Message from the President: Kevin C. Dinnin

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Together… the title of this magazine, and yet so much more. BCFS, an international system of nonprofit organizations together provides life-changing programs across the globe and in historically underserved populations throughout the country. Together with the support of you, our stakeholders and donors, we respond to the needs of millions of children, adults, families and communities faced with severe circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges. BCFS is there, often when no other organization is. And we do it together!

2016 marks my 30th anniversary with BCFS, and not a day has gone by when I do not reflect on the vision and mission of this organization and how we have positively affected the millions of lives we touch. When I was called to serve as president, BCFS employed just 30 staff and had an annual budget that was a fraction of what it is today. Our team has grown exponentially to now include more than 3,000 dedicated BCFS personnel and the countless individuals that join our emergency response and critical-tasking endeavors.

Although many things have changed through the years, and the organization has experienced vast growth and expansion, what has not changed are our values, guiding principles, accountability for the funds for which we are stewards, and most of all, the love and compassion for those entrusted to our care. Our Community Services Division and Residential Services Division continue to bring hope and healing to children, youth and families across the U.S… Our overseas branch, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), recently celebrated 15 years of changing lives, providing safety and security to vulnerable children beckoned by human traffickers with a promise of money and food… At our residential campus, Breckenridge Village of Tyler, residents with a range of intellectual disabilities are thriving in a loving environment where their health and wellbeing are paramount.

Another important branch of the BCFS system is our Emergency Management Division (EMD). EMD is a nationally recognized leader in emergency management, incident management, disaster response, public health and planning for vulnerable populations. When record-breaking floods devastated the Houston-area, the federal government called on EMD to help thousands of victims recover, standing up an Immediate Disaster Case Management (IDCM) operation to serve 14 counties, ultimately impacting over 36,000 people who registered with FEMA as disaster survivors.

EMD is also highly sought-after to share life-saving emergency management expertise, providing trainings to first-responders and emergency managers on mass care and whole community planning; mass fatality management; evacuation planning; medical sheltering; healthcare management of events involving weapons of mass destruction; and more. Ready with robust emergency resources and supplies, EMD is set to deploy and respond at a moment’s notice – no matter how big or small the mission tasking. Thank you for being part of our journey, together. I invite you to see and read the heartfelt, memorable and meaningful stories of those we serve unfold in the pages before you. I know they will fill your heart as they have mine.

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Mensaje del Presidente: Kevin C. Dinnin

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Together (Juntos)… el título de esta revista, pero aún mucho más que eso. BCFS, un sistema internacional de organizaciones sin fines de lucro proporciona programas que cambian vidas en todo el mundo y en las poblaciones históricamente más marginadas de este país. Juntos, con el apoyo de usted, nuestros depositarios y donantes, respondemos a las necesidades de millones de niños, adultos, familias y comunidades que se encuentran en circunstancias severas y enfrentando dificultades insuperables. BCFS asume esta responsabilidad, cuando ninguna otra organización lo hace. ¡Y lo hacemos juntos!

El 2016 marca mi trigésimo aniversario con BCFS, y no ha pasado ni un día en que no refleje sobre la visión y misión de esta organización, y cómo hemos ayudado a las millones de vidas que hemos tocado. Cuando fui llamado para servir como presidente, BCFS tenía solamente 30 miembros sirviendo como personal de toda la agencia, y contábamos con un presupuesto anual equivalente a sólo una fracción de lo que es hoy. Nuestro equipo ha crecido de manera exponencial, a tal grado de ahora incluir a más de 3,000 individuos dedicados, aunados a los innumerables individuos que se unen a nuestros esfuerzos de emergencia y tareas críticas.

