Teacher Brings Love, Respect to the Classroom

July 29, 2019 | Posted in Education | Keywords: , , , ,

Silvia Villacorta was teaching at a Montessori school in Costa Rica when she got the call. The principal at St. Elmo Elementary School invited her to create an early-education program to help youngsters’ years before they step into an elementary school.

The program is a partnership between AISD and Foundation Communities, and beacause of its success will expand during the 2019-20 school year to two additional classrooms, two at Sierra Vista and one at Vintage Creek, Silvia said.

With 22 years of teaching experience, a master’s degree in human rights and experience founding educational programs in Spain, Silvia was excited to build a program with strong community involvement.

“It has been a nurturing, sweet place to be. We talk a lot about love and respect,” Silvia said of the Pre-K-3 program.

Her background in instructional design and Montessori education helped her create an environment where children work independently, build social, emotional learning skills and where families engage in their children’s’ educational growth.

A place where kids love to learn.

The love and respect the program fosters is evident. Parents don’t drop off their children and leave, they are invited to stay and eat breakfast with them, giving Silvia an opportunity to talk with them and build bonds.

“Children are encouraged to go around the classroom and freely choose what they want to do. The learning experiences are based on self-motivation… All of the materials are created for their developmental levels and are easily accessible,” she said.

“Our program is so full of joy because as educators, we love our job,” Silvia said. “I will summarize it in a quote from my beloved and admired educator, Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘I didn’t come here to teach you, I came here to love you. … Love will teach you.’ Each child that crosses our door gets real, authentic love. And, love teaches.”

 

A Second Chance to Serve

May 20, 2019 | Posted in Housing, Health | Keywords: , , , ,

The day before his 58th birthday, Veteran Tvan Bryant moved into his new home at Bluebonnet Studios. To him it was a gift from God.

“Life feels different now that I have a roof over my head,” he said. “I have my own place. My own bed, my own kitchen. I’m never hungry anymore.”

Tvan has not always been so lucky. During his life, there have been several times when he didn’t have a place to call home. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for many veterans living in Austin. The VA directed Tvan to Foundation Communities, where his life turned around.

Bluebonnet Studios is one of our six communities solely for single adults. Free wraparound support services are available on site to help residents like Tvan navigate life and be successful.

During high school, he was an average student who was great at sports. When given the choice to join the military or attend college on sports scholarships, he chose to enlist in the U.S. Army. Through his travels he met and married an “Army brat,” and, they had a daughter. But, after five years, the marriage ended. This was a hard blow for Tvan.

He moved back to Texas seeking a fresh start, but depression led him to drugs, which sadly led him to prison. Tvan lost contact with his daughter and his family.

After he was released, he knew he had to make drastic changes. Today, he is a self-professed addict and alcoholic in recovery for many years. Every day he works to maintain his sobriety, while also managing PTSD from traumas he’s experienced throughout life.

“I don’t think I would be as successful if I didn’t live here. Besides having a case manager, who works right in my building, we have a nurse who regularly visits Bluebonnet,” Tvan explained. “This makes a huge difference for me – just knowing someone is there to check on me and make sure I’m okay.”

Other health programs available to Tvan are stress management classes and yoga classes.

“You really feel like someone cares about you,” Tvan mused.  “And, that alone is a huge help with my stress and anxiety.”

With all the positive changes Tvan’s made in his life, he didn’t hesitate when Foundation Communities asked him to be Bluebonnet Studios’ Community Engagement Specialist.

“This is a great job!  I get to help my neighbors.”

Tvan sets up for special events, hosts movie nights, works with volunteers and assists with the on-site Food Pantry.

“Foundation Communities has really changed my life, in more ways than I can describe,” Tvan reported. “I honestly had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to even be around people. I was just too uncomfortable. But, with my new job, I have to communicate, to connect with the other residents. I get to be of service again. And, I can do it, because I have the support I need right here where I live. I feel healthy and very content. I know I’m a blessed man.”

