Turning A Job Into A Dream

August 24, 2016

Magaly learned to cook at a young age from her parents and grandfather. She has always loved the rich flavors in Cuban food. “The seasonings in Cuban food are beautiful,” she said.

Magaly owned her own restaurant in Cuba but had to rebuild her life when resettling in Austin in 2015. She dreamt of one day becoming a restaurant owner again in her new home.

 “Mike, my Employment Specialist, is the best. The first thing he did was listen to me. He heard my dream and has been so dedicated to making it possible,” Magaly said.

Caritas of Austin’s employment team helped Magaly get her first job as a cook at Habana Austin, a local Cuban restaurant. There she learned what types of food Austinites really liked. On her days off, she worked a second job in construction to save enough money to purchase a trailer in order to open her own food truck.

The Caritas team connected Magaly to the chef who teaches Caritas’ Food Industry Employment Training classes. Chef Victor has become a mentor to Magaly and helped her navigate the licensing and permitting process for opening a food truck. With your past support, Caritas was able to help Magaly purchase her grill, knives, and other cooking supplies for the trailer as well as cover the cost of permitting, license, and her initial food purchases.

“Without Caritas, I would not have been able to do any of this,” she said.

This June, Magaly opened her food truck, “La Cubanita”, in Round Rock. The truck operates in two locations, one of which is a stone yard where truck drivers welcome an authentic food option in an otherwise sparse area. 

 Her most popular item on the menu is a traditional pork sandwich called “pan con puerco asado”. At any hour of the day, there are people lined up to get a taste of Magaly’s Cuban cuisine.

She said her ultimate dream is to open a brick and mortar restaurant in the Austin area. For now though, she is ecstatic to be sharing her food with others.

“I cannot say enough about Caritas. They are great people who have been so persistent in helping me get to where I want to be,” said Magaly.

Your support is helping people find careers they love across all industries including hospitality and food, healthcare, manufacturing, and technology.  You are turning jobs into careers and empowering a path to lasting self-sufficiency for hundreds of individuals each year. Thank you!

Redefining Success: Sobriety

 August 16, 2016

 In our efforts to have a more authentic conversation about homelessness, we do not want to shy away from difficult topics. We hear often from community members that they see homeless individuals drinking and using illegal substances. That they should be more responsible if they want to change their situation. Or that they do not deserve to be housed until they get sober.

Caritas of Austin’s 10 years of experience in Permanent Supportive Housing has validated that the opposite is actually true: It is extremely difficult to get and remain sober until housing is first stabilized.

Supportive Housing client, Adrienne, said she used alcohol to numb her from the trauma and fear that goes with being homeless. “Homelessness is hell. It sucks you in and it’s really hard to get out of.

“Can you imagine what it would take for you to fall asleep on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk?” said case manager Becky, reflecting on the use of alcohol and substances while living on the streets.

Addressing substance use and abuse is always a priority for case managers, but one that can be a long, challenging process with ongoing setbacks.

“If someone has been homeless and self-medicating for 20 years, it’s unrealistic to think that a simple 30-day program will fix everything. It is really, really hard,” Becky added.

An important sign of progress is people seeing their substance use as problematic. As their life begins to stabilize in Supportive Housing, individuals see how alcohol and drugs negatively impact their new life path and goals.

Former client, French, said it was his children and his desire to build a stronger relationship with them that motivated him to get sober. After four years of sobriety, he says, “I am tickled every time I think about the fact that I have accomplished it.”

Becky says her work, in collaboration with Caritas’ Therapist, helps clients uncover the emotions behind turning to alcohol or drugs. “We work through what’s really behind it and start to develop healthier ways to cope with things.”

Caritas of Austin helps connect individuals to local support groups and has some grant funding to refer people to in- or outpatient rehabilitation facilities. Additional community support could help expand Caritas’ services to help promote sobriety.

French completed the 12-step program through Alcoholics Anonymous after being stably housed, and now he proudly serves as a sponsor along with volunteering daily at his local group. His long-term goal is to become a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor to help others find the victory he has.

Adrienne was able to complete a rehabilitation program on her journey toward sobriety. “I don’t have that emptiness anymore,” she said. She has been sober for a year and four months and is now focused on eating healthier and being more active. “You have to believe your life is worth it,” she added.

At Caritas of Austin, we believe that substance use is not always the root cause of homelessness; in fact, it is often a byproduct of the trauma of someone who has experienced homelessness.

The path to sobriety is difficult for any person, regardless of demographics, but especially so with the compounding issues faced by people who have been homeless. Every single small step toward sobriety is one to be celebrated as progress. Next in Redefining Success, we will discuss social connection.


Redefining Success: Housing is Healthcare

 August 2, 2016

 Homelessness is complex. The reasons a person becomes homeless are as multi-layered as the path out of homelessness. Our hope with this new blog series, Redefining Success, is to help the community better understand this complex journey.