Aunque muchas cosas han cambiado a través de los años, y a pesar de la amplia expansión y crecimiento que ha tenido la organización, lo que no ha cambiado son nuestros valores, nuestros principios fundamentales, y nuestra responsabilidad en el manejo de los fondos que han sido puestos a nuestro cuidado, y por sobre todas las cosas, el amor y compasión hacia los que han sido puestos a nuestro cuidado. Nuestra División de Servicios a la Comunidad y División de Servicios Residenciales continúan trayendo esperanza y sanación a los niños, jóvenes y familias de los Estados Unidos… Nuestra sede internacional, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), recientemente celebró 15 años de cambiar vidas, proporcionando protección y seguridad a niños vulnerables engañados por traficantes de personas bajo una falsa promesa de dinero o comida… En nuestro recinto residencial, Breckenridge Village de Tyler, residentes con un rango de discapacidades intelectuales prosperan en un ambiente de amor donde su salud y bienestar son lo más importante.

Otro sector importante de nuestro sistema BCFS es nuestra División de Manejo de Emergencias (EMD por sus siglas en inglés). EMD es un líder reconocido a nivel nacional por su labor de manejo de emergencia, manejo de incidentes, respuesta durante desastres, salud pública y planificación para las poblaciones vulnerables. Cuando las inundaciones sin precedentes devastaron el área de Houston, el gobierno federal solicitó la ayuda de EMD para ayudar a las miles de víctimas en su recuperación, desplegando una operación de Manejo de Caso de Desastres Inmediata (IDCM, por sus siglas en inglés) para servir a 14 condados, impactando a las más de 36,000 personas que se registraron con FEMA como sobrevivientes de un desastre.

EMD también es un equipo muy solicitado por su competencia para su manejo de emergencias que salva vidas, ofreciendo entrenamientos a los primeros intervinientes y a los administradores de emergencias de cuidado masivo y planificación para la comunidad entera; el manejo masivo de víctimas fatales, planificación para evacuaciones, alojamiento médico, manejo del cuidado médico durante los eventos de armas de destrucción masiva, y más. Listo con recursos y suministros comprensivos, EMD está preparado para desplegar y responder en cualquier momento — sin tener en cuenta que tan grande o pequeña sea la labor.

Gracias por ser parte de esta jornada y recorrer este viaje, Together (juntos). Los invito a ver y leer las historias sinceras, memorables y significativas de aquellos a los que servimos, las cuales se revelan en las siguientes páginas. Sé que tocarán su corazón de la misma manera que han tocado el mío.

The Measure Of A Man

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East Texas was never the same once Pierre de Wet arrived and put his heart and soul into the community. Little did we know, when Pierre made Tyler his home, with his larger-than-life personality and heart big enough for Texas, he would bless the community of Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT) with his overwhelming generosity and loving spirit.

As an immigrant, Pierre came to the United States from South Africa in 1984 bringing with him two young daughters, ages two and four. He grew up on a farm where he learned at a young age the value of hard work. The experience, without a doubt, cultivated a man of many talents and embedded in him an undeniable strength to prevail – a trait that would become his trademark.

Starting out in California as a tractor driver in a rice operation, Pierre worked in a variety of laborious jobs until he made his way to Texas in 1990, where he put down roots in the rose capitol of the world, Tyler, Texas.

Pierre was a visionary and an entrepreneur to the core. He founded several local companies including Agtoprof, a national farm management company, and Kiepersol Enterprises, a vineyard and winery destination south of Tyler.

Although Pierre had left South Africa to work and build a life in the U.S., members of his family remained abroad, including his father and sister, Suzanne. It was in 1997 Pierre received word his father had passed away. Amid the grief of this sudden loss, Pierre wondered, what would this mean for Suzanne?

Suzanne was the first born, Pierre’s older sister. She was a happy, healthy child, whose baby jabbering quickly turned into words as she grew. However, one night, Suzanne developed an uncontrollable, dangerously high fever. Malaria. The walls of their one-room home closed in on them as they desperately sought God throughout the night, rashly promising anything for the chance their daughter might survive.

She did live, but things were never the same again. Suzanne didn’t speak as much after that night. She was joyous and beautiful, but the fever had burned away something within the child that never returned. Over the years, her father diligently made sure she had the care she needed at special schools and convents for those with developmental disabilities.

