Becoming the Cornerstone; The Cornerstone of Her Success

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

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

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

Bethany standing with her mother and siblings
Bethany and her family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When Bethany came into the office,” says BCFS-Corpus Christi PAL Case Manager Noemi Gomez,
“she had a goal already set to finish college because she wanted a better life for herself.

“She’s incredibly self-motivated, smart, and a hard worker,” Gomez continues. “She knew what she needed and knew that we could help her obtain it.”

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

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

Bethany Graduating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

PAL for Life

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

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

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


Alana

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

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

Alana standing with her family for graduation
Alana Martinez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elvia

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

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

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

Elvia in graduation gown
Elvia De La Cruz

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

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

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

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

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


Andrew Luke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk

Texas Families: Together and Safe

Texas Families: Together and Safe (TFTS) is a program operated by BCFS Health and Human Services that helps families with children ages 3-17 years old in Texas. In TFTS, parents can learn about the importance of stress management and improved communication. Families are also provided connections to community resources.

The following testimonials from different sides of the classroom dynamic ­­­– teacher and student – offer a glimpse into one of the ways BCFS Health and Human Services cultivates our communities by investing time and instruction to the families who live there alongside us.

Calming Influence
By Elizabeth De La Rosa

I have always been a yeller. The more upset I became, the louder I yelled. With three growing boys, I was beginning to realize that this was not working, and I needed to change the way I was approaching situations. I felt like I was losing my oldest son to technology and that if I took the technology away I was being too hard on him. I also felt that if I forced him to spend time with me with me or do things with the family, he would just resent me. I was at a loss. The TFTS Parenting Wisely class helped me see that yelling was only making me more and more angry. It was not solving the situation at all. I was creating a monster!

I began to practice what the program was teaching and just speak to my children more and hold them more accountable for their actions. I valued what they said and took that into account before making rash decisions. I began speaking more with my husband as well. We started to agree on things before we spoke to the kids.

The greatest thing about this is how it changed my relationship with my oldest son (13 years old). I began to speak with him and ask for his input as well. My expectations are the same, but now we discuss them. I let him help make decisions that I can live with. Some, I may not agree with completely, but after hearing his side, I can be okay with them. We’ve had many ups and downs and struggles to get where we are today. I did think many times that he was doing it on purpose just to irritate me, but I stayed firm and kept my composure. That was very hard to do! He truly tested me beyond what I would have ever thought.

After much struggle, I now feel like we have become closer than ever. In a world of technology, I found myself calling or texting him to get his attention, he now asks me to spend time with him! He hugs and kisses me more (not in public, of course). He comes down from upstairs and wants to watch movies with me. He now understands when he has consequences and follows through with them with little resistance. The best part is that I am not yelling nearly as much as I used too. When I do yell (because old habits are very hard to break) I catch myself and keep my composure. The children now let me know that I am yelling and remind me that we agreed we would speak to each other and not yell.

We are a much happier family now. I am no longer worried about my blood pressure. In all reality, I felt like I was losing my son. Now, I no longer carry such a fear. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I feel we are better able to discuss things together and come up with the most suitable way to handle the situation…together.

Thank you for giving me such great tools.


Mindful Parenting
By Patricia Heredia

My name is Patricia Heredia, Parent Education Facilitator with the Texas Families: Together and Safe (TFTS) parenting program. I taught TFTS at El Dorado Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas, where I met Mrs. Cardenas.

Mrs. Cardenas had perfect attendance at the TFTS Parenting Wisely Young Child class. During the first few weeks of class, she was skeptical because she thought it was going to be like all the other classes she had attended where they would lecture her and tell her all the things she was doing wrong. Mrs. Cardenas did not believe the parenting skills mentioned in the parenting book would work.

Halfway through the course, she mentioned that she had practiced the active listening technique and the “I” Statement that we discuss in class. Throughout class, she mentioned that the self-reflection exercise during each class has helped her understand why she made the choices she did. She said that TFTS helped her finally understand that her choices have consequences for her and her children.

“I did not give my kids the chance nor the time to express their feelings, listen, and be mindful,” Mrs. Cardenas says. “I did not put them first when I was supposed to, and now I have hope and pray other people can realize how important it is to be present.” 

At graduation, Mrs. Cardenas was so grateful when talking and expressing her thoughts about her experience in class, the activities provided, and the home practice. She maintains that TFTS helped her understand parenting much better.

“Maybe my story and struggles can help somebody else bond,” she says, “and be mindful of placing their children first. Because of my participation in class, I have been able to keep a close relationship with my children. I will continue practicing the parenting skills.”

Hope and a Future

Our House

by Alexzandra Hust and Elliott Harris


“It wasn’t always like this,” says Jaime. He remembers younger days, simpler days. Perhaps that perceived ease and simplicity are made to be more now than they ever truly were because of a life that has taught Jaime what he knows today. Yet, if nostalgia adds some unrealistic magic to his history, it is still difficult to deny the changes that slowly took hold of his family and, consequently, Jaime’s own life.


Fading

As Jaime began high school, more was changing for him than his journey through adolescence. He was coming into his own as a soccer player and trying his best to enjoy the various treasures and tribulations that come with being a young man.

At the same time, Jaime’s mother was coming out of a relationship with a man who had abused her. While the change brought an end to the potential for abuse, it also brought financial troubles and other circumstances that further burdened what remained of Jaime’s family. Because his mother lost custody of her youngest children to her ex-husband, the family now consisted of only Jaime, his sister, and his mom.  

The transition to a family of three headed by a single parent was difficult on everyone involved, but Jaime’s mother took it especially hard. Her exceedingly troubled outlook affected Jaime and his sister.

“Whenever something bad would happen in her life, she would take it out on us,” says Jaime. “She’d call us ungrateful, or find a way to blame us for what was happening.”