While many think it’s as simple as getting someone housing and a job, we know that is far from true. Success involves a hundred small steps forward, and many steps backward in the process. We want to celebrate the many important milestones we see individuals take as they regain their lives and stability.

It may sound dramatic, but people in Austin are literally dying on the streets because of homelessness. Last year, 171 homeless individuals died. This is often a direct result of not accessing or having access to health care.

A lack of life structure, health insurance, and health knowledge cause most people experiencing homelessness to use the emergency room as their only form of health care. This is not only incredibly expensive to the community; it is the poorest way to maintain health because of its reactive nature.

Caritas of Austin’s Supportive Housing team knows this truth: housing is healthcare. Not until someone is stable in housing can they effectively begin to manage their health.

“It’s not unusual for someone who has experienced long-term homelessness to have not had medical care in years. It is hard to see the devastating effects on the body. When we start the process, it’s like a gauntlet… there’s just so much to be done,” explained Johanna, Caritas of Austin case manager.

Some of the most common physical health conditions seen are Hepatitis C, diabetes, high blood pressure, and major dental issues. Many also have undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues. Progress begins with case managers setting appointments and attending them with clients.

“After living a life with little structure, just making an appointment is really hard. We have to remind clients, take them to their appointments, print out calendars, and sometimes it still doesn’t happen, at first,” said Johanna.

Since being housed with Caritas of Austin in January, Ted has connected to Veterans Administration benefits for the first time in over 40 years. He will soon have a long-overdue hip surgery. He has also gotten glasses and much needed dental work. Because he was not able to access proper health care for many years, he is in the process of having all of his teeth pulled in order to get implants.

“Getting my teeth pulled is a big deal, but I view it all as a blessing,” said Ted. Over time, clients begin scheduling and attending appointments on their own. They see the benefits of maintaining their health in a proactive way.

Case manager Becky said this is a big step forward. “It makes me so happy and proud to see clients taking charge. It shows that they actually care about their health. They see the benefits, and they don’t want to get behind and go back to feeling bad.”

Many clients come to realize how bad their health really was. “I probably would have died on the streets if I hadn’t gotten into housing,” said Clay, Supportive Housing client.

“Health care is the first thing we address with clients. It’s so important, and we have to focus on it before we can work on other things,” added Becky. Next in Redefining Success, we will have an honest discussion about one of the most complex facets of progress: sobriety.


Refugee Wins National Employee of the Year Award

 June 15, 2016

 When Pa Lung started working at the DoubleTree Austin Hotel in 2007, he had no idea he was part of something very special. Pa fled his home country of Burma and came to Austin as a refugee in April of that year. He was going to school before leaving Burma, so he lacked the job experience needed to gain employment in the United States.

Around the same time, Caritas’ Employment team was exploring potential partnerships with local hotels as a platform to employee refugee clients. They approached the DoubleTree Austin Hotel about a pilot effort. Melissa Daniel, Director of Human Resources for the DoubleTree Austin Hotel, was finding recruiting for entry level positions to be challenging, which made her open to a potential partnership with Caritas of Austin.

“We were apprehensive about working with individuals who spoke almost no English and who had minimal cultural exposure to the United States, but with the promise of support from Caritas, we made the decision to hire 10 Burmese associates to work in housekeeping, the restaurant, and the kitchen,” said Daniel.

Pa was one of those first 10. Nine years later, he is now a banquet chef at the hotel and was recently awarded the Sage Hospitality Associate of the Year Award. Sage Hospitality is the DoubleTree’s management company, and Pa was selected out of nearly 6,000 associates nationwide.

“When I was hired in the kitchen, I didn’t know anything,” said Lung. “I started learning to cut vegetables, then to grill, and eventually to cook.”

Daniel nominated Pa Lung for this award, noting that he excels in caring for team members, guests, and the community. “Pa Lung lives by these values every day. He is very supportive of his team mates, in the kitchen, and with Burmese associates throughout the hotel. He delivers excellence in the product he prepares for guests, and he is a devoted leader in the Burmese community in Austin.

“I was very surprised to get the award,” said Lung. “I cannot even describe how happy it made me. I came here as a refugee with nothing, and my co-workers and managers have been so good to me.”

Since the placement of those first refugee clients, Caritas of Austin has built a robust in-house training and job placement program for the hospitality industry. Today, the industry makes up 30% of Caritas’ job placements.

 Daniel said the partnership has been a win/win. “It has been an experience that has benefited every aspect of our business. The diversity this program has brought to our team has been culturally enriching. Watching newly arrived refugees go from low income housing to buying cars and homes has been inspirational. It is wonderful that we are able to help the community by providing jobs, training and growth opportunities while supporting our business with quality and engaged associates.”