At age 46, Suzanne was alone in South Africa with no support system after her father’s death. Pierre brought Suzanne to live with him in Tyler, nearly ten thousand miles away. Shortly after Suzanne arrived, Breckenridge Village of Tyler opened, a residential community for adults with disabilities. A whole new “home” became available.

Showing compassion to people close to home, in his own community, was important to Pierre. Breckenridge Village is a place built on hope and freedom, and that was right up Pierre’s alley. His core beliefs were built on freedom and living the American dream. However, the kind-hearted folks at Breckenridge Village and many people with developmental disabilities must find a different path to that American dream.

Part of our freedom includes the honored responsibility that we must share the dream with those who need help to pursue it. Sharing that dream builds hope. And in Pierre’s words, you should “make every seed positive, and positive will grow.”

Pierre de Wet passed away in January of 2016, but his compassion lives on in the lives he touched at Breckenridge Village, across East Texas, and beyond.

Through Breckenridge Village, Pierre had contact with so many of the residents and came to appreciate their live-in-the-moment view of the world. Seeing how they helped each other and filled in the gaps for their friends’ abilities inspired him to write:

“We cannot all be the same and will never be the same. Each of us knows what is wrong and right. We know what’s good and evil and we know our talents. All we need to know beyond that is we all are parts of the body of Christ. Some of us are the ears that need to hear all of the other parts. Some of us are the eyes that see the need of the other parts. Some of us are the lips and need to speak positively and show kindness to the other parts. And some of us might be the fist that has to fight the physical battle for all the parts. Thy neighbor is the one that you can feel and touch. Love them so that circle can grow. There’s no growth in loving people so far away that you cannot hold hands.”

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BCFS Hill Country Resource Center: Where Collaboration Meets Compassion

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For someone who needs help in the Texas Hill Country – whether it’s counseling, crisis intervention, or education and employment assistance – traveling to multiple nonprofit offices around town to meet basic needs can be difficult, especially without transportation or the flexibility to miss work.

That’s why BCFS gathered local nonprofits under one roof at the BCFS Hill Country Resource Center Model is an innovative way to connect several nonprofit organizations and maximize their combined talents and resources. For the community, this means that those who are struggling have easy convenient access to a wide array of programs, services, and resources in one central location.

Services Available:

  • Counseling
  • Case Management
  • Emergency shelter placement
  • Literacy programs and educational support
  • Job training and job placement
  • Parenting support groups
  • Help for military veterans
  • Creative art therapy
  • Computer lab access

Kugasaruthy & Satheeska: Two young girls and the transformational power of CERI’s Food Security Program

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In 2009, the Batticaloa District of Sri Lanka finally witnessed an end to the devastating 30-year civil war that decimated the region and its people. Batticaloa is the fourth most impoverished district in Sri Lanka, and home to the CERI office and the epicenter of CERI programs in the area. Nearly 20 percent of its inhabitants live at or below the poverty line, earning the equivalent of $25.50 per month.

According to UNICEF, nearly one of every five children in Sri Lanka is born with low birth weight and approximately 29 percent of children under five years old are considered underweight. To address this epidemic, Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) launched the Food Security Program (FSP).

In 2016, CERI Sri Lanka implemented the Food Security Program in Parathy Kiramam, Kiran Division, one of the poorest areas in Batticaloa, and the sixth village to be touched by the program since its inception. CERI’s initial goal of serving a group of 12 to 15 children quickly changed, however, when 34 underweight children showed up to the program. Two of these young children were Kugasaruthy, age 7, and Satheeska, age 5, both of whom weighed only 27 pounds.

Although they are young, Kugasaruthy and Satheeska know firsthand the ravages of civil war, which had left their father disabled. He was attacked by an elephant while seeking shelter during a shooting. As he ran for safety, he was shot three times. Barely alive, he was rescued and taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. Unfortunately, during surgery, a medical mistake resulted in a severed nerve, rendering the young father’s left arm useless. Unable to work with the use of both hands, it was incredibly difficult to find work and provide for his family.