 

Grant Funds to Benefit Community Tax Centers

June 26, 2019 | Posted in Tax Services, Financial Stability, Volunteer |

Since 2016, Terri Pensock has volunteered at our Community Tax Centers and as a Financial Coach. On behalf of Foundation Communities, she applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the IBM Community Grant Program. The grant funds will be used to purchase new computer equipment for use at our Community Tax Centers.

IBM provides community grants to organizations where IBM employees and retirees volunteer.  To be eligible to apply for funds, volunteers must have at least 40 service hours.

This year, more than 600 volunteers at our Community Tax Centers completed more than 20,000 tax returns resulting in $35.4 million in refunds for our clients. A huge thank you to Terri and  IBM for providing grants for community programs.

Read our Community Tax Centers End of Season Tax Report.

Learn how to Get Involved with Foundation Communities.

5th Annual Running Buddies Fitness Camino Celebrates Healthy Kids

April 29, 2019 | Posted in Health | Keywords: , , ,

Waiting for the horn to sound with new running shoes on their feet and numbers on their shirts, a group of about 25 kids were ready to run what was for most their first 5k road race. Some were laughing and smiling, while others had a look of serious determination as they set off to complete the 3.1 miles.

Foundation Communities held its 5th Annual Fitness Camino Saturday morning at its Sierra Vista Apartments. The Running Buddies Fitness Camino 5K was started in 2013 as a way to encourage participation in fitness activities and promote overall well-being. Through the Running Buddies program children in third through fifth grades trained for six-weeks with coaches and mentors who supported their fitness goals.

For the last two years, David Chandler, a running coach with 17 years of experience mostly at the college level, has coached Running Buddies.

“This is the grassroots,” he said. “The real beginning – a key point in their lives and some of these kids really need a chance to be part of something.”

Lucero Gomez has participated in the Running Buddies program for two years. A 10-year-old who is in the 4th grade at St. Elmo Elementary School, Lucero said she has enjoyed training for the race.

“What I like about training is it can help me run faster than I used to,” she said. “The race is important because I get to see my progress over the weeks.”

Through a grant from The Amerigroup Foundation, healthy food and snacks are incorporated into the Running Buddies program, which helps the children learn to make more nutritious choices.

The program has helped Lucero feel healthier and when she’s participating in running buddies, she eats healthier, goes to bed earlier and drinks more water, he mother Marta Gomez said. Her mother has seen a positive change in her since she started Running Buddies this year and she even appears to be leaner.

“At Foundation Communities, we are aware of the lifelong health impacts resulting from childhood obesity, and are working tirelessly to implement rigorous programming aimed at combating obesity as well as chronic disease throughout our communities,” said Aaron DeLaO, Foundation Communities Director of Health Initiatives. Since its inception, the Running Buddies/Fitness Camino 5K has been an impactful addition to Foundation Communities’ fitness and nutrition programming. With continued support we look forward to bringing Running Buddies and 5k races to even more properties and continuing to expand fitness opportunities for all of our residents and their families.”

Children who participate receive free training shoes, water bottles, and a T-shirt. The road race replicates an adult 5k and the children wear numbered bibs and they receive a medal at the finish line. Robert Graves, 12, was the first to cross the finish in a time of 27:27. And, it was also his birthday.

Lucero’s parents were surprised when she said she wanted to participate in Running Buddies, her mother said. She is extremely proud of her daughter and said she excels at everything she does, even encouraging the family to try new activities.

“It’s like she found a calling for herself,” she said. “I thought it would just be a race, but it became therapeutic for Lucero. She has a love of running now, it’s not just a hobby.”

The whole family is physically active, but Lucero is the only runner. She is inspiring her three younger siblings, Estrella, 8, Abrahan, 6 and Eden, 4.

“Her sister Estrella is upset she can’t do running buddies yet, because she knows she can do it,” Marta Gomez said. Next year her little sister will be old enough to participate.

Lucero received the Running Buddies Leadership Role Model Award this year because she is so inspiring to others, said Cynthia Gonzalez, the Learning Center Coordinator at Sierra Vista.