Jaime looking out over a bridge
Jaime

As a freshman in high school, Jaime was working and saving money so that he could attend the Winter Formal dance at school. His mother was not working at the time and asked to borrow the money he had saved for the dance to cover some of her own expenses. When Jaime said no, his mom got upset. “You’re going to be just like your father,” she said.

Jaime ran.

His mother called the police. It didn’t take officers long to find Jaime and take him back home, but it was hardly the end of tensions between son and parent.

Jaime remembers his sophomore year of high school as the height of his family’s troubles. They had moved into a new house which the landlord offered rent-free as long as the family worked to fix the house while they lived there.

“But we never worked on the house,” said Jaime. “If anything, it just got worse.”

The family’s living situation grew increasingly uncertain with pressure from the landlord to leave, and with that uncertainty came depression for Jaime’s mother. She was anxious and easy to upset. Jaime remembers the ill-fated prophecies his mother would dispense, telling Jaime he’d grow up to be an idiot, a murderer; a rapist.

“It wasn’t always like this,” says Jaime. “I can remember when me and my mom were really close, but everything she was telling me now – I just got so tired of everything and I started to hate myself.

“I started to think about hopping onto a train and leaving… or hopping in front of one. It was a really bad time.”

The next year – his junior year – Jaime left his family’s house for good. After his mother told him she would no longer give him a ride to work, his options for building a stable present and future were fewer now than ever before.

On the night Jaime finally left his house for good, the stress and tension in his family finally reached a breaking point, his mother speaking the words that would alter Jaime’s life: “I think it’s time for you to pack your things and leave this house.”


Wandering

Over the course of Jaime’s junior and senior year, with no permanent place to call home, he was left to move between the houses of friends. He’d spend five months here, three months there; a few nights somewhere else. At each stop, the same story played out: generosity would wear thin from some member of his temporary family, or financial or relationship troubles further complicated an already complex situation for Jaime.

Amid the instability, Jaime’s grades suffered. It was difficult to keep up with homework when he struggled to keep a home. 

One day, the Abilene Independent School District’s Homeless Liaison offered Jaime the chance to connect with Our House, a transitional living program offered through BCFS Health and Human Services in Abilene, Texas. The school set up an interview between Jaime and an Our House case manager, Alexzandra Hust.

When Alexzandra explained what Our House could do for Jaime, he was in disbelief. Alexzandra remembers Jaime asking, “What’s the catch?”

Alexzandra laid out the rules for living at the house, which included maintaining a drug-free lifestyle and working towards independence. It all seemed so simple compared to the life Jaime had grown used to. Soon, Our House would give Jaime a place to call home.

Our House is a transitional living program that provides young men facing homelessness with a safe, stable living environment. The young adults living in the home receive services from staff and community partners including education assistance, employment training, and a sharpening of life skills.


Living

While living in the house, residents learn to share in communal responsibilities – from general cleaning or dinner preparation to service projects benefiting the local neighborhood. The goal of Our House is to help young men grow to better manage their lives as they develop professional skills to more quickly become independent, responsible, contributing members of the community.[EH1] 

As a high school senior, Jaime was approved to live at Our House, which provided him with resources through BCFS Health and Human Services and their partners, such as the Texas Workforce Commission, that he otherwise would not have known were available. Most importantly, he finally had a consistent place to call home.

With a newfound sense of stability, Jaime enjoyed more free time than he was accustomed to. He made a few friends who shared similar pasts to his own. “I grew close to those guys, but I started following their ways.”

With new friends came new habits, and as he spent more time connecting with his new companions, alcohol and drugs placed Jaime’s life on a downward path. Though Our House requires drug tests from its residents, and a positive result would threaten the stability Jaime had found, as depression crept into his life, he was indifferent to the consequences of his actions.

He was struggling, and he knew it.

“I looked and saw my future in front of me: this wasn’t anything to live for and work for,” says Jaime. Eventually he reached out to Alexzandra and BCFS-Abilene Texas Workforce Commission Advocate Shelby Garfield, admitting everything he was going through.

“I’ve gotta thank Alex and Shelby because they’ve always been there for me and always been my support group,” says Jaime. “They’ve been a big part of my life and influenced me to go in the right direction.”

When Jaime told them about his difficulties, Shelby and Alexzandra got him involved in a local community program that helped turn him away from dependency and build a resolve against negativity. “They taught me how to change my life by staying busy,” says Jaime. He has internalized that lesson, keeping himself focused and active.

In staying busy and working hard, Jaime was left with a difficult choice. Near the end of high school, he realized he would have to give up one of his most faithful companions throughout life: the game of soccer. “It was a tough decision for me because soccer was something that could take me away from whatever I was going through,” says Jaime.

Work and school were enough on their own, and soccer had become yet another expenditure of time in an increasingly cramped schedule. He knew his options were limited if he had any hope of maintaining his grades and reaching his professional potential. He discussed the possibility of leaving the soccer team with his youth minister, who offered simple advice: “What’s going to help you the most in life?”

As tough as it was, Jaime finally told his coach he would not be able to continue playing with the varsity team. Afterward, Jaime spoke with Shelby about the weight of the decision he had felt forced to make.

“I don’t know Shelby, I’m pretty down,” he said.

“Well, I know what might cheer you up,” said Shelby. “How about a full-ride scholarship to Hardin Simmons University?” Unknown to Jaime, Hardin Simmons and BCFS-Abilene had been developing a full-ride scholarship for a resident at Our House. With a strong work ethic, a great educational track record, and a history that showed an unwillingness to stop when obstacles were in his way, Jaime proved to be a fitting candidate for the scholarship. Jaime describes the award from Hardin Simmons as the “biggest blessing I could ask for.”