The girls’ mother, Jeyanthini, 27, also suffered in the aftermath of these tragedies. The couple experienced feelings of inferiority due to their extreme poverty, causing them to withdraw from the outside world. Jeyanthini prohibited her daughters from playing with the other children in the village, kept them from attending school and confined them to their small home.

In spring 2016, Jeyanthini and her family were selected to participate in CERI’s Food Security Program, an opportunity she initially rejected. However, after learning more about the services, she accepted the offer, her heart filled with the hope of helping her family.

During the 12-day program, Jeyanthini learned to cook simple, healthy meals while her children participated in activities at the Children’s Club. After living in sheltered isolation, Kugasaruthy and Satheeska made friends and learned how to play with other children. With each passing day in the program, their energy and enthusiasm increased.

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Before long, Jeyanthini started to flourish as well. She began to share stories about her life during the cooking sessions, talking excitedly with the other mothers about the positive differences she witnessed in her children’s behavior as a result of their participation in the program.

“My girls are very happy to take part in the sessions,” she said. “They eat more while they are with other children than they eat at home when they’re alone. I feel an invisible love that surrounds my children, and peace and happiness cover our family daily as the girls return home after the session.”

Jeyanthini began allowing her daughters to play with the other children in the village, as well as attend school.

Participation in the program has also improved the sisters’ health. Kugasaruthy and Satheeska have both gained weight, expanded their social skills and boosted their self-esteem, and overall, enhanced their quality of life. Playing with their peers offered new experiences and opportunities for exploration, learning and development. New toys, new friends and organized games stimulated their growth and capacity, and CERI staff used game times to teach children how to play well together, model positive behavior, and show the love of God through respect for one another and good sportsmanship.

The FSP helped Kugasaruthy and Satheeska grow physically and emotionally in a very visible and profound way. Still, the girls remain underweight in comparison to their American counterparts. While the average weight of an American seven-year old is 49 pounds, Kugasaruthy is approximately 30 lbs. and little Satheeska at age four weighed in after the program at 27.5 pounds. Nevertheless, the sisters are on their way to healing, inside and out.

Bonita Nirmala Samuel, the CERI Sri Lanka Interim National Program Director describes her team’s feelings about the Food Security Program implementation in Parathy Kiramam.

“We thank God for this wonderful opportunity to serve others,” she says, “and to have successfully reached these families most in need.”

Sadly, more than 53 percent of children in Sri Lanka under 5 years old are classified as underweight (calculated as weight-to-age ratio), and nearly 72 percent of local households do not have adequate sanitation or water facilities. Each year, local divisions of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health in Batticaloa ask CERI to address the nutritional needs of area children through the Food Security Program.

The FSP addresses the acute needs in these villages for healthy food, nutrition education, intentional cooking skills, and information on the importance of proper hygiene and sanitation. The FSP offers Sri Lankan moms the tools needed to confront child malnutrition and common, yet life-threatening health conditions like diarrhea, intestinal worms and infections.

Between 2013 and 2015, CERI’s Food Security Program served more than 400 underweight children and their families. Each year the program has been in operation, a growing proportion of participating children are on track for healthy weight gain. This year, CERI Sri Lanka is serving 135 children and their families in six impoverished villages across the Batticaloa district.

Through the FSP, CERI hopes to reach even more families like Kugasaruthy’s and Satheeka’s, and one day, see Sri Lanka rise above the hunger, poverty and despair through the power of God’s love. Together, with open, loving hearts and a mission to nourish the body and the spirit, CERI staff and the Sri Lankan people transform and rebuild families and communities.

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Adoption Days Are The Best Days

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BCFS Health and Human Services-San Antonio Foster Care and Adoption Program Call (210) 208-5629 or visit DiscoverBCFS.net to learn how you can build your “forever family”

BCFS Health and Human Services has celebrated hundreds of joyful Adoption Days, building loving families across Bexar County.

