Born on San Antonio's west-side Guadalupe Street, infamous for crime, domestic violence and prostitution, Patty Villarreal faced the risk of ending up as a client of one of the staff social workers she now works alongside.
After her father-a long-time gang member-experienced a personal spiritual transformation and entered full-time pastoral ministry, Patty spent the rest of her childhood ministering with her parents in the low-income neighborhoods they lived in throughout his pastorates. She learned to provide spiritual and educational resources and to be a voice for the voiceless in Central/South Texas' Latino communities.
"I remember my mom working within a school system where kids who primarily spoke Spanish were labeled ‘dumb' and were placed in special-education classes, which is interesting because my mom dropped out of school in the third grade," Patty said. "She had an advocate spirit and worked to change that mindset. That's a part of my DNA."
Even as a child, Patty recognized that young Latinos were often dissuaded from pursuing higher education and setting career goals by challenges in school, language barriers and the pressure to stay close to a tight-knit family system. The pattern was clear.
Patty decided that she would dedicate her education and career to standing up within her culture and community and addressing the systemic issues in ways that would bring lasting change. She majored in sociology at Howard Payne University and later went on to earn her MSW from Carver School of Church Social Work.
"I wanted to be a social worker," she said, "but I also knew that I needed to do that so there would be more Latino models that I didn't have growing up."
In 2007, in a Buckner International collaboration with the Baptist University of the Americas, she helped launch the Latina Leadership Institute, a program designed to identify and train Latina leaders to serve as agents of change in their own communities. Today, Patty is the national director of church and community initiatives for Buckner and is recognized as one of the top Latina social workers in her field.
She believes that Latinos who become social workers can make invaluable contributions to their culture and communities. They have the credentials, the language and the cultural understanding needed to empower community members to see their environments transformed.
Baylor School of Social Work alumnus Andrew Trujillo is one such social worker. Born into a bicultural home, Andrew studied Spanish as a way to embrace his Hispanic heritage and with the hope that he could use his skill set to help others. When Andrew was in junior high, his uncle's struggling family moved in with his own. He remembers watching his parents minister and serve that family in the midst of their own financial struggle.
"God used those experiences to develop in me a heart to serve people, and social work is my avenue to do that," Andrew said.
After earning his MSW in 2011, Andrew was hired by Buckner to put his skills into practice in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, a place so impoverished that many families struggle just to survive.
Through an innovative community development program called the Community Transformation Center, Andrew works to give the children of the colonias a future by empowering their families through a holistic approach: from parenting classes to educational opportunities to helping them launch sustainable family businesses.
Although Buckner has been working in this region for more than 40 years, the Community Transformation Center is a new step-the first of its kind in the state-seeking to transform impoverished and at-risk neighborhoods into strong, thriving communities from the inside out.
"I want to be able to do deep, empowering work," Andrew reflected. "I want things to be community-driven, not forcing services and classes onto people. I want us to engage the community on a level where they can guide what we do."
As they develop this program, Andrew and one other case manager have begun to build relationships with the local families, helping them identify their own needs and strengths as they set goals for growth. Together, they implement the programs and classes the community identifies as true needs.
There are days when the enormity of the task can be daunting, but Andrew isn't facing this challenge alone. He looks to a social worker with a similar passion and calling and more than 30 years of experience: his colleague, friend and mentor, Patty Villarreal.