An Opened Heart During an Open House

June 8, 2018 | Posted in Housing, Get Involved | Keywords: , ,

By Joe Van Wyk, Foundation Communities Communications Coordinator

My name is Joe Van Wyk and I am excited to be Foundation Communities’ new Communications Coordinator. Yesterday was day two on the job, and I got to help with one of our open houses. There could not have been a better introduction to our mission of creating housing where families succeed.

Twice a month we host a lunchtime open house to highlight one of our 23 properties. Visitors tour the community, see one of the apartments, hear from our dynamic executive director Walter Moreau, and listen to a moving testimonial from a Foundation Communities resident.When I recently embarked on my new career search, I had two main hopes: First, that I would be able to use all of my God-given gifts in design, photography, videography, and social media marketing. And secondly, that I would land in a positive environment, full of people who had a heart for serving others. Did I ever find the right home! The scope of lives that Foundation Communities has helped change over nearly three decades is staggering. More than 6000 people now call Foundation Communities “home.”

My job here is to showcase the stories of our families and generous supporters here in Texas’ greatest city (don’t tell my friends back in San Antonio I said that).

We were treated to one of those stories yesterday. A single resident spoke to the group about his long and painful journey through family turmoil, homelessness, addiction, and unemployment. Fortunately, the book of his life didn’t end there. He miraculously found sobriety, and now is living at Foundation Communities. Today he is 11 years clean and sober and is employed by us to counsel other residents on how to live healthier lives.

This man’s story was so compelling because it represented the completely transformed life of someone who is now contributing and making a difference in the world. It dawned on me that his story is repeating itself over and over for most of our 6000+ residents.

Want to experience an inspiring story of success? Learn more here and we will schedule you right away. And by the way, lunch is on us!

Click any photo to enlarge

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.”

Keeping Learning Alive During Summer Months

July 28, 2017 | Posted in Education |

Eight years ago, Amelia and her husband left Mexico in pursuit of more opportunities for their family. The soon-to-be parents settled in Austin and struggled to find a home they could afford. They moved to our Southwest Trails community shortly after and had two daughters, Kathy and Vanessa. Both girls attend our free after-school and summer learning programs at the on-site Community Learning Center and are thriving at Oak Hill Elementary.

“I want my daughters to be educated and have a better future,” said Amelia, who was one-year shy of graduating from high school herself.

Amelia cleans houses and her husband works at a car wash. Living at Southwest Trails for the last several years has been critical for the family’s stability. Not many other apartments in Austin are within the family’s modest budget. In addition, Amelia has participated in our free English as a Second Language and nutrition classes and the family regularly attends community events.

“It’s peaceful here and we appreciate all of the services provided at the learning center,” Amelia said.

For Kathy, 7, and Vanessa, 8, our learning center is a welcoming space where they get daily assistance with homework and participate in enrichment activities with friends. Right now, the girls are enrolled in the summer learning program, which helps prevent “summer slide” by focusing on reading, math, and science.

“Summer slide” is the tendency for students, particularly those from low-income families, to lose some of the academic gains they made during the school year. Research indicates that summer learning loss widens the
achievement gap between low- and middle- to high-income students. Almost 600 students are enrolled in our free summer learning program.

This year, all of our learning centers are utilizing the “I-Ready” program to ensure students are reading on grade level. Amelia wants her daughters to practice reading and stay engaged during the summer months so they are ready when school begins again.

The program isn’t just about academics, though, as there is plenty of time for fun, too. Students at Southwest Trails, for example, are slated to go to the Bullock Texas State History Museum, get a visit from an animal show, go swimming at the community pool, and take weekly nutrition and cooking classes.

Summer will be gone before we know it, and it’s important that our students continue to learn, grow, and play during these months. We want Kathy, Vanessa, and the rest of our students to succeed academically and set big goals for themselves. We believe all of our students are destined for great things.

Making New Memories at Lakeline Station

May 23, 2017 | Posted in Housing |

Reflecting on his own life is hard for Keith Murphy. The 34-year-old father of three experienced a childhood full of painful memories. Years in the foster care system and subsequent abuse made Keith feel as though he would never find a real family. That is until he met Kelli, his wife, in high school.

“I still remember the exact moment we met,” Keith said. “She got off the bus and I walked her home. From that day forward, my life changed.”

Keith and Kelli fell in love fast but struggled financially. Keith didn’t finish high school and had a hard time finding steady work, bouncing around from job to job as a mover and day laborer, and landing various gigs through temp agencies.

As their family grew, the rising cost of living in Austin made it nearly impossible for them to find a home they could afford. Then, Keith was laid off from a health care job when business slowed down. Keith, Kelli, and their three children ended up moving into a 2-bedroom apartment with Kelli’s mother. The entire family stayed in one room and the lack of space and freedom took a toll on all of them.

