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.”

Supporting Dreams in the St. Elmo Neighborhood

July 14, 2016 | Posted in Education |

Jacky Quezada is working hard to shape her own destiny. The 19-year-old sophomore at Texas State University is the first in her family to attend college and serves as a role model for her younger brother and sister. Jackie and her family moved to our Sierra Ridge community in the St. Elmo neighborhood the summer before her 5th grade year, and her mom and siblings still live there. Finding Foundation Communities changed the lives of everyone in the family by offering an affordable, stable home. Jacky credits the move with helping all of them envision a brighter future.

“It’s an incredibly positive environment, with a lot of resources,” Jacky said about living at Sierra Ridge. “It defi­nitely changed the way we look at things.”

Jacky’s parents split up when she was young and her mother had to work long hours as a nanny and cleaning houses to support her three children. When her mother was at work, Jacky took care of her younger siblings – feeding them, bathing them and putting them to bed. She had to grow up very fast.

When they moved to Sierra Ridge, Jacky and her siblings discovered a support system at the on-site Community Learning Center where they attended our after-school and summer learning programs. Jacky said going to the Learning Center made it easier for her to make friends at St. Elmo Elementary since about half of the school’s students live at our Sierra Ridge or Sierra Vista communities. She also discovered that the Learning Center staff‑ provided encouragement and assistance whenever she needed it, including when she was applying for college.

“The staff‑ helped me through the whole college application process, like proofreading my essays, and making sure I was on track,” Jacky said.

Thinking of others and wanting the best for them is second nature to Jacky, who served as a Learning Center volunteer and continues to mentor her siblings. Jacky’s brother will be a freshman at Texas A&M in the fall and her sister is not too far behind.

The support and guidance Jacky received at Sierra Ridge exemplifies­ the importance of our e‑fforts in the St. Elmo neighborhood. With Sierra Ridge and Sierra Vista directly across the street from each other, we have had the unique opportunity to help uplift an entire neighborhood of parents and students. Our goal is to provide families with a pipeline of support from pre-k to college and beyond.

For now, Jacky is soaking up her time as an independent ­ first-generation college student. She is majoring in business with a minor in fashion merchandising and hopes to attend graduate school and, one day, be her own boss. She said others who will be the ­first in their families to go to college should remember to set goals and stay positive.

“Don’t doubt yourself, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and keep working hard,” Jacky said.

Free Minds Inspires Capital Studios Resident to Return to College

June 8, 2016 | Posted in Education |

It was a flyer on Kyle Fuqua’s door at Capital Studios that piqued his interest in our Free Minds program. The 31-year-old personal trainer started but never finished college due to serious missteps that landed him in legal trouble and a struggle with substance abuse. Free Minds, a free two semester college humanities course run in partnership with UT and ACC, presented just the right opportunity for Kyle to return to school. Almost 100 people applied and Kyle was accepted into the class of 20 students. His life has already changed as a result.

“There’s a magic in that class,” Kyle said about Free Minds. “We have the best professors and a glue-like bond between the classmates. We all want to see each other succeed.”

Kyle is part of Free Minds’ 10th graduating class and will join his classmates as they walk across the stage in their cap and gown this month. Each of the graduates will earn six college credits at ACC. For many students, the road to Free Minds isn’t an easy one. Free Minds is intended for adults living on low to moderate incomes who have faced barriers to education.

Kyle’s challenges began when he was 18. He committed a burglary and a robbery and was sent to prison for three years. Shortly after being released, he started using drugs. Kyle felt his life spiraling out of control and turned to
a supportive group of family and friends to help him get sober. That was almost seven years ago. Now, Kyle is living
a stable, healthy life as a resident at Capital Studios in downtown Austin and spends his days motivating others to achieve their fitness and nutrition goals.

He works at two different gyms in the Austin area. The can-do attitude Kyle employs at his job is also evident in the Free Minds classroom.

“Kyle takes his work seriously and has high standards for himself,” Vive Griffith, the director of Free Minds, said. “In many ways, he’s lifted the standards for the entire class.”

Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and Plato’s The Republic ultimately helped open Kyle’s mind to new ways of thinking. Building on the enthusiasm and support from Free Minds, Kyle said he plans to enroll at ACC in the fall and is considering different degree options. He has set big goals for himself and is determined to successfully finish college so he can pursue a career he loves.

“I’m not content with just earning a paycheck,” Kyle said. “I want to do something that I’m passionate about, something that is challenging.”

For more information about Free Minds, please visit www.FreeMindsAustin.org.

Insure Central Texas Helps Mom Access Cancer Treatment

April 18, 2016 | Posted in Financial Stability, Health |

When the Mohsin family arrived in the United States, they were prepared for a new way of life. What they weren’t prepared for was Sadaf’s breast cancer diagnosis. Despite the shocking news, Sadaf was able to immediately
undergo treatment because her family had signed up for affordable health insurance through our Insure Central Texas program.

“My treatment is completed because of this service,” Sadaf said.

Sadaf and her husband, Sajjad, visited one of our Insure Central Texas sites a handful of times and were guided through the entire health insurance enrollment process by our committed volunteers. The family chose an insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act marketplace that made sense for them and got help finding the right doctor and a hospital close to home.

“It’s been a very good and personal relationship,” Sajjad said. “The way [Insure Central Texas] has helped us is amazing.”

We recently wrapped up our third enrollment season. In total, we’ve signed up over 16,000 individuals for healthcare coverage since 2014.

Our trained and certified volunteers help families, like the Mohsins, enroll in health insurance, and also assist people with using their insurance, troubleshooting problems between providers and insurance companies and, ultimately, accessing the health care they need.

Sadaf, Sajjad and their two children moved to Austin last August. They decided to uproot from their home country of Pakistan primarily out of concern for their children’s safety and because they wanted their kids to have more educational opportunities.

As academics and IT developers, Sadaf and Sajjad decided Austin was the best place to relocate. The couple has started their own software development company and they are actively looking for work projects. One project that has taken on a particularly personal mission is a video game Sadaf developed for children with cancer.
The path ahead for the Mohsins isn’t necessarily an easy one—they are still looking for full-time employment—but the family feels thankful for the supportive community and resources available here in Austin. This includes Insure Central Texas, as well as other services like free tax preparation offered by Foundation Communities.

“All of this has given us a peace of mind,” Sajjad said.

To learn more about Insure Central Texas, visit www.InsureCentralTX.org.