Pa Lung does his part to encourage newly arriving refugees that they can have the same success he has. “I tell them just to work hard, don’t feel down, and you can be successful too.”

A Couple's Resilience in the Face of Homelessness

May 25, 2016


 Last year at this time, James and Kathleen were living in a tent along the Greenbelt, trying to survive Austin’s near-daily rains and frequent flooding.

“The weather was really tough for being homeless. We kept having to move our tent farther up the hill so it wouldn’t flood. We had tarps, but the rain was so much that it collapsed our tent,” said James.

The weather wasn’t the only adversity they faced. Kathleen was hospitalized after getting over 300 ant bites, raccoons regularly ate their food, and others living nearby even burned their possessions.

 “We were just in survival mode. When we finally got connected to Caritas, everything changed,” he said.

In early weeks, their case manager, Aimee, brought necessities like water, food, bus passes, and dry sleeping bags, out to James and Kathleen’s campsite. With no income and limited rental history, housing the couple proved very difficult.

Thanks to the citywide initiative to end veteran homelessness, Caritas of Austin partnered with a property owner who rented all four units of a property to veterans. James served in the Marine Corps for from 1977-1983, and he and Kathleen were fortunate enough to move in to one of the units.

After a year and a half of homelessness, the couple moved from their tent into their own apartment last September. “Having a bed and a shower… I can’t even say how great it is. Knowing our food and possessions are safe too is really nice,” James said as he reflected on moving in.

Stable housing was just the beginning of their journey. James and Aimee worked with DARS and Easter Seals to help James gain steady employment.  Kathleen also had many unaddressed health issues including lupus, diabetes, and high blood pressure. During their period of homelessness, Kathleen was not able to take her insulin and her medical care was primarily in cases of emergency.

In January, James proudly began working at Flyrite Chicken. “I love it. Everyone is so friendly here,” he said. Kathleen has also made significant progress maintaining her health in recent months.

 “James and Kathleen have taught me so much about moving forward.  That whatever today brings, they are focused on making it the best. I have laughed with them and cried with them. Together, they are a force,” said Aimee.

James cannot say enough about Aimee’s dedication to their success. “There is no one better than Aimee. She visited us in the hospital, at the campsite, and even on her day off. We consider her to be much more than just a case manager.”

As James and Kathleen have always done so well, they are looking forward. “I hope that we can stay stable where we are living, and I hope to become a supervisor at Flyrite,” James said.


Refugee Children's Orientation Sets Students Up For Success

June 20, 2016

 Being the new student in school is never easy. When you’re a new student who has never set foot in an American classroom, you face a unique set of challenges, particularly when you have spent most of your life living in a refugee camp or a country torn apart by war.

This is the reality for 989 refugee students in the Austin Independent School District. They come from different places – Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Burma, just to name a few. Despite varying cultures, many have a similar struggle of assimilating to the American way of schooling. The lack of familiarity with this new school environment, coupled with the added stress of being in a new country, leaves many students feeling overwhelmed during this time of transition.

“We started hearing different stories from refugee families,” says Houmma Garba, Education Services Program Manager at Caritas of Austin, “Kids were fighting and getting into trouble. Parents and teachers were frustrated.”

Students were equally frustrated. Many norms and expectations that American students grow up with – such as remembering to close a bathroom door or sitting still in a classroom – weren’t well-known concepts to refugee students. 

As Caritas staff heard more of these stories, they began to recognize that refugee children experienced just as much culture shock as their parents. Caritas of Austin already has a cultural orientation program that teaches adult refugees about American culture and norms, transportation, finances, employment, and other tools they need in order to thrive in the United States. Garba and her team realized that an orientation specifically for children may prove equally valuable.

“We wanted to help them with their culture shock and focus on the main points kids should know as they enter school,” Garba said. Caritas of Austin’s education team researched the impacts of the refugee experience on children, including studying successful refugee education programs for school-aged children that had been implemented in other countries. They also spoke with Austin Independent School District teachers, to learn what refugee students were struggling with and how the program could be an asset for the teachers as well. 

The new curriculum covers everything from an introduction to U.S. geography and the educational system to emotional intelligence. Topics range from personal hygiene and physical education to peer pressure and how to handle an emergency. Garba points out that the orientation reduces the amount of time teachers have to explain these things to their new students, and can focus more on helping them catch up academically.

“When you have rules, you know what to do and what not to do,” one eleven-year-old student chimes in as the students discuss the importance of rules and regulations in a classroom. 

Since the implementation of the new curriculum, children have shown excitement around sharing thoughts about the new way of life they are discovering, and share the knowledge they already know. Sitting in the classroom with these students, it becomes clear just how similar they are to their American peers, in many ways.

With the little bit of extra confidence and knowledge gained from the Refugee Children’s Orientation program, refugee students are given the opportunity to truly shine in their new home.