It turns out our Trails at the Park community was close to where they were staying so Keith and Kelli enrolled their daughters, Ramiyah and Pfenix, in our after-school program. As Kelli learned more about our housing, she discovered that they qualified for our Children’s Home Initiative (CHI) program for extremely low-income families. The family was accepted and moved to our new Lakeline Station community in Northwest Austin last December, just in time for Christmas.

“My kids were the first to play on the beautiful playground,” Keith said.

Since living at Lakeline, Kelli has secured a better job at a health insurance company, the kids are thriving in school, and, as soon as they find affordable childcare for Keith Junior, their son, Keith plans to attend barber college.

“Living at Lakeline has opened so many doors for us,” Keith said. “Doors that I didn’t even know existed.”

The family meets weekly with an on-site case manager to help set goals and become more financially stable. In addition, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation Learning Center at Lakeline opened this month and Ramiyah and Pfenix will soon attend our summer learning and after- school programs.

For Keith, Kelli, and their children, Lakeline is much more than just a home. It’s a place where they can all live up to their potential and dream big.

“My kids are my world, and I’m determined that when they look back on their lives, their childhood memories will be full of joy instead of pain,” Keith said. “I want them to be happy and healthy and know that we’ll always be there for them.”

Father and Daughter Share Love of Learning and New Home

March 21, 2017 | Posted in Housing, Education |

When Patrick Martinez was awarded primary custody of his young daughter last year, he realized he needed to make some changes in his life. He was sharing an apartment with a friend and working part-time, but he wanted an affordable place of his own with space for his daughter to play and grow. A few months ago, Patrick and three-year-old daughter Penelope moved into Sierra Vista as part of our Children’s Home Initiative (CHI), an intensive support program for extremely low-income families.

“Once my daughter started living with me I began thinking more long-term,” Patrick said. “I have to start making sacrifices now if I want the best for my daughter.”

Patrick applied to CHI because he would have access to an on-site case manager and support through our financial stability programs. He was recently hired to work part-time for Foundation Communities as an English as a Second Language and Digital Literacy teacher and he is going to ACC to earn his associate degree in Computer Science.

“I’m working part-time so I can finish school and the financial courses will help me make sure the money I earn lasts until the end of the year,” Patrick said.

Patrick first got involved with us as a volunteer. He was teaching GED classes in Spanish for a fellow nonprofit and one of our program directors asked if he would be willing to offer the class to our residents too. Soon after, Patrick was hired to teach our ESL and Digital Literacy courses. He also continues to teach the Spanish GED class once a week and attendance remains high.

Patrick’s teaching career began about two years ago. Education wasn’t emphasized when he was growing up and he said he didn’t do well in high school. In addition, his family’s limited resources and his mother’s health struggles made pursuing higher education unrealistic. His perspective on education changed, though, when his daughter was born. He committed to working hard so that he could go to college and become an advocate for his daughter and fellow community members who face barriers to education.

Living at Sierra Vista has been a positive change for both Patrick and Penelope. They each have their own room and Patrick has gotten to know his neighbors and can rely on them for child care in a pinch. He is involved at his daughter’s school and looks forward to picking her up each day and hearing what she learned.

One of Patrick and Penelope’s fondest memories in their new home so far is throwing a Christmas party for friends and family not too long after they moved in.

“Having the party made it feel a lot more like home,” Patrick said. He added, “I enjoy working here and living here. It’s a close-knit group of people and a better environment for me and my daughter.”

Aleman Family Secures Home and Hopeful Financial Future

January 20, 2017 | Posted in Housing, Financial Stability |

Jose and Rosa Aleman moved their family from Mexico to Austin in search of a better future for their three daughters. When they arrived in 2003, the family struggled financially and ended up moving multiple times due to rising rents. They were introduced to us through our Community Tax Centers and ultimately moved into our Trails at Vintage Creek community.

“Living at Vintage Creek was crucial,” Jose said. “It allowed my family to save money each month.”

Jose, a mechanical engineer and legal permanent resident of the U.S., left his construction job in Mexico because business was slow. He and Rosa decided to leave their home country and extended families behind so that their daughters could have the best educational and professional opportunities possible.

The Aleman family lived at Vintage Creek for two and a half years. During that time, Jose and Rosa participated in our matched savings program. For every $1 residents save, we match up to $8 (with a cap of $2,000) and residents are able to use these funds to pursue higher education, purchase their own home or start a small business.

With the assistance of our matched savings program and homebuyer classes, the Alemans left Vintage Creek in 2010 and bought their first home.

Melanie, the youngest of the Aleman children, was excited when they moved into their new house. “I could have a dog and paint my own walls,” Melanie said. “I could really make it my home.”

The Alemans have also participated in our one-on-one financial coaching, college financial aid assistance, and Insure Central Texas programs.

Jose, Rosa and their three daughters have utilized nearly every free financial stability program we offer. As a result, the Alemans sent their two older daughters to college and Melanie will be attending UT Austin in the fall. Each of the Aleman children have lived out their parents’ dreams for them — graduating at the top of their class and seeking out fulfilling careers.