Building

Today, Jaime works two jobs, averaging between 50 and 60 hours a week to pay his bills and afford his own apartment that he recently moved into after leaving Our House. Five days a week, Jaime works construction in the morning and afternoon, and three to four nights a week, he takes an evening shift at Hendrick Medical Center as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). While the two jobs pay his bills, they also allow him to steadily build a savings account so that he can be prepared for the expenses of college as well as any unforeseen financial troubles. Jaime works hard to afford a life he has chosen to live, no longer a fate decided for him.

Meanwhile, Jaime’s relationship with his mother has drifted. While he and his mother rarely speak, he tries his best to stay in contact with his younger brothers and sisters, who are now 12, 13, and 16 years old. Jaime has high hopes for his oldest sister in particular, whose brilliance he finds hard to ignore.

Jaime at Hardin Simmons University
Moving Forward

“I was fortunate to get the scholarship from Hardin Simmons, but if anyone deserves it more, it’s probably my sister,” says Jaime. “She has real potential, she’s amazing and just… so smart.” Jaime looks forward to supporting his sister’s education once she graduates high school, and hopes to do so for each of his younger siblings when the time comes for them.

Next fall, Jaime will begin his degree in nursing at Hardin Simmons University. Until then, he will attend a local community college to earn a few credits toward his coursework at Hardin Simmons. Jaime plans to use all the lessons he has learned to ensure success is as achievable as possible. “I’m going to every study hall, every tutoring session; whatever it takes to make it,” Jaime says.  

After college, he wants to move to San Antonio to begin his nursing career, hopefully rekindling some of the spirit he found in the movie Patch Adams, which was Jaime’s earliest inspiration to join the medical field. The film remains a standard for the level of care he wants to provide his patients and coworkers today.

“Sometimes, the other nurses [at Hendrick] will have to come pretend like they need me in another room. I’ll be talking with a patient for 30 minutes or longer. They think I’m stuck in there with them, but really I just want to know what’s going on; I just want to make sure they’re getting everything they need and that we’re doing everything we can for them,” he says.

He may become a doctor later in life, depending on the opportunities that become available, but for now, he simply feels blessed to have plans he finally feels capable of achieving through his own will and through the help and guidance of the individuals and organizations who have brought him this far. No matter what happens, Jaime will continue making moves that maintain a life of freedom, mobility, and independence.

The Power of Love and Kindness

Javier Castillo’s silver, octagon-shaped medallion around his neck reads simply, “Love One Another.” As Jesus’ most important instruction, the phrase is Javier’s mantra and a reminder that, despite a hardscrabble past that began at a young age, it is important to lead with love.

When Javier was four years old, his mother lost custody of him and his siblings, never to be reunited. Since, Javier now estimates he was moved more than twenty-five times. That means twenty-five foster families, twenty-five schools, and at least twenty-five goodbyes.  

Javier standing infront of the International House of Prayer University
Javier

“At first, the state made an effort to keep me and my siblings together,” Javier says today at 21 years old, “but as we got older, it became more and more of a challenge.”

For a variety of reasons introduced to their realities at young ages, the siblings have not been afforded the growth of their relationships into adulthood. Instead, a sibling will reach out, “maybe once a year,” Javier says. In addition to the four brothers and one sister from whom he was eventually separated, he has learned that, in total, he knows of 15 siblings that share his lineage.

Javier spent his childhood shuttling between foster family placements; an introverted child injected into a variety of home and school environments. He admits to having felt alone among classmates, retreating into himself, and presenting as shy and not talkative.

“I had no friends, no close relationships,” he remembers, fondly recalling two elementary school classmates, Chrystal and Mia, who reached out to him for friendship, a drastically different encounter from the series of departures from people he had already experienced by the age of 10.

“I remember they talked to me and played with me,” he says. “They showed me kindness. I remember being amazed that someone wanted to get to know me; that someone wanted to be my friend.”

A lot of formation can happen for a person in a decade, and as Javier managed his way toward young adulthood, he was accepted into the Hill Country Youth Ranch, a residential treatment center and emergency shelter licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to provide therapeutic and compassionate care for abused and orphaned children. At the Ranch, Javier finally had the chance to begin unpacking the feelings resulting from a nomadic childhood absent of any of those he considered his family.

“I was broken down and built up there,” Javier says of his time at the Ranch, a period he describes as experiencing “constant love,” a love that he says helped him begin a relationship with Jesus Christ.

As he aged out of the Ranch—and the foster care system—he learned of BCFS Health and Human Services-Kerrville’s Our House, a transitional housing program that provides affordable housing for young adults up to the age of 25 that also offers residents case management, counseling, life skills training, and employment and education services.

According to the National Youth in Transition Database, Data Snapshot: Texas, 27 percent of Texas’ youth formerly in foster care experience homelessness within three years of having aged out of the system. Consequentially, this population lives at an increased risk for drug and alcohol abuse and becoming ensnared in human trafficking.

“Young adults who age out of the foster care system are at a heightened risk of homelessness,” says BCFS-Kerrville Program Director Dennis Ferguson. “Our House was created specifically to nurture this population toward a stable, independent adulthood and help them become contributing members of society.”

At Our House, Javier gained not only a safe place to live, but learned life skills integral to stable independence like personal finance, accountability, and job search tips. Paired with the clinical work residents complete with qualified case managers and counselors, Our House helped Javier become better prepared for his own autonomy.

“At Our House, a person learns to go to people when they need help,” Javier says. “I was able to speak with a therapist about personal things, and I found work as a dog-sitter, a job that helped me feel less isolated.

“It’s hard for me to explain,” he continues about how Our House helped set his success in motion, “but without Dennis (Ferguson) and Shane (Williams, BCFS-Kerrville Case Manager), I would not have gotten this far.”

