Keila Vasquez, 20, and partner Luis Olais, 21, and their two children — 6-month-old Noah and 3-year-old Delilah — feel more like a real family every day. Last month, they moved into their first apartment. It was filled with donations from the community, including new furniture from Star Furniture.
“It has changed our lives,” Vasquez says. We finally get to do everything for ourselves.”
The Vasquez Olais family was one of 12 families featured in the 2016 Statesman Season for Caring program. When we first introduced readers to the family, they were living in one bedroom of her mother’s apartment. Olais works, but a connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, limits some of his job opportunities. Vasquez worried how they would support their two children and if they would ever be able to move out on their own. She dreamed of one day training to become a hairstylist.
Donations from the community poured in for this family and the other 11 featured families. The 2016 Season for Caring program was the best year ever, raising $668,572.32 in cash contributions and $172,187.96 in donations of goods and services. The total donations of $840,760.28 beat the next best year, 2007, by more than $60,000 and raised $103,000 more than the year before. Since 1999, Season for Caring has raised more than $10.5 million to help the community.
“On behalf of the campaign and hundreds of Central Texas families, thank you to our readers and business partners,” Statesman Publisher Susie Gray said when she announced in January that Season for Caring had hit a record.
Donations came from many different sources. A $100,000 matching grant from the Sheth family brought in $197,194.21 from the community during the two weeks the grant was in place in addition to the Sheth s ’ $100,000 donation. Whataburger kicked off the program with a $25,000 grant, and P. Terry’s Burger Stand raised $31,640 during its Giving Back Day on Dec. 10.
The community bought $35 tins for the Driskill Hotel’s Cookies for Caring event and raised $8,000. Offices and friends pooled money to help families, and a class of fifth-graders at Lake Pointe Elementary did extra chores to raise $360 for one Season for Caring family and have expanded the project to help another family in its community.
Businesses also came together to provide goods and services, including Factory Mattress, which donated $28,000 worth of new beds to the families, and Capital Area Dental Foundation dentists, which helped provide dental care.
The community also donated gently used cars, furniture and appliances, as well as thousands of presents for Christmas.
Season for Caring funds always help the featured families first, but then the 12 local nonprofit service agencies that nominated them are also able to help hundreds of their clients throughout the year with basic needs including rent, utilities, transportation, medical bills, groceries and job training opportunities.
Vasquez is closer to her dream of becoming a hairstylist. She and her agency, SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone), are working with Avenue Five Institute cosmetology school to figure out funding possibilities for her to go to school. In the meantime, Season for Caring funds are paying for the apartment for this year.
While the 2016 year was the biggest ever for donations, it also was the most sorrow-filled. On Dec. 2, the four children of Rosalba Martínez-López lost their mother to cervical cancer. She was 37. The community and Season for Caring funds helped the family with her funeral, presents for Christmas and other items on their wish list. A fellow client of her agency, Care Communities, donated a mobile home to the family after he died.
Jacob Rodriguez-Lopez’s story touched a lot of readers. The 26-year-old was mourning the loss of his wife to cervical cancer in August and wondering how he would be able to make ends meet to raise his 4-year-old daughter, Emely, who had Down syndrome. Then on Dec. 9, Emely was diagnosed with leukemia and started treatment, but soon she needed a ventilator to help her breathe. She died Jan. 5.
The community helped Rodriguez-Lopez with the funeral, which was earlier this month. Palm Valley Lutheran Church in Round Rock donated the space, and the Threshold Choir donated its services. An anonymous family offered to help with other expenses, including flying family members to Austin and burial expenses. That family also had previously donated a gently used van and money to pay for rent and utilities for a year.
Before Emely was diagnosed, Rodriguez-Lopez had wanted to find a business mentor to help him start his own painting business. Marty Butler of the branding company Butler Bros. has been that mentor and also helped with the funeral.
Sheila King, 49, and her family were reeling from the loss of her husband and her mother to cancer in September and her 15-year-old son to suicide in July. Volunteers helped clean out their Dripping Springs-area home to make way for new furniture from Austin’s Couch Potatoes. The fresh start continues. Son Michael, 26, and his wife, Lena, 20, recently welcomed son Xander, who will start life with everything a new baby needs.
Liliana De La Paz, 30, and Juan Martínez Domínguez, 29, and their boys Juan Diego, 9, and Jésus, 3, who use wheelchairs, could soon have a more accessible home. Commercial real estate construction company SpawGlass has agreed to make renovations to it, but first, real estate attorney Mark Hawkins of Armbrust & Brown is working on settling the title to the home, and immigration attorney Jeff Peek of Peek & Toland is working on their immigration cases. A wheelchair-accessible van has been donated to them and just needs the family to have a legal means to drive it.
Terry Markland, 65, has seen his life improve dramatically in the past two years after being homeless and unable to walk. Family Eldercare found him a place to live, and now Season for Caring donations have filled his empty apartment with furniture. Austin Founders Lions Club gave him eyeglasses, and National Seat and Mobility donated a motorized wheelchair.
Walking also was difficult for Uliya Fazal Ahmad, 48, who came with her five children to the United States last year from Afghanistan by way of Pakistan. Her ankle was damaged as she was trying to protect her 14-year-old daughter from having to marry a man she did not think was a suitable match. Her agency, Caritas of Austin, has started to look into what can be done to help her ankle. In the meantime, the family received gently used furniture to fill their apartment and new laptops to help them learn English.
Francisco Zuñiga-Echeverria, 28, who grew up in foster care and was homeless, needed new glasses and hearing aids to make it easier to attend college and find employment. Saleem Assaf of Better Hearing Center and Northwest Hills Eye Care made that possible. South by Southwest staff also completed many items on his wish list.
Ashley McGill, 31, who has had debilitating neurological problems since a car accident two years ago, knows what it means to have an outpouring of love from one group of people. Art and theater students at Grisham Middle School donated most of the items on her wish list, including present after present for her children Alyanna, 10, and Preston, 6.
One photo of Deloris Fields, 27, singing to her son Connor, 1, touched so many people. Fields has stage 4 breast cancer and wasn’t expected to make it more than a few weeks after it was discovered in 2015. She continues to treat it and take each setback and milestone as they come. Many of Fields’ wishes will come true throughout the year as Breast Cancer Resource Center uses Season for Caring funds to make them happen. The agency is still looking for a first-floor apartment for her in Taylor and a reliable used car.
Maricela Garcia, 42, wanted to become a certified nursing assistant to better support her son, Raymond, 9, who has Renpenning syndrome, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Health Career Centers Inc. donated a training program to her, and a reader donated a car to help her get to school and eventually a job. Now Garcia is learning to drive.
“Thank you so much for all these donations,” Garcia said when she got her Factory Mattress beds. “That’s wonderful.”