 

 

 

 

Tax Services Help Mom Imagine a Brighter Future

March 25, 2019 | Posted in Tax Services, Financial Stability | Keywords: , , , ,

Christina spent years working multiple jobs to provide for her children. She struggled to make ends meet and they fought to keep a roof over their heads, staying with friends and family whenever possible. At times, they lived out of their car, and she prayed daily for answers and clear direction with hope that was fading quickly.

Then she was connected to Foundation Communities.

“It was a godsend!” Christina said. “When I was told about all of the services, it sounded too good to be true!”

She was informed about assistance at the Community Tax Centers and decided to try it. She is now extremely grateful for the volunteers who helped complete her taxes, which were muddled due to years of homelessness.

“If I had not come here and utilized the tax services, I wouldn’t have known it was possible to file an itemized return after gathering everything over the years,” she explained. “The cost for preparing my taxes elsewhere continually paralyzed me and prevented me from taking action to get them done.”

Growing up in an unstable environment compelled Christina to strive for stability. She was one of 17 children, many living with her parents in a house without running water, electricity or a phone. Competing for food at dinner was traumatic, so she decided to quietly skip meals and do without. Home life was filled with turmoil, and the lack of parental supervision only allowed this problem to go unnoticed. She fell in love and married young to escape the traumatic environment and began building a family, having 4 children in eight years.

“My children brought meaning to my life and opened my eyes,” Christina said.

Christina only wanted safety and security for her family. Her husband would become violent when he couldn’t sort out his feelings, which landed him in jail. Christina was left to provide for her children, with very little support. The stability she had been craving seemed to have slipped away.

Finding Foundation Communities allowed her to feel hopeful in a way she hadn’t in years.

When she learned she would be receiving a tax refund, she was ecstatic. Christina tells people daily about the Community Tax Centers. With six locations, people earning up to $55,000 can have their taxes completed for free.

“The volunteers are amazing. They’re patient, thorough, and professional” she said. “Because of their help my family is able to believe stability is within reach. It’s empowering and invigorating. I thank God that I found this program.”

You can learn more about our Community Tax Centers by calling 2-1-1 or visiting CommunityTaxCenters.org.

Lugo Family Finds Success & Opportunities With Community Support

February 4, 2019 | Posted in Housing, Financial Stability | Keywords: , , , , ,

More time together has been the greatest benefit the Lugo family has gained since Foundation Communities nominated them to be Austin American Statesman Season for Caring recipients. Those selected are provided with funds from the community to improve their lives.

Among the items the Lugos requested were clothing, assistance with rent and utilities, and help providing piano lessons for Andrea and drawing lessons for Giselle.

Prior to being chosen, Mirtha Lugo was working two jobs and was away from home at least 50 hours a week. Receiving rental and utility assistance has allowed her and her daughters the opportunities to pursue their goals.

Mirtha Lugo left her homeland of Paraguay after a failed marriage led her to become estranged from family. Because they didn’t approve of her divorce, she was left without resources. She moved to the United States and worked cleaning houses for years. She eventually met her daughters’ father, but the relationship didn’t work out.

Lugo struggled to make ends meet, and her desire to become a citizen seemed unachievable until she was able to save the $800 required, and last fall she passed the exam.
Now, with two daughters in high school, she wants her children to be able to achieve their dreams.

Season for Caring wrapped up on Jan. 31 and in the short time since receiving community support, Lugo and her two daughters, Giselle and Andrea, have gained resources to successfully pursue their ambitions.

Andrea, a sophomore, is already thinking of college. Her mother has started contributing to a college savings account on her behalf. Andrea has started taking advantage of Foundation Communities College Hub program, which will prepare her for completing applications and applying for scholarships and financial aid.

Giselle, a freshman and gifted artist, is being encouraged to take advanced art classes. Her art teacher says she is her best student. Photography is also a passion for Giselle and she will soon receive a digital camera.