Melanie hopes to be admitted into the engineering program at UT so that she can follow in her father’s footsteps.

“My dad gave up his career for us to have a better education,” Melanie said. “That motivates me every day.”

Jose said his family has always had a good experience with the trained volunteers who staff our financial stability programs, and he and Rosa regularly tell their friends about what a difference our services have made in their lives.

Our aim is to empower families with the financial tools they need to succeed. The Aleman family is a shining example of persistence, dedication and hard work paying off in the end.

Eldest Son Finds Home for Family at Sierra Vista

November 28, 2016 | Posted in Housing |

Shouldering the weight of his family’s well-being hasn’t diminished Kevin Moreno’s spirits. This impressive 20-year-old is living out his dreams of working in the medical profession, while also serving as the primary provider for his two younger siblings, mother and grandmother.

Kevin and his family moved into our Sierra Vista community last October after spending years sharing a studio apartment. Living in that tiny space was stressful for the entire family and it was Kevin who sought out a solution.

“Finding a place to live has been the hardest challenge for my family,” Kevin said. “Moving to Sierra Vista was a huge relief.”

The Morenos are part of our Children’s Home Initiative (CHI). CHI is an intensive support program for extremely low-income families with young children. The rent CHI families pay is even further reduced and they receive on-site case management, employment assistance, and access to our education, financial stability and health programs.

Kevin was able to get a job at St. David’s Hospital as a patient care technician by enrolling in a training program he found with the help of his case manager. He is passionate about his new job and makes more than he did working in retail.

Thinking about what’s best for his family has been Kevin’s main focus over the last four years. When he was 16, Kevin’s father was incarcerated and it suddenly became his responsibility to step up.

Kevin worked long hours at various retail stores as a high school student. He successfully graduated but his family’s struggles didn’t ease up. His mother was pregnant with his younger sister when his father left and Kevin didn’t want his sister to grow up without space to grow and play. He researched their options and applied to Foundation Communities. The family soon found their home at Sierra Vista.

Along with the support he received to secure a higher-paying job, Kevin said that staff and volunteers have taught him how to better manage his money and save for unexpected events. His siblings are also thriving. His younger brother, Dylan, is doing well as a student at McCallum High School and his younger sister, Avia, is enrolled in our free pre-literacy program which prepares students for kindergarten.

Kevin plans to move up the ladder at St. David’s and has high hopes for his younger siblings. He credits his mother and his grandmother for their strength and faith in him. Just as he continues to do for his family, Kevin wants to take care of people in whatever way he can in his professional life.

“I believe I have a big heart,” Kevin said. We couldn’t agree more.

To learn more about our CHI program, please visit www.FoundCom.org/housing/at-risk-homeless-families/

Finding a New Sense of Purpose Through Work

September 30, 2016 | Posted in Housing |

After years of struggling with substance abuse and homelessness, Sharon Ford finally feels like her life is on the upswing. She moved into our Skyline Terrace community in 2012 and since then has maintained sobriety, developed deep friendships and gone back to work part-time through our supported employment program. Four days a week, Sharon delivers healthy food to our on-site food pantries.

“I look forward to getting up every day and going to work,” Sharon said. “My job keeps me busy and I love it because I get to meet different people.”

Sharon said her life was complete turmoil before she moved into Skyline Terrace. She saw her mother suffer from alcoholism when she was a child and her ex-husband introduced her to the drug that would derail her life. Sharon ultimately experienced homelessness on three separate occasions and her chronic health issues, including damaged discs in her neck and back, worsened.

She eventually got connected with a case manager at Caritas, one of our community partners, and that’s when she found a home with us. Having a stable place to live has allowed Sharon to make progress in treating her depression and anxiety, and build lasting relationships with friends and family. One of her favorite visitors is her four-year-old granddaughter who she loves taking to church and to fun activities around town.

Sharon is one of 15 residents that currently participate in our supported employment program. The program was created three years ago for residents who have unstable incomes, are unemployed or underemployed, and are in jeopardy of losing their housing because they’re having a hard time paying rent.

Our residents are employed in various roles. For example, some serve as drivers delivering food from the Central Texas Food Bank to our food pantries, as peer recovery coaches providing support to fellow residents through on-site recovery groups, or as community engagement specialists helping to gather resident input on health activities and community outings. The program was created in partnership with Austin Clubhouse and a grant from the City of Austin.

We’ve found that meaningful work empowers our residents not only to earn an income and stay housed, but to gain a sense of purpose, form friendships and improve their mental health and well-being. This is certainly true for Sharon, who is healthier and happier than ever.

“She takes such pride in her work, making sure that residents have fresh and healthy food to eat every week,” said Sofia Barbato, Supportive Services Program Supervisor. “The joy that she brings with her to work is infectious—she brightens our residents’ day every time she delivers food to the pantry.”