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Sustained Resilience: Immediate Disaster Case Management (IDCM) program operated by BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division

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Katrina’s Landfall

The 29th of August in 2005 would become a day to go down in American history. Hurricane Katrina was making landfall during the early morning hours. The Category 3 storm brought sustained winds of 130 miles per hour to the residents of New Orleans and hundreds of communities located along the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. After several intense hours, the winds subsided, the storm moved inland and weakened, but devastation from the flooding from failed levees had just begun. Thousands would lose their lives and tens of thousands of people would be displaced from their homes in what would become the costliest hurricane in U.S. history and the fifth deadliest.

In the months and years that followed this catastrophic event, the lessons learned were many. Despite the delivery and application of an enormous volume of resources, almost four years after the storm, in April of 2009, thousands of individuals were still in need of social services that would enable their full recovery.

Trailer homes, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and initiated by the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), had been deployed to assist residents that had lost their homes. As these trailer homes were never intended to be a permanent solution, a new pilot program known as the Louisiana Disaster Case Management Pilot (DCMP) was launched to assist people still living in FEMA temporary housing units. The goal of the pilot was to assist displaced residents with aspects related to long term recovery, including the transition to permanent housing and accessing available resources that addressed financial, legal and healthcare needs.

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

According to a 2010 independent study, “Navigating the Road to Recovery,” the efficacy of the Louisiana DCMP pilot program faced many obstacles: “Despite concerted effort by participating agencies, the implementation of the DCMP was fraught with challenges. As a result, the pilot could not be implemented as intended, leaving the needs of many clients not fully met.”

The report went on to document significant problems regarding communication, coordination, and financing of the program. “The stop and start of recovery initiatives led to serious discontinuities in client recovery, so the authors recommend that federal and state governments consider a single, longer-term recovery initiative that seamlessly acknowledges the stages of human recovery. Improvements in how federal and state governments identify and locate affected residents, consider needs and vulnerabilities in planning, and ensure continuity of services are critical to ensure high-quality disaster case management.”

The answer? The creation of a new federal program that leveraged the outcomes of the Louisiana DCMP program. The program came to be known as the federal Immediate Disaster Case Management program, or IDCM.

Inception of ICDM

Working in conjunction with FEMA, the new IDCM program would be administered by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Within ACF, a department known as the Office of Human Services Preparedness and Response (OHSEPR) would be responsible for activating the program once certain disaster impact criteria had been met under a Presidential Disaster Declaration.

In 2014, the contract to provide these services for OHSEPR came up for renewal. With a lengthy track record of successful emergency response deployment operations on behalf of state and federal clients, BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division (BCFS EMD) submitted a proposal and was awarded a five-year contract to provide IDCM services.

Preparations Commence

Quickly, the program was off and running. EMD established a management team and within 60 days employed and developed nine case management teams consisting of 30 case managers each. Months of team coordination and distance-based training soon followed. Members of the IDCM team come from across the country and represent all ten ACF regions.

In late summer of 2015, a full-scale IDCM disaster exercise was held at Silver Cliff Ranch, the BCFS-owned and operated wilderness camp in Nathrop, Colorado. Case managers were provided a mock “activation order” by EMD. Hundreds of designated case management personnel were then flown to Denver from across the country on a single day and were transported by EMD buses on a three-hour journey into the mountains. Over the following four days, the “ACME” exercise, which was scenario-driven and included real-world examples of actual client situations, the IDCM team was able to effectively implement disaster case management training at a higher level than any delivered training in the program’s history.

The exercise was attended by representatives from FEMA, ACF, and uniformed members of the United States Public Health Services (USPHS), a government agency that operates under the leadership of the Surgeon General’s office to ensure public health functionalities during major disasters. The exercise was an incredible success.

The BCFS IDCM team was now ready for action. All that was needed was a mission assignment. In the spring of 2016, that opportunity came.