Meanwhile, Mirtha Lugo started taking ESL and computer classes, in addition to learning to sew. She is completing a financial coaching program and has opened an Individual Development Account with Foundation Communities. This will allow her to save money over the next six-months and her savings will be matched!

Today, Mirtha is radiating positivity. She is filled with excitement and gratitude about her family’s future and the possibilities that await.

Jacky – A Story of Hope

August 28, 2018 | Posted in Uncategorized |

Meet Jacky – A Story of Hope

Jacky has lived with Foundation Communities most of her childhood. She never considered college a real option until she started attending our free, on-site learning center. She is now a graduate and is helping to break her family’s cycle of poverty.

Free Minds Sparks Mom’s Love of Learning

January 31, 2018 | Posted in Financial Stability |

Lanna always dreamed of a life filled with adventure and learning. She was one of twelve children in a working-class family and grew up in a small town in Illinois. Getting a job as soon as she could, Lanna was proud of making her own money and being in charge of her own life. She intended to go to college but became a young mother not long after high school and her plans changed. After years of bouncing from one job to another to support herself and her daughter, Lanna is finally pursuing her college career by accessing the services offered through our College Hub program.

Lanna is one of 23 students currently enrolled in Free Minds, a free, two-semester college humanities course we run in partnership with the University of Texas and Austin Community College (ACC). Students earn six college credits from ACC in order to help them get started or return to the path of earning a college degree. Many of the students in Free Minds have faced barriers to higher education, just like Lanna, who struggled to afford college and pay for childcare.

Free Minds is part of our College Hub – a one-stop shop for nontraditional students who want to start or finish a college degree or certificate. In addition to Free Minds, College Hub includes a wide range of support services to help students consider their education options, navigate the admissions process and get the most out of financial aid assistance.

Being part of Free Minds is already changing Lanna’s life.

“I feel I was meant for college,” Lanna said. “People light up when you tell them you’re in the class. It makes you more confident for when you go back to school.”

She particularly enjoyed Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. It seemed like another language but Lanna pushed forward and loved when she and her classmates got to act out the play.

She is also looking forward to the poetry unit that will begin soon.

“Poetry gives me the freedom to be me and to express myself,” Lanna said.

Lanna said she learned about Free Minds at just the right time. She and her daughter live at one of our affordable housing communities and, when she saw the Free Minds flyer on her door, she knew it was the step she needed to take to get her life back on track. Not only is the class free, but there is a program offered at the same time and place through Camp Fire USA for students’ children. This helps promote intergenerational learning and removes the barrier of childcare for students.

Lanna wants to set an example for her daughter and is determined to finish college. She was previously enrolled at ACC and expects to return once she completes Free Minds. She hasn’t decided exactly what she wants to study, but she is considering something in the education field.

Right now, Lanna works at Lamar Middle School and said she feels at home in a classroom, helping students.

Looking to the future, Lanna hopes to find a career she loves and see her daughter achieve her own educational goals. She continues to envision herself as an adventurer and is eager to soak up all the world has to offer.

“I want to go everywhere,” Lanna said. “I want to meet different people, see different places and learn new things. And Free Minds is a wonderful start.”

You can learn more about our College Hub program by clicking here.

A New Home at Bluebonnet Studios After Foster Care

November 17, 2017 | Posted in Housing |

Mu’Stapha Feika describes himself as extremely introverted, but if you ask him about basketball his eyes light up and he talks about his dream of becoming a coach. The soft-spoken 20-year-old spent most of his childhood living in foster care and said he kept people at a distance. He disliked school and found solace in basketball, his favorite sport. Now, Mu’Stapha is entering a new phase in his life, having aged out of the foster care system. He lives at our Bluebonnet Studios community and is looking forward to his future.

“I want to grow out of this shell,” Mu’Stapha said. “I want to be more welcoming and involved with people.”

Mu’Stapha moved into Bluebonnet earlier this year. He is one of six residents who live with us through a partnership with fellow nonprofit Upbring. Upbring helps young adults aging out of the foster care system successfully transition to independent living and self-sufficiency through housing placements, case management, and college and career planning.

