By Jonathan Baker
Family Support Services’ work to heal the hurting
If you live in the Texas Panhandle, there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has been helped in one way or another by the staff of Family Support Services. The organization’s reach is so wide ranging, its efforts so varied and work so tireless that it’s no exaggeration to say Amarillo would be a bleak place without it. From the counseling it provides to those suffering from depression, eating disorders or anxiety, to diligent assistance to victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, to its work with veterans recovering from PTSD, Family Support Services leaves no stone unturned in its pursuit to heal hidden – and sometimes very visible – wounds.
A Lasting Legacy
Family Support Services traces its origins back to 1908, when it began its existence as a traveler’s aid society called, first, Associated Charities, then later the Social Welfare Association. The organization was founded by a group of Amarillo businessmen who felt compelled to help those on the High Plains who were suffering.
“Over the years,” says Jim Womack, CEO of Family Support Services, “we’ve changed names and split up and come back together. More recently, back in the ’80s, what was called the Domestic Violence Council merged with the Rape Crisis Center to form the Rape Crisis-Domestic Violence Center. And then they merged with the Family Guidance Center. That was in 1993. Ever since then, it’s been Family Support Services.”
Womack has been serving as Family Support Services’ chief for six years, though he also worked for the organization back in the ’90s. “It was a life-changing experience,” he says. Before originally coming to FSS, Womack had been working in the criminal justice system. What he saw at Family