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Record-Breaking Rainfall

The night of April 17, 2016 began with heavy rain forecast in the southeast part of Texas. On this night and for several consecutive nights, Harris County and the many other counties that make up the greater Houston metropolitan area were situated within a steady stream of upper level moisture coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. As this tropical air mass intermingled with cooler air approaching from the northern portions of Texas, thunderstorms developed rapidly. Instead of quickly exiting the area as they usually do, these clusters of storms seemed to maintain a constant, almost static, presence over the region. As the thunderstorms intensified, their eastward motion slowed almost to a dead stop. As the storms remained, they dumped several million gallons of rain on unsuspecting residents of a 14-county area.

As the initial rains fell, many residents thought the storms would pass and things would go back to normal soon. Little did they know that within 12 hours the water from the nearby Brazos River, Colorado River, and numerous local bayous would swamp thousands of homes. The following day, after being rescued from swift moving waters by teams of first responders in special flood response watercraft, many of these same homeowners would be sleeping on cots in emergency shelters set up in nearby schools. Some watched the contents of their homes – their life’s belongings – washed into a river of debris that only a few hours earlier had been the roadway through their neighborhood. Other flood survivors in rural areas were left helpless as their livestock perished or were stranded by the floodwaters.

The flooding was record-setting for the Houston area. As a result, the federal government issued a Presidential Disaster Declaration for dozens of counties across the region. While the state of Texas does have significant local case management capacity, as time passed and the demand for case management services reached record levels, the local case management capacity was outstripped. It was at this point, several weeks after the floods subsided, that state officials determined federal case management assistance would be needed.

The BCFS IDCM team received a 90-day Mission Assignment task order on May 26, 2016. By June 5, nearly 60 BCFS personnel were providing desperately needed services to residents of the counties impacted by the storms. Using a combination of centralized case management services and deployable case management strike teams, the IDCM group fanned out into a dozen communities that were most impacted by the floods. Sixty total personnel were initially deployed; an additional twenty personnel would be deployed a few weeks later.

It would become an IDCM deployment operation that would alter the face of the federal IDCM mission profile. 

Changing The Mission Profile

The cyclical phases of emergency management include Preparedness, Response, Recovery, Mitigation and Prevention.

In the emergency management world, the Response phase of any incident is usually short-lived. Response operations include application of response resources. An Incident Command Post is established as a location where response operations are coordinated. Supplies, equipment and personnel are organized and utilized in a manner that is designed to save lives and protect property. Incident Action Plans are drafted and distributed daily in order to capture required response objectives, organizational structure and personnel assigned to specific tasks. Situation Reports are also created and distributed daily, as a means of tracking operational success toward the established mission objectives outlined in the Incident Action Plan.

The Recovery phase, on the other hand, is where the heavy lifting begins. It is generally characterized by a slower pace, as recovery operations can continue for several years. Recovery operations rarely utilize the same tools as the Response phase. True to form, during previous IDCM deployments a different contractor had applied a typical recovery approach to their recovery efforts on behalf of OHSEPR. The results were disappointing and ineffective.

The BCFS IDCM team would take a much different approach. BCFS would, for the first time, apply a response-oriented approach to recovery operations. The results? A vast improvement in the coordination and application of IDCM case management resources, which allowed BCFS to assist thousands of affected residents in a much shorter time frame.

Powerful Results

EMD disaster case managers spread out across the Houston-area and 11 surrounding counties, helping flood survivors on a daily basis for months at a time. For each flood survivor, some experiencing their darkest hour, their disaster case manager served as a single point of contact for all their questions, advocating for them with multiple social service organizations and government partners, to help them achieve the best possible outcomes in their individual recovery process.

EMD disaster case managers were the go-to resource for flood victims to receive assistance meeting their needs for housing, furniture, appliances, utilities, employment services, transportation, health and wellness, senior services, access and functional needs services, legal assistance and more.

The positive impact on the affected communities was tremendous. Based on the results listed above, feedback from our federal partners has been very positive.

