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.

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."