For Mu’Stapha, this support helped him secure a job and enroll in courses at Austin Community College, where he is majoring in kinesiology.

The journey to get to this point in his life has been hard and inconsistent. Although Mu’Stapha had positive experiences with some of his foster families, he never felt a real sense of belonging.

At the age of 8, he moved to the U.S. from Liberia with his aunt and two half-sisters in pursuit of a better life. He only vaguely remembers his parents and his home country. Once in the U.S., his aunt struggled to provide for him. Child Protective Services intervened and placed him in the foster care system, where he bounced around for years. In total, Mu’Stapha lived in three homeless shelters and four foster homes.

Growing up, he didn’t place much importance on school and struggled to fit in. His classmates teased him for his broken English and he intentionally kept his circle small by making few friends.

When he turned 18, Mu’Stapha moved out of his final foster home. Despite his difficult adolescence, he felt ready to be on his own. He saw opportunity when he moved into Bluebonnet.

“I feel really blessed,” Mu’Stapha said. “I plan to make something out of this.”

So far, Mu’Stapha has made quite the impression at Bluebonnet. He was awarded our first-ever “Good Neighbor” award for going out of his way to help his fellow residents. He has also started a Bible study in an effort to build community. He said his strong faith has helped give him purpose and direction in life.

Looking to the future, Mu’Stapha hopes to one day become a professional basketball coach and inspire and encourage people, like so many have done for him. He is already utilizing his newfound confidence to build lasting connections with the people around him.

“I see people and I try to relate to them,” Mu’Stapha said. “I would like to extend a helping hand.”

A Home of His Own for Local Artist

September 22, 2017 | Posted in Housing |

When you ask Benny Sorrells if he feels good, you might witness him get down on the floor and start doing push-ups. He answers your question with a resounding “yes!” The spritely 78-year-old is a prolific artist and has been a resident at our Garden Terrace community for the last few years.

Benny found Garden Terrace with the assistance of a Travis County mental health public defender. He has struggled with mental illness all of his life and, as a result, spent nearly thirty years homeless. When he came to Texas over a decade ago, Benny didn’t have a place of his own and lacked a steady income. He cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. Now that he lives with us, he has achieved greater stability.

As a resident, Benny has access to our on-site support staff who can help him with whatever he might need. He said he likes living at Garden Terrace and credits art for giving him a sense of purpose.

“If it wasn’t for art, I wouldn’t be alive,” Benny said.

He is an avid painter, sculptor, and pottery-maker. He mostly uses found materials –bricks, discarded metals, and old magazines – to make his art, given that art supplies tend to be expensive. His studio at Garden Terrace is filled with his work and his latest project is usually resting on the easel in the center of the room.

Benny grew up in California and his father died when he was very young. He lived with his mother but was often alone as a teenager. He quit high school and did whatever he could to survive. He studied and taught art. It was in his mid-twenties during a run-in with the police that he ended up in a mental health institution. Benny said he heard voices, something he still struggles with today.

Despite his mental health challenges, Benny has thrived as an artist in the local community. Since the early 2000s, he has participated in Art From The Streets, a program that provides homeless individuals with materials and a free studio space to create art. In 2007, his work was selected for “The People’s Art of Austin Exhibit” at City Hall. Benny works under his artist name “Mjumbe” and sells his work at Art From The Streets’ annual exhibit.

Last year, our staff also organized an art show for Benny at Garden Terrace. His work was displayed, celebrated, and sold to residents and neighbors.

Steph Gajewski is one of our Supportive Services Program Managers and has known Benny for over ten years. She was first drawn to him because of his art and, over the years, the two have developed a deep friendship.

“I’ve gained so much wisdom from Benny’s example of moving through the world in an authentic, meaningful, and carefree manner,” Steph said. “He can find a use for anything and will take the time to create something beautiful with an item that other people would consider trash. Looking at his artwork can reveal a deep knowing of how he experiences the world — he bravely shows his soul.”