The highly successful work performed by BCFS Health and Human Services’ Emergency Management Division to ensure sustained resilience for the Houston-area will have a lasting impact for years to come.charlie-rosenberg-3-2

Breckenridge Village of Tyler goes FULL THROTTLE WITH NASCAR

 

2016 NASCAR PoconoNo. 95 Chevrolet at Pocono Raceway in the NASCAR Spring Cup Series

The owner of Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing team, Bob Leavine, calls Tyler, Texas home, along with his wife, Sharon and daughter, Melynda. Mr. Leavine’s 21-year-old grandson Tanner is autistic. Tanner attends BVT’s day enrichment program that helps adults with disabilities develop spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially in a loving, family atmosphere.

“There is a place in Tyler, Texas – Breckenridge Village of Tyler – that our family has supported for a long time because of the work they do and the people there. They have taken that young man and helped him grow and contribute. Tanner has learned skills from cooking to making candles and selling them. We wanted to put (BVT) on the car so we could make a statement and say, ‘hey we are behind this.’ We need to help our special kids because it takes a lot of resources. People need to know about this, because they can help.” – Bob Leavine, owner of Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing team.

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From East Texas to Eastern Europe With Love

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In November of 2008, Diane Stone stepped into a sparse but tidy supply closet in the recreation room of an East Texas group home and stumbled across a couple of plastic looms. Nearly eight years and 2,400 hats later, she and nine other women have knitted their way across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting two organizations in the BCFS system in a meaningful way, and most importantly providing warmth and compassion to orphans in Eastern Europe.

Diane has served as a day program leader at Breckenridge Village of Tyler (BVT), a residential community for adults with disabilities, for almost a decade.

When she first found the Knifty Knitter looms, Diane thought, “Maybe the residents could learn how to make hats with these!”

In the first year of knitting, Diane’s group created 200 hats. The number has grown every year since, reaching 370 hats in 2015.

All of the hats are sent overseas and distributed to orphanages in Moldova in Eastern Europe every December by Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI), the international branch of BCFS.

Remarkably, BVT has not had to purchase yarn for any of the 2,400 hats they’ve created since the knitting group began. According to Diane, volunteers collect trunk loads of yarn donations from their churches. Arts and crafts have always been a part of BVT’s day habilitation program, but it was important to Diane that the residents “use their time and talents to serve others, and feel the joy that brings.”

By making hats, BVT meets a very real need. Not only are Moldova’s winter temperatures gravely cold, but utilities and energy resources are scarce. It is difficult to keep buildings warm when the sun goes down, so the children can wear BVT’s knitted hats all hours of the night and day.

When the first batch of hats arrived in Moldova, the CERI team sent a report back to Tyler, Texas, thanking BVT villagers profusely. Eight years later, tears still well up in Diane’s eyes as she remembers what they told her.

“The kids don’t ever get a choice in what they wear,” she said. “They just wear whatever they are given.”

But, in this case it was different! CERI workers laid out the hats, with their brilliant array of colors, almost as many shades and patterns as there were hats, and let them pick!

“The kids didn’t know what to do. Orphanage workers had to take them by the hand and show them how to make a choice.”

Diane’s knitting group has expanded to become an official class at BVT. But the core group of nine knitters continues to meet every morning, sharing life and ministry with each other. “We are just one big family here at BVT,” Diane says. “I have never been anywhere with an atmosphere like this.”

Community service has always been a part of the lifestyle of BVT residents and day program participants. Staff and residents are involved with Meals on Wheels, the East Texas Food Bank, Jesus Closet Clothing Ministry, and other local nonprofits. Expanding their local volunteer efforts to have a global impact was a logical – and inspiring – next step.bvt2

Finding Her Way Home: Cassie’s Journey

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Cassie Carmichael’s high school accolades summed up in one word? Impressive.

She was offered academic scholarships by several universities, excelled on three sports teams, and worked as a lifeguard at the Baptist Encampment, all while maintaining strong relationships with family and friends. Her story is a triumphant one, but living that story was not always easy.