“This far,” for Javier, a native Texan, is Kansas City, Missouri, where, today, he is completing the Fire in the Night Internship with the International House of Prayer University, an organization that equips and enables Christ’s followers to serve the poor and minister His Word. Fire in the Night interns help complete the mission of ‘round-the-clock prayer, occupying the campus prayer room from midnight to 6 a.m.

Javier marks the beginning of his relationship with Christ as the point in time when he began to appreciate the personal history that has formed the young man he sees in the mirror every day.

“I would not change any of the experiences I have had, good or bad,” he answers when asked about changing anything from the past. “I have stopped looking at what the past did to me. I am old enough now to know right from wrong, and I know that my future is in my own hands.

“I want to be someone like who Chrystal and Mia were to me so many years ago in elementary school,” he gently clutches the silver pendant around his neck.

“I want to show others love and kindness.”

While at Our House, Javier completed coursework toward an undergraduate degree in biology. He plans to continue his education with the goal of attending veterinary school.

An Anniversary Worth Celebrating

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes an anniversary as “the annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event.” This year, Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT) celebrates its 20th anniversary, commemorating a most notable event that occurred on April 4, 1998, in the piney woods of East Texas, when BVT’s doors opened and the future brightened for a special group of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). 

The story, though, did not begin that sunny, spring day two decades ago. It began years earlier in the hearts of Jean and Robert Breckenridge. The Breckenridges had two sons – Robert Jr. and Jimmy – each as precious to them as the other. When they first envisioned what BVT might become, they thought of Jimmy, who was nine years old at the time, living with Down syndrome. Not only did they want to provide a safe and loving home for their son, they envisioned creating a community for other adults like him with special needs.

In 1972, Robert and Jean purchased 78 acres near their Tyler, Texas, home, raw land that would become the distinctively safe, loving, faith-based community for individuals who could never fully provide for themselves. This home would be the answer for parents, like themselves, who confront the question, “Who will care for my child when I am gone?”

What about Jimmy – who will care for him when I am no longer here?

Then, without warning, within six months, Jean lost both Robert Sr. and her son, Robert Jr. Alone, overwhelmed, and grieving, Jean wondered how she would make the family’s dream a reality without the help of her husband and her eldest son, Jimmy’s only other sibling. With no other living relatives, urgency accompanied the gut-wrenching question that haunted her day and night: “What about Jimmy – who will care for him when I am no longer here?”

A courageous heart and deep-seated commitment drove Jean to approach Dr. David Dykes, her pastor at her home church, Green Acres Baptist Church, about the feasibility of building a home for those with IDD. At an East Texas meeting of pastors, Dr. Dykes met BCFS System President and CEO Kevin C. Dinnin, who happened to be travelling through the region. Kevin was returning to Texas after undertaking the task of assessing sites around the country to research and create a facility that met the needs of individuals living with IDD. It seemed a moment of divine irony that the two men might meet and that seemingly different goals could be achieved in a single endeavor.    

Pastor Dykes took Kevin to Mrs. Breckenridge’s house, where she shared with him her vision, and conveyed her sense of urgency to Kevin.

Kevin describes meeting Jean as fate.

“I would love to say I was just in the right place at the right time, but it was more than that,” Kevin says. “At that time, the BCFS System had no experience with building or managing a facility like Jean described, but her story truly moved me. I believe it was a miracle that Pastor Dykes led me to her.”

With a willingness to give all she had to make her dream come true, Jean donated the 78-acre lush parcel of East Texas real estate as the site for Breckenridge Village. With Kevin’s leadership and the partnership of the Texas Baptist Men (TBM) Retiree Builders, construction of the Village began in the fall of 1997. The TBM and their supportive wives, with RVs and construction machinery in tow, converged on the property with the mission of “Building for the Glory of God.”

I believe it was a miracle that Pastor Dykes led me to her

“It was truly a sight to see,” Kevin recalls. “It was a big deal, like when you were kids and the fair would come to town. The TBM volunteers arrived by the dozens and set up an enormous tent as their headquarters. There were RVs surrounding the site, along with picnic tables and impressive cooking facilities where meals were prepared. It was monumental; inspirational.”

Sounds of hammers, saws, and drills interrupted by shouts of conversation and laughter filled the air as dirt moved and concrete slabs became the solid foundation for buildings and homes. In less than seven months, the construction of six beautiful homes, a vocational building, and an administrative building transformed the East Texas landscape from a grassy field to a beautiful community.

On April 4, 1998 which also happened to be Jimmy’s 35th birthday, the official Grand Opening of Breckenridge Village of Tyler celebrated the day Jean Breckenridge had dreamed of, prayed for, and helped make a reality. When 24 individuals with  IDD moved into the newly constructed homes just days later, BVT officially began its enterprise of service.

Jimmy sitting on bench infront of BVT
Jimmy Breckenridge

Since its opening, the BVT campus has expanded to include more buildings and property improvements. In April 2000, the beautiful 7,684 square ft.  Robert M. Rogers Memorial Chapel was built. This chapel, featuring a stunning 25 ft. cathedral ceiling with a cupola of natural light windows, includes an attractive boardroom, two classrooms, a kitchen as well as a state of the art exercise room. However, the focal point of this picturesque building is the 20 ft. cross donated by Ms. Jean Breckenridge for the chapel’s dedication. Since that time, over 300 unique and exquisite crosses, given over the years in memory or honor of friends and loved ones, have been added and now fill the walls of this amazing worship center. These crosses provide inspiration to all who enter and to the residents as they gather to begin their day in praise and worship.

Today, the Village features a medical clinic which allows nursing staff to provide quality medical support and supervision to those who reside at BVT or attend its programs; a handicapped-accessible swimming pool, donated by the late Dr. Ernest & Nita James; the Steve & Cheryl Plybon Pavilion, the center of campus recreational activities; and a beautifully stocked fishing pond. 

