Independence Day Conferences Prepare Youth

A primary goal for BCFS Health and Human Services is working daily with youth in foster care to help prepare them for success and stability as they progress toward adulthood. Through an extensive catalog of programs, services, and resources focused on education, career, and life skills, BCFS Health and Human Services partners with like-minded organizations interested in helping cultivate communities through the individuals and families who live there.

Recently, BCFS Health and Human Services’ Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) programs in McAllen and Corpus Christi collaborated with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) for the 18th Annual Preparation for Adult Living Independence Day Conference for youth with experience in the foster care system. The conference is geared for youth from the foster care system between the ages of 16 and 18.

“Youth were very interested to learn about university degree plans, and in the financial assistance that ETV (Education Training Voucher program) provides,” said Melissa Gonzalez, Program Director for BCFS Health and Human Services-McAllen. “Our Foster Youth Panel had representatives from various careers paths—military members, people who have earned two-year certificates, and four-year college degrees—and youth in attendance listened closely to learn more about the different paths that were available to them.”
Photo: Independence Day Conference

More than 50 youth from the foster care system attended the conference at UTRGV, learning about their eligibility for the various programs and services available to them. Conference goers were enlightened by personal testimonies and success stories from young adults and current college students with experience in the foster care system, and listened to a keynote address delivered by American Ninja Warrior and Rio Grande Valley native Abel Gonzalez who spoke to his audience about overcoming obstacles and maintaining personal control in life.

Leroy Berrones Soto, a UTRGV student with experience in the foster care system who also received services from BCFS-McAllen, delivered his message to youth in foster care from his seat on the “Defining Your Own Success” foster care alumni panel.

My message to youth is to never give up,” Leroy said. “To show that despite the life obstacles we’ve experienced, we can still survive in the real world. What matters most is that we accomplish what we dream of.

BCFS-San Antonio’s PAL program held its own Independence Day Conference on July 27, in collaboration with Texas A&M-San Antonio. Motivational speaker and current candidate for U.S. Congress Dr. Tim Westley delivered the keynote address to the conference room full of youth from foster care in attendance from across the San Antonio area.

Dr. Westley drew some similarities between his background and the backgrounds of some of the youth at the conference,” explained BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio Program Director Deyanira Garcia, who helped organize the conference. “He talked about struggling and persevering to overcome obstacles, and reassuring the youth that there are people who can help when morale is low.

Bexar County District Judge Renee Yanta also spoke to the youth. Since 2015, Yanta has headed the one-of-a-kind PEARLS program, a program that helps girls from the foster care system avoid the risks and pitfalls that result in the girls becoming ensnared in the juvenile justice system.

Judge Yanta inspired this group of kids,” Garcia said, who brought to the conference a group of youth with whom she works daily directing BCFS-San Antonio’s PAL Program. “She had them get out of their seats and try empowering poses! She energized the room with her message of self-worth. The kids responded well.

At the event, attendants discussed their educational and employment opportunities with on-site case managers, financial aid advisors, and other specialists. Additionally, participants enjoyed a number of recreational and team-building activities including hover ball archery and archery tag.

“The conference exposes the youth we serve to many of the benefits available to them as youth in the foster care system,” Garcia adds. “Aftercare benefits include access to an education specialist and a case manager on campus, assistance with college tuition, financial aid, and job training and employment assistance.

The Independence Day Conference has always been about showing the youth the success that they can have, and how they can achieve it,” says Garcia. “We have the event on campus so that youth are aware of everything the school has to offer, and to have the youth become familiar with the college experience. We bring staff in and other students to talk about how it is to come to college, so that youth can see that it is attainable.

The 2018 PAL Independence Day conferences were held in conjunction with BCFS Health and Human Services, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, UTRGV, and Texas A&M-San Antonio.

Photo: Independence Day ConferencePAL provides services to youth aging out of the foster care system that expands their skills and knowledge, strengthen their self-confidence, create healthy community relationships; and ultimately learn self-guidance. PAL provides transition services to youth from foster care from ages 15 1/2 to 21 in order to better prepare them for emancipation from the system.

For information about PAL, visit