In a previous story, I covered the story of Isabel Huerta’s family, and her desire to bring justice to children with special needs. In Austin, TX, she’s doing just that.
Sammy’s House opened as a place for children with and without special needs can learn and grow from each other. With different perspectives, all children benefit.
Isabel Huerta lost her son Sammy, who had special needs, when he was very young. The impact his life had on her future was irrevocable. She opened Sammy’s House, a school where children with and without special needs can coexist and learn from each other. As well, she adopted two children. both with special needs, and devoted her life to raising them thoughtfully and lovingly.
Isabel’s young child, Gabby, is 17-years old. Gabby is non-verbal and spends much of her day-to-day life feeling unnoticed or unseen. However, on Miss Sweetheart day, Gabby feels like the star. Miss Sweetheart day happens every year, and it is a pageant for people with special needs, from 0 to 99, can come and feel like the star.
Isabel’s goal in raising her children is to know that they can experience the fullness of life and joy, not held back by their special needs.
“I finally feel like I’m a normal part of society again. No one is looking at me anymore,” Mary Ellen said.
That sensation is rare for her. After spending seven years in prison, Mary-Ellen just wanted to feel unseen. Texas Reach Out Ministries has given her that opportunity.
Texas Reach Out Ministries (TROM) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated men and women stay out of prison by pursuing a Christian faith.
In most circumstances, a prison sentence will follow you. Often, it will wrangle another one out of you.
In Texas, people leave prison and state jail with a $100 check, a 10-day supply of medication, a list of community resources, the clothes they are wearing, and a bus voucher. Halfway houses, as they are commonly known, are the next step for many people. They often resemble the prison that the formerly incarcerated just left. These homes are often shut down because of overcrowding or unclean living conditions. People are made to check in and out every time they leave. Drugs and alcohol are banned, but without positive influences encouraging the participants to abstain, they are easily accessible.
TROM’s alumni stories juxtapose starkly with the normal fates of people after prison. The program is based on an individual relationship with Jesus Christ, discipline, and mutual understanding. Participants are empowered to pursue their faith relationships, and then to establish job stability, family reunification and freedom from drugs and alcohol.
The homes they are in are well-stocked, private and accessible to each participant anywhere from three months to three years.
“God chose TROM for me while I was in prison. I just followed him here,” Carla, a member of the Lydia house, said.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition claims that Texas has a recidivism rate (people returning to prison) of 21.4% after three years. The lower their recidivism rates, the more funding the state receives. However, these numbers are misleading; with the inclusion of recidivism rates in state jails, the numbers are closer to 70% recidivism for people on parole going through typical halfway houses. These state jails house those incarcerated for two years or less. In contrast, the success rates for TROM are staggering; only 25% of the total participants (over 2,000 men and women) have returned to prison after opening its doors in 2000. Without an agenda to prove, just souls to care for, Texas Reach Out is able to effectively change individual lives, and help them leave the prison system forever.
In 1987, David Peña was released from prison. He had met God while serving time and his life gradually began to change. Formerly, he had been addicted to drugs and alcohol, but now he felt asked to serve the population he used to be a part of.
“He told God, “If you save me from this situation, I will serve you with my life,” Margie Peña, David’s wife and director of the women’s ministry, said. “It took him a while to follow through on that.”
He spent the next twelve years of his life working as an addiction counselor for Texas War on Drugs and Austin Recovery, but felt God tugging him to fully surrender his life. Even though he believed God had saved him from the life he lived before, he experienced how hard it was for men and women to get out of prison and not recommit. He himself still struggled to settle down and fully turn away from his old lifestyle. He did and does believe that the only way through is with God.
“One night he was driving home from work and the power of God overtook him. He had to pull aside. God reminded him and showed him that people like him, people that were incarcerated, needed ministry. When I looked at him, he was different,” Margie Peña said.
In a vision from God in 1999, he received the idea for Texas Reach Out Ministries. He saw the plan for 18 homes in which men and women would grow in their faiths and achieve stability after prison. With Margie’s help, they started by opening the Joshua house in 2000. The name of the first house symbolized them walking into the unknown, trusting God, just as Joshua had walked blindly into the promised land of Israel.