But this breathtaking, state-of-the-art campus is more than just brick and mortar. It is about a dream. It is about the people who live there, the staff who care so lovingly, and the individuals from the community who visit the campus on a daily basis. BVT is about Jimmy, Julie and Linda H., whose parents are no longer living, but who now have a family and a home at BVT with friends and staff who love, support, and encourage them to be all that God intends them to be.

It’s about Alex, Clay, and Deborah, who have the opportunity to live self-sufficiently away from their families and grow into their own independence. It is about Tanner, Michele, and Alison, who come from all over the East Texas area each day to participate in the host of daily programs offered at the Village, and who hope to one day call BVT their home. BVT is about Jill and Dayne, whose parents, after prayerfully searching all across the nation, uprooted their families from New Jersey and Tennessee to move to East Texas, so their child could participate in BVT’s day programs while waiting for permanent placement at the Village.

Over the past twenty years, BVT has taught us that one truly is, “more blessed to give than to receive.” As such, the Village has become a source of a formidable volunteer effort for those in need in the Tyler community.

Five days a week, vans and buses are filled with BVT residents and other volunteers passionate about helping their community. Whether delivering meals to the homebound with Meals on Wheels, packaging food for the needy at the East Texas Food Bank, sorting donated clothing at Cornerstone Assistance Network, or assembling the bulletins for their local church, BVT residents enthusiastically serve those around them.

Their volunteer efforts also reach an international scale of service when, each year, BVT residents hand knit more than 300 brightly-hued, toasty winter caps to send to orphaned children in Moldova, one of Eastern Europe’s poorest countries. Their service is given every year in partnership with Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), an international interest of the BCFS System. 

Under the care of dedicated and committed staff, BVT residents are encouraged and challenged daily in their personal growth through elective opportunities, life skills training, active treatment, exercise, and field trips. Each semester and summer presents new chances to choose and participate in classes such as art, hand bells, sports, culinary arts, choir, candle-making, and horticulture, just to name a few.

Life skills and active treatment are ongoing training opportunities that encourage personal growth and independence of BVT residents. Staff lovingly guide and gently direct the development of social and coping skills, household responsibilities, community safety, health and hygiene skills, and much more.

Health and exercise are vital components to daily living at BVT. Whether exercising on equipment especially designed for their needs, working out in “sittercise,” or walking with others in the popular BVT Walking Club, residents are encouraged toward a healthy lifestyle. The hard work of physical fitness and the choices for healthy meals and snack planning to promote fit, strong bodies pays off during the teamwork and comradery of Special Olympic activities that take place throughout the year.

BVT residents participate in a host of wonderful, memory-making opportunities as they attend local community engagements as well as fun-filled field trips beyond the Village. Outings to the theater, symphony, and various museums enrich their lives through the arts. Attending the magical “A Night to Shine” (prom for adults with special needs), traveling to Arlington to cheer for their Texas Rangers, enjoying the sights and sounds at the East Texas State Fair, and reveling in beautiful, seasonal music at various Christmas programs are just a few of the exciting occasions in which BVT participates annually.

For its residents, BVT provides the security of a loving home with caregivers who respect their individuality and encourage their independence. Each resident has their own bedroom to personalize and customize to their liking. A large kitchen, open dining room, and spacious living room creates a warm, welcoming family atmosphere. Here, residents can interact with their housemates and share their day while playing games, putting puzzles together, or enjoying television. Housemates Brien, Jonathan, and Bubba are often seen taking an afternoon ride on their bikes around the campus. Residents enjoy a meaningful life at the Village, filled with enriching and fulfilling activities.

The need for service is constantly growing, and BVT continues to grow with that need in the hopes that the many individuals with IDD who desire the quality of life that BVT can provide receive all that they need and more. Each new or potential member of the Breckenridge community deserves the same opportunities of home, love, security, and friendship that BVT offers.

With three new homes currently under construction, BVT is expanding its care to other individuals and families in search of BVT’s mission. We are excited to see the BVT family grow! And back to join the celebration are the TBM, who so generously have, again, donated the materials and man hours to realize BVT’s expansion project. 

It is notable and worthy of celebration that for twenty years Breckenridge Village of Tyler has offered what many places cannot: a Christ-centered community providing “hope, love, and home” for adults with IDD. It is a special place where residents are making true, lifelong friends, often for the very first time in their lives. BVT continues to offer parents and guardians of those with special needs peace of mind and the answer to the same question that the Breckenridges asked themselves more than twenty years ago: “Who will care for my child when I am gone?”

Thank you, Jean and Robert, for sharing your dream and allowing us to carry it on. May you rest peacefully knowing that your vision for a loving, safe, and nurturing place for Jimmy and his many friends is manifest daily at BVT. Happy 20th Anniversary Breckenridge Village of Tyler! It truly is an anniversary worth celebrating.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

An old and familiar mid-nineteenth century proverb with its simple message has comforted families and friends for nearly two centuries. Its timeless missive has been framed and hung on walls in countless homes across the country for decades: home is where the heart is.

Today, the phrase accurately embodies the spirit of a faith-based community of adult men and women at Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT), which has been in the process of recent expansion and growth.

Located in a quiet suburb of the charming town of Tyler, Texas, the six existing contemporary homes and three recently constructed residences are where the hearts of more than sixty adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) have found a home.

BVT Newly built homes
Building more opportunities at BVT

Because of the unique situation of adults with IDD, people with this condition often live in systematic surroundings. As good and necessary as these institutions are, they are often not equipped to provide a traditional home setting and nurturing environment with all the physical, spiritual, and emotional advantages that BVT offers.

In 2002, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that individuals with Down Syndrome were living twice as long as they were only twenty years ago. Today, the chance of living a longer and healthier life, even when faced with disability, continues to increase. With a longer life comes the need for a more loving home, which BVT is able to provide.

