor events have been planned based on the example set by the Big Country Children’s Benefit Hunt.

“I really hope that this is an opportunity for some of these kids to feel like a kid again,” said Will, explaining that the youth BCFS serves deserve a chance to break from the definition and stigma foster care can bring. “One boy got made fun of at school because his family didn’t have enough money to hunt, but last year he brought home three deer. He got to go back to school and tell his friends that he put meat in the freezer; that he got to feed his family and provide for them.”

Alana said, “I know [the youth] have an appreciation for all the people who came out and volunteered their time Saturday to spend all day with them. So often these kids don’t have anyone in their corner. The support itself is so important.”

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BCFS HHS-Abilene thanks this year’s sponsors :

Platinum

  • Double Barrel Outfitters
  • Stephens Wild Game Processing
  • Walmart #535
  • Cabela’s

Gold

  • Lawrence Hall Abilene
  • Karon Bingaman Hall and Harley Hall
  • Chris and Leonard Glasgow
  • Abilene Police Officers’ Association
  • Taylor County Child Welfare Board
  • Fire and Ice Heating and Cooling
  • Hall & Associates Service Group LLC

Silver

  • Your Ideas Inc.
  • Sorensen Photography
  • Trophy Case Taxidermy

 

To learn more about the services BCFS provides to youth in foster care, click here.

PAL and Friends Gather for Spooktacular Event

 

BCFS Health and Human Services’ Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) held a Halloween party for its service population and friends. The party was held at the BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio Transition Center, where more than 70 attendants came together.

The event featured a diverse group that represented the support groups surrounding the people PAL serves. Kimberley Rodriguez, Regional Director of BCFS HHS Community Services Division (CSD) for Central Texas, said that although the PAL program works specifically with young adults in their late teens and early 20s, expanding the guest list allowed the siblings, children, friends, and relatives of those in the PAL program to participate and get involved.

A booth was set up by BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio’s Resiliency Through Healing, where PAL party guests could learn about the counseling and support services available for young adults. The night’s activities included a pumpkin decorating contest, a mystery game, and two raffle-prize drawings. Dinner and snacks were available for all who attended.

CSD plans to continue curating engaging events that attract attendance while providing services they can showcase in the midst of all the fun.

 

Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
Pumpkin decorating contest finalists
The usually easy-going BCFS staff came dressed as their most serious selves.
A face painter was on site to give everyone the look they wanted
This young pumpkin decorator shows off her latest creation
A mystery game keeps people guessing

 

To discover more about the Preparation for Adult Living program, click here.

BCFS System Commits to $25K for PEAKS Camp


For more than 30 years, Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) has hosted PEAKS camp – a therapeutic, experiential camp for youth in foster care. PEAKS is one of TNOYS’ longest-running and most successful programs, where licensed professionals regularly take paid time off to volunteer with and enrich the lives of the youth who attend.

The week-long camp experience helps youth learn important life skills, build resiliency, and enhance their feelings of self-worth, all of which are critical for putting them on a path to a successful adulthood. For most of the youth who attend this program, PEAKS offers the only chance to get a traditional camp experience.

Yet, for all the benefits PEAKS camp has offered over the years, TNOYS learned that this year, due to budget cuts from their traditional funding streams, they would need to raise their own funds if they had a chance at keeping this important program alive.

With a shared interest in the goal PEAKS camp strives every year to meet, the BCFS System is proud to pledge a gift of $25,000 to serve as a catalyst for the donorship that the organization believes can support this unique, critical program.

“We are truly honored to be able to assist TNOYS raise the funds to continue this important program. It is the right thing to do. It changes lives,” says Kevin C. Dinnin, President & CEO of the BCFS System.

Celeste Garcia, Executive Director of BCFS Health and Human Services’ Community Services Division, presented the check on behalf of the BCFS System to Christine Gendron, Executive Director of TNOYS, at the 2018 Judicial Summit on Mental Health in Houston, co-hosted by the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission.

To read more about the good PEAKS camp has done and hopes to continue, click here.

Mario Guerra Retires as Director of Response and Recovery

 

SAN ANTONIO — In 2010, Mario Guerra joined the BCFS System family as a member of the Emergency Management Division (EMD) after 35 years of service in the San Antonio Fire Department – a career that began with one water hose and two singed eyebrows.

Upon hearing about his retirement, Kevin Dinnin, President & CEO of the BCFS System, asked if Mario might be interested in further aiding people and communities in need, explaining plans for a new Emergency Management Division (EMD), and how someone with his applied experience would be an asset to build and grow the EMD team. Mario was intrigued by the position and the chance to be a part of something meaningful and lasting. Before he had even officially left his role at SAFD, Mario began his service full time under BCFS Health and Human Services’ EMD.

It’s about legacy. It’s about creating a system for the next person.

When Mario first came on, the EMD branch was composed of five people, Mario included. Today, BCFS’s EMD employs more than 3,500 personnel, each providing critical emergency support in moments of human need on an international scale.

In his eight years of service and experience with EMD, Mario responded to wildfires, hurricanes, and other disasters. He has written and recorded procedures of service and care that span hundreds of pages, each full of information that can instruct future response teams on the lessons learned from his own team’s history in working through some of the most dire moments of human need.

Mario’s efforts were not only about working through people’s worst moments by meeting physical needs, it was also about providing emotional support to those who felt hopeless. In his role with EMD, Mario had the opportunity to serve as a Shelter Manager at some of the sites that provided emergency shelter to children who had made their way to this country alone, without their parents. In many cases, Mario was the first smiling face some of the children had seen in a long time. His positive demeanor gained him a reputation among those he served.

“How are y’all doing?” Mario would ask the children when they came to the site.

“Fine,” they would respond.

“You guys hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Are you tired?”

“Yes.”

“Am I ugly?”

“Yes!”

“What do you mean I’m ugly,” Mario would say, mockingly wounded from the insult he had brought upon himself, the kids laughing boisterously. “You just met me and you’re already telling me I’m ugly!”

Mario wasn’t only the first smiling face the kids would see, he was also often the one to see them off when they went on to their next destination. Before they left the shelter, Mario would hop on the bus with the children and give a heartfelt rendition of “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Spanish song often sung in celebration.

Looking Back, Moving Ahead

As Mario’s full-time status as EMD’s Director of Response and Recovery comes to an end, he has agreed to serve in a pro re nata (as needed) role with the organization, making for 43 years and counting in a career of service to others. Mario leaves behind a record of policy and instruction that will have a lasting impact, and that will help future EMD professionals better respond in the heat of emergency situations.

“It’s about legacy,” Mario says. “It’s about creating a system for the next person.”

As he plans for the future, Mario is excited to invest more deeply in his family. He was the fifth sibling in a family of six children, and he was the first to get a high school diploma and a college degree. Today, he has a family full of college graduates, with his wife and all their children holding bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Mario hopes his seven grandchildren can continue to build on the success his family has discovered so far.

In addition to loving his family, Mario hopes to catch up on books and documentaries (about the Roosevelts among other things) now that he will have the time to do so. He also wants to do a bit of woodworking and take a few vacations with his wife, like their upcoming trip to Canada and Iceland, filled with baseball games along the way. His wife, Mario proudly states, has been incredibly supportive and patient with him throughout his career of emergency response.

“I’ve been fortunate enough – blessed – to have seen how things kind of tie together, bringing people back full circle to where they were before disaster hit,” Mario says.

“Everything we do is to help people. This whole agency is meant to do that.”