In 2001, the organization became an official nonprofit. Within a year, it had attracted a board and investors. Slowly, the ministry expanded to be the eight homes it is today.
“If we start something, and have all the means to accomplish it, we are probably just doing our own thing. But if we start something, and have none of the requirements or tools to make it happen, that is probably God calling us,” David Peña said.
Even with the help and prayers of so many volunteers, the adjustment from prison is rarely easy. Participants often try to solve problems or situations the same way they learned in prison.
“At the beginning of my stay, I was crazy. I was restless and could not settle down. I went to prison at 19 and left at 38. No one tells you that you will feel the same age going in as coming out,” Criselda, member of the Ruth house, said.
The programs structure allows participants time and space to learn new patterns, with guidance from volunteers who are patient with their progress.
“She is different than when I first met her,” Mary Ann, Criselda’s mentor said, “She’s relaxed, settled and more disciplined. I knew from the beginning that I would be walking through a lot of new experiences with her.”
All participants are required to have at least one job, attend bible studies, join a church and be mentored by an older volunteer.
“I thought I would be coming out to this strict, controlled, harsh environment, but it wasn’t. It was relaxed, I make my own choices. There’s some rules, but the rules are there to protect you and build you up.” – Heather, member of the Lydia House, said.
After they meet their requirements, they can pursue their own passions. They can purchase cars, visit with their family, and pursue individual friendships. David and Margie see this concurrent structure and freedom as the most effective way for participants to ease back into life after prison.
“When I got arrested 10 years ago, I was nine months pregnant. Twenty-six days later on April 30th, 2009, I gave birth to a little girl. She doesn't know about me right now, but I know that someday God will restore me to her just like he did with my oldest two children. I’ve been reunited with my son again after nine-and-a-half years. I’m a new grandma. I will celebrate 10 years sober in April, and I’m finishing up culinary school,” Mary Ellen, member of the Ruth house, said.
The participants in TROM go on to be ministers, authors and successful businessmen. Seventy-five percent of TROM’s members are able to avoid recidivism and leave their time in TROM having learned the skills to stay out of prison.
“I went to go visit family in San Antonio this past weekend, but I could not wait to get home. I grew up with those people, but they don’t feel like home anymore. The things they enjoy are no longer who I want to be, or what I want to set my sites on,” Jennifer, a member of the Maria house, said. “I’m really happy I found another family. I am a part of this family.”
The motto of Texas Reach Out is Free Indeed, and it is the foundation for their ministry. If they can remember they are mentally and spiritually free, then they can remain bodily free.
“God told ‘Nothing is impossible with me. If you would only move out of the way, I could do in one day what it would take a lifetime for you to do.” Margie Peña said.
I chose Texas 4000 because I am one of them. I am part of this bold, brave, adventurous ragtag group of people whose tie is only cancer. Cancer is the ugliest connection I could imagine, but it elicits a stronger bond than most any other. Together, we will bike 4500 miles across the country this summer, raising money for cancer, raising awareness, sharing the stories of survivors and victims, and simultaneously kicking ass. My team is a collection of unlikely folks; a male model, a 4’10’’ human, a vixen. It has formed relationships and unlikely friendships, forced us to prayer, and built self confidence. Over 18-months these individuals have fundraised, physically trained, volunteered, shaved their heads, and fallen in love with the mission of Texas 4000 and the uniqueness of each individual member. They are selfless in nature, truly kind, and their uniqueness often gets shrouded in the mission itself. It is a worthy reason to be forgotten, but I wanted to capture their individuality through these photos. They have all taught me something through their own person; they have shared stories of heartache, joy, self-confidence, and tenacity. They have made me cry, push myself up hills, and fight for their stories to be shared as much as we share the stories of cancer’s victims. Each of these people are affected by cancer, but will not let cancer destroy their confidence or hope in humanity. They were just as willing to help me with me project as to bike 100+ miles every Saturday, and 4500 miles this summer, and that is why I want to celebrate them.