Surrounded by beautiful groves of loblolly pines, red oaks and open fields of wild flowers, this small, rural community of specially designed homes and support facilities is the perfect setting for the residents and day-program participants BVT serves.

However, this peaceful setting is much more than the sum of its natural surroundings. As thoughtful and comforting as it is, the decades-old saying “home is where the heart is” serves as more than an aphorism about BVT, but also as the organization’s intended mission to empower each resident as he or she develops spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially in a safe, loving, and closely supervised environment.

BCFS President and CEO Kevin Dinnin explains, “We considered expansion for some time now, because we are aware of the great need. However, it wasn’t until Pierre de Wet’s trifecta occurred that things fell into place.  The trifecta in this case was three houses, three million dollars and three generous donors. When that happened, the expansion became a reality!”

The more than sixty adults who live at BVT prosper and thrive in ways that cannot be quantified by traditional metrics. The individuals BVT serves delight in using their God-given talents, and strive to improve in – every way possible – their daily lives. They celebrate each other’s successes and achievements with unabashed enthusiasm, in many ways resembling the support of a family – the original department of health, welfare and education.

“What sets BVT apart from other providers is, one, the faith-based component, and two, the exceptional staff and facilities that are rare among other facilities,” explains BVT Executive Director Steven Campbell. “This is not a job to our personnel; they have a unique gift and calling to serve this population, and it shows through the love, heart, and care they provide our residents each day. We have seen unique strengths and talents come out of particular members of our team through this process, which is even more proof why BVT is staffed with some of the best people around.”

Noting other differences between BVT and others who provide care for adults with IDD, Steven continues, “It is uncommon to find homes that offer all the amenities found at BVT, such as resident-specific bedrooms, in-house managers, spacious living areas, day-program opportunities, chapel services, and frequent recreational activities.”

Providing facilities to house, feed, teach, and care for the individuals at BVT without employing the customary institutional model requires unconventional thinking and imagining. RVK Architects and their team of designers captured BCFS President Kevin Dinnin’s requirement of a “home style” environment.

RVK Architects is the sole architectural firm for BVT’s specific brand of design and construction of each campus residence. Design and Project Manager Andrew Staskavage and his team have effectively woven a common thread throughout each phase of construction that captures the look, feel, and spirit of a cozy home setting, excelling in creating structures that resemble a family environment rather than an institutional atmosphere.

“I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with BCFS for over 20 years to design facilities that incorporate positive environmental and physical characteristics of spaces that enhance the quality of life for the residents of BVT,” Andrew explains. “To truly enhance the resident’s well-being, building design should move beyond optimizing single parameters to a more holistic approach that is responsive to behaviors and individual requirements, which offers them a freedom of choice and control over their environment.

“Designing for well-being and health includes a plethora of opportunities and a range of criteria: encourage the residents to be aware and engaged in daily activities, create interactive settings for social gatherings, and provide outdoor experiences to stimulate their senses.”

With BVT’s unique facilities, highly trained staff, and attention to each detail in every aspect of the campus, it is no wonder that BVT has developed a nationwide reputation as an ideal home for people living with IDD.

“When the expansion project was announced in 2015, 24 residents were on the BVT Interest List,” Steven recalls. “The news of recent growth has spurred a greater interest in BVT. Our Interest List now has grown to over 80. We have reached out to those on the waiting list to inform them of the projected timeline for their move to our facility, and the families and prospective residents are looking forward to calling BVT home.”

The magnitude of the residential expansion would have been a major distraction for any organization, especially for an assisted-care facility like BVT.

man working on BVT construction

“With any project of this scale, it is going to take a considerable amount of extra work to ensure the project is completed accurately, timely, and efficiently,” Steven says. “Our team has done a great job at handling the many aspects of an ongoing construction site while ensuring BVT’s normal operations are not interrupted.”

Throughout the fifteen-month, $3 million expansion project, BVT’s Facilities Maintenance Division has become very familiar with the various challenges generated on campus from the daily construction.

Brad Ezell, BVT’s Director of Facilities, was the on-site superintendent overseeing the project. Remarkably, Brad’s crew of one full-time and two part-time employees has successfully performed its initial responsibilities and effectively handled other unexpected challenges, not the least of which was the impact that Hurricane Harvey had one of the project’s most important contributors, the Texas Baptist Men (TBM).

The Texas Baptist Men are a faith-based team of retired construction workers that share ministry through volunteer service, and have been instrumental in progressing BVT’s expansion project (and many other BVT projects in the past). In the middle of the campus expansion, the TBM team sent many of its available volunteers to the Houston area to help rebuild the homes and churches damaged or destroyed by the Category 5 hurricane.

“The later start date and unforeseen weather, as well as holidays and previous commitments to other churches, all helped contribute to the need for us to reach out to other builders in the community,” Bradley says. “We asked for help from subcontractors willing to work with and follow behind volunteers.”

Grateful for the TBM volunteers who stayed to help complete one new home and portions of the other two, Brad searched for help from local contractors and found an eager group of vendors and subcontractors ready to participate in the expansion project, many with donations of labor and materials.

Several volunteers and workers building a new home
TBM Volunteers

“Although we had a group of TBM members and local volunteers here at all times, we did have to get support from sub-contractors to install the roof, and cornice and masonry work that were originally part of TBM’s scope of work,” Brad acknowledges. “We have been blessed to find companies willing to donate and or reduce cost to help with these items.”

During all these challenges, no one, especially not the generous supporters and benefactors to BVT, ever lost confidence that the three new homes would eventually become a reality. They knew that BVT provides the best opportunity for adults living with IDD to live dignified and productive lives – a place where the hearts and minds of those BVT serves would be given every opportunity to grow and live in a family-like environment.

Thanks to the coalescence of generosity from community members, the vision that Robert and Jean Breckenridge had of a faith-based home for adults living with intellectual or developmental disabilities grows today, providing peace of mind to families and a place for their loved ones to realize their potential, live through their hearts, and call “home.” Gary Gunn

Crowns and Tiaras

There was a sense of excitement at Breckenridge Village of Tyler as BVT residents and day-program participants prepared for A Night to Shine, an international formal affair presented by the Tim Tebow Foundation. In 2018, the foundation brought its formal event to Tyler’s Grace Community Church, who blessed BVT with an invitation to don evening gowns and tuxedos for a special dinner and dance.

A room in the BVT chapel was transformed into a salon, where, from their stylists’ chairs, BVT residents Deborah and Tammy spotted the camera and were quick to raise an eyebrow and flash a smile. With her hair done just right, Tammy offered a head-to-toe pose for the full effect of the evening’s ensemble and featured accoutrements.

Crowns and Tiaras, groom attendants

In an adjacent building on the BVT campus, freshly groomed and shaven gentlemen lounged in formal wear. When word came, they rose from their seats, buttoned and straightened their boutonnieres and jackets, and strode confidently to greet their companions for the evening.

Guests were ushered into two elegant stretch limousines and driven to a red carpet welcoming the affair’s most esteemed guests. Bulbs flashed as each guest sauntered down the crimson path, pausing in the splashes of light, clutching their decorative wraps and coats, formal defense for an East Texas February chill.


Bulbs flashed as each guest sauntered down the crimson path, pausing in the splashes of light, clutching their decorative wraps and coats, formal defense for an East Texas February chill.

Crowns and Tiaras couple walking down the red carpet

Inside, the church wore the glitz and glamour of a gala. Balloons floated above tables where friendly and attentive volunteers welcomed the party’s new arrivals. Ahead of the sign-in table, a colorful array of food and drink to energize attendees for dancing, karaoke singing, and a special message from the event’s lead advocate, Tim Tebow.

In the main ballroom, the music fell, and the public address announcer asked for everyone’s attention. As Tebow’s projected image appeared, the crowd erupted in jubilant applause. His message – that God sees each one of us as a king or a queen. As the message concluded, volunteers produced gleaming crowns and sparkling tiaras for the partygoers, generating the broad smiles that reflect the presence of the King of Kings in the hearts of all Christ’s children.

An Anniversary Worth Celebrating

Jimmy Breckenridge
Jimmy Breckenridge

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes an anniversary as “the annual recurrence of a date marking a notable event.” This year, Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT) celebrates its 20th anniversary, commemorating an event that occurred on April 4, 1998, in the piney woods of East Texas, when BVT’s doors opened and the future brightened for a special group of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). 

The story, though, did not begin that sunny, spring day two decades ago. It began years earlier in the hearts of Jean and Robert Breckenridge. The Breckenridges had two sons – Robert Jr. and Jimmy – each as precious as the other. When they first envisioned what BVT might become, they thought of Jimmy, who was nine years old at the time, living with Down syndrome. Not only did they want to provide a safe and loving home for their son, they envisioned creating a community for other adults like him.

In 1972, Robert and Jean purchased 78 acres near their Tyler, Texas, home, raw land that would become the distinctively safe, loving, faith-based community for individuals who could never fully provide for themselves. This home would be the answer for parents, like themselves, who confront the question, “Who will care for my child when I am gone?”

Then, without warning, within six months, Jean lost both Robert Sr. and her son, Robert Jr. Alone, overwhelmed, and grieving, Jean wondered how she would make the family’s dream a reality without the help of her husband and her eldest son, Jimmy’s only other sibling. With no other living relatives, urgency accompanied the gut-wrenching question that haunted her day and night: “What about Jimmy – who will care for him when I am no longer here?”

A courageous heart and deep-seated commitment drove Jean to approach Dr. David Dykes, her pastor at Green Acres Baptist Church, about the feasibility of building a home for those with IDD. At an East Texas meeting of pastors, Dr. Dykes met BCFS System President and CEO Kevin C. Dinnin, who happened to be travelling through the region. Kevin was returning to Texas after assessing sites around the country to research and create a facility that met the needs of individuals living with IDD. It seemed a moment of divine irony that the two men might meet and that their goals could be achieved in a single endeavor.    

Pastor Dykes took Kevin to Mrs. Breckenridge’s house, where she shared with him her vision, and conveyed her sense of urgency to Kevin.

Kevin describes meeting Jean as fate.

“I would love to say I was just in the right place at the right time, but it was more than that,” Kevin says. “At that time, the BCFS System had no experience with building or managing a facility like Jean described, but her story truly moved me. I believe it was a miracle that Pastor Dykes led me to her.”

With a willingness to give all she had to make her dream come true, Jean donated the 78-acre lush parcel of East Texas real estate as the site for Breckenridge Village. With Kevin’s leadership and the partnership of the Texas Baptist Men (TBM) Retiree Builders, construction of the Village began in the fall of 1997. The TBM and their supportive wives, with RVs and construction machinery in tow, converged on the property with the mission of “Building for the Glory of God.”

“It was truly a sight to see,” Kevin recalls. “It was a big deal, like when you were kids and the fair would come to town. The TBM volunteers arrived by the dozens and set up an enormous tent as their headquarters. There were RVs surrounding the site, along with picnic tables and impressive cooking facilities where meals were prepared. It was monumental; inspirational.”

Sounds of hammers, saws, and drills interrupted by shouts of conversation and laughter filled the air as dirt moved and concrete slabs became the solid foundation for buildings and homes. In less than seven months, the construction of six beautiful homes, a vocational building, and an administrative building transformed the East Texas landscape from a grassy field to a beautiful community.

On April 4, 1998 which also happened to be Jimmy’s 35th birthday, the official Grand Opening of Breckenridge Village of Tyler celebrated a day Jean Breckenridge had dreamed of, prayed for, and helped make a reality. When 24 individuals with IDD moved into the newly constructed homes just days later, BVT officially began its enterprise of service.

Since its opening, the BVT campus has expanded to include more buildings and property improvements. In April 2000, the beautiful 7,684 square ft.  Robert M. Rogers Memorial Chapel was built. This chapel, featuring a stunning 25 ft. cathedral ceiling with a cupola of natural light windows, includes a boardroom, two classrooms, a kitchen, and a state of the art exercise room. However, the focal point of this picturesque building is the 20 ft. cross, donated by Jean Breckenridge for the chapel’s dedication. Since then, over 300 unique and exquisite crosses have been added and now fill the walls of this amazing worship center. These crosses provide inspiration to all who enter and to the residents as they gather to begin their day in praise and worship.

Today, the Village features a medical clinic which allows nursing staff to provide quality medical support and supervision to those who reside at BVT or attend its programs; a handicapped-accessible swimming pool, donated by the late Dr. Ernest & Nita James; the Steve & Cheryl Plybon Pavilion, the center of campus recreational activities; and a beautifully stocked fishing pond. 

But this breathtaking, state-of-the-art campus is more than just brick and mortar. It is about a dream. It is about the people who live there, the staff who care so lovingly, and the individuals from the community who visit the campus on a daily basis. BVT is about Jimmy, Julie and Linda H., whose parents are no longer living, but who now have a family and a home at BVT with friends and staff who love, support, and encourage them to be all that God intends them to be.

It’s about Alex, Clay, and Deborah, who have the opportunity to live self-sufficiently away from their families and grow into their own independence. It is about Tanner, Michele, and Alison, who come from all over the East Texas area each day to participate in the host of daily programs offered at the Village, and who hope to one day call BVT their home. BVT is about Jill and Dayne, whose parents, after prayerfully searching all across the nation, uprooted their families from New Jersey and Tennessee to move to East Texas, so their child could participate in BVT’s day programs while waiting for permanent placement at the Village.

Over the past 20 years, BVT has taught us that one truly is “more blessed to give than to receive.” As such, the Village has become a source of formidable volunteer effort for the Tyler community.

Five days a week, vans and buses are filled with BVT residents and other volunteers passionate about helping their community. Whether delivering meals to the homebound with Meals on Wheels, packaging food for the needy at the East Texas Food Bank, sorting donated clothing at Cornerstone Assistance Network, or assembling the bulletins for their local church, BVT residents enthusiastically serve those around them.

Their volunteer efforts also reach an international scale of service when, each year, BVT residents hand knit more than 300 brightly-hued, toasty winter caps to send to orphaned children in Moldova, one of Eastern Europe’s poorest countries. Their service is given every year in partnership with Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), an international interest of the BCFS System. 

Under the care of dedicated and committed staff, BVT residents are encouraged and challenged daily in their personal growth through elective opportunities, life skills training, active treatment, exercise, and field trips. Each semester and summer presents new chances to choose and participate in classes such as art, hand bells, sports, culinary arts, choir, candle-making, and horticulture, just to name a few.

Life skills and active treatment are ongoing training opportunities that encourage personal growth and independence of BVT residents. Staff lovingly guide and gently direct the development of social and coping skills, household responsibilities, community safety, health and hygiene skills, and much more.

Health and exercise are vital components to daily living at BVT. Whether exercising on equipment especially designed for their needs, working out in “sittercise,” or walking with others in the popular BVT Walking Club, residents are encouraged toward a healthy lifestyle. The hard work of physical fitness and the choices for healthy meals pays off during the teamwork and comradery of Special Olympic activities that take place throughout the year.

BVT residents participate in a host of wonderful, memory-making opportunities as they attend local community engagements as well as fun-filled field trips beyond the Village. Outings to the theater, symphony, and various museums enrich their lives through the arts. Whether attending the magical “A Night to Shine” (prom for adults with special needs), traveling to Arlington to cheer for their Texas Rangers, enjoying the sights and sounds of the East Texas State Fair, or reveling in beautiful, seasonal music at various Christmas programs, BVT enjoys exciting occasions every year.

For its residents, BVT provides the security of a loving home with caregivers who respect their individuality and encourage their independence. Each resident has their own bedroom to personalize and customize to their liking. A large kitchen, open dining room, and spacious living room create a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Here, residents can interact with their housemates and share their day while playing games, putting puzzles together, or enjoying television. Housemates Brien, Jonathan, and Bubba are often seen taking an afternoon ride on their bikes around the campus. Residents enjoy a meaningful life at the Village, filled with enriching activities.

While BVT has impacted the lives of many, the need for service is constantly growing. BVT continues to grow with that need in the hopes that the many individuals with IDD who desire the quality of life that BVT can provide receive all that they need and more. Each new or potential member of the Breckenridge community deserves the same opportunities of home, love, security, and friendship that BVT offers.

It is notable and worthy of celebration that for twenty years Breckenridge Village of Tyler has offered what many places cannot: a Christ-centered community providing “hope, love, and home” for adults with IDD. It is a special place where residents are making true, lifelong friends, often for the very first time in their lives. BVT continues to offer parents and guardians of those with special needs peace of mind and the answer to the same question that the Breckenridges asked themselves more than twenty years ago: “Who will care for my child when I am gone?”

Thank you, Jean and Robert, for sharing your dream and allowing us to carry it on. May you rest peacefully knowing that your vision for a loving, safe, and nurturing place for Jimmy and his many friends is manifest daily at BVT.

Happy 20th Anniversary Breckenridge Village of Tyler! It truly is an anniversary worth celebrating.

Featured in the 2018 annual BCFS together magazine. To read more stories like this one, click here for our magazine archive.

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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.”