Child Protective Services took Cassie away from her mother, a heroin user, when Cassie was 14. While the separation was painful, Cassie says that her mom was “going down a path I didn’t want to be on.”

For Cassie, the hardest part was leaving her older brother. When Cassie entered the foster care system, her brother had just turned 18 and was not eligible to be placed in a foster home.

At first, Cassie rotated through a handful of foster homes in the Abilene, Texas, area. Since her brother also lived in Abilene, they were able to keep in touch. After a few months, Cassie was placed with the Mellings, a new foster family in Galveston – seven hours away. Cassie admits she had “attitude problems” about the move.

“I wasn’t really okay with being that far away from my brother because we’ve always had a great relationship,” said Cassie. “I kind of fought it and I didn’t want to be there.”

Even while Cassie was admittedly standoffish, the Mellings welcomed her into their Galveston home with open arms and lots of loving patience.

During Cassie’s sophomore year in high school, the Mellings decided to move to Brownwood, Texas, to be closer to family. The move also put Cassie 300 miles closer to her brother.

The Mellings made it a priority to help strengthen Cassie’s relationship with her biological family. When Cassie’s mom and brother came to Brownwood for her high school graduation, her foster parents invited them to dinner and made efforts to get to know them. “They really tried to connect with my family because they know how much it means to me,” she says.

Today, Cassie is a doting auntie to her brother’s newborn son. And now that she lives closer, she can visit often. “Every time I go over there, they make me change dirty diapers,” Cassie laughs. Diapers and all, Cassie loves spending time with her growing family. She enjoys taking her nephew to the park and “just having fun with him.”

The Melling foster home is a busy one by any standard: Cassie is the oldest in a household of eight, with four foster sisters and a foster brother.

Cassie is deeply grateful for her foster parents. “I love them so much,” she says. “They’re super cool and they trust me. They believe in all my goals and they know that I can do whatever I put my mind to.”

Cassie’s senior year of high school was packed with college entrance exams and a full academic workload, but she found time to be a member of the basketball, powerlifting and track teams and work as a lifeguard. Prioritizing her classwork while balancing extracurriculars paid off – Cassie was accepted to three universities, each acceptance letter arriving with an attractive scholarship offer.

Faced with a choice, Cassie signed up for college campus tours, starting with Angelo State University (ASU) and the University of North Texas in Denton. BCFS Case Manager Alexzandra Hust accompanied Cassie on the ASU tour. Cassie noticed most of the other students touring with their parents, but with her BCFS mentor Alexzandra by her side, Cassie wasn’t discouraged. “BCFS is part of my family!” she beamed.

Cassie fell in love with Angelo State and committed to attending ASU in the fall, accepting a $10,000 scholarship for her excellent GPA and ACT scores. She also plans on joining Angelo State’s Powerlifting Club.

With her freshman year of college in full swing, Cassie makes sure her busy schedule includes staying in touch with family.

“My foster mom would always joke with me, saying, ‘I’m going to make you take online classes because you’re going too far away!” Cassie recalls.

“It’s great now that I’m going to Angelo – she can come and see me all the time.” Passionate about helping people, Cassie plans to study psychology or social work.

“I’m just trying to go where God wants to lead me. I want to do social work so I can help kids like me. Then, I want to do psychology so I can work in drug rehab and try to figure out everything, from what kind of hold drugs have on people to where I can try to forgive my mom for all the stuff she’s done.”

“I feel like God put me here for a reason,” says Cassie. “Everyone has places where things happen to them in their life, and they don’t know if they’re going to make it. I feel like God tests us, and this is what He did: He put me in this situation because He knows what we can handle and that we can get out of it and make something of ourselves.”

The Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program operated by BCFS Health and Human Services-Abilene helped Cassie transition out of foster care and become the strong, independent young woman she is today. PAL helps youth aging out of foster care learn valuable life skills like building healthy relationships, responsible money management, goal-setting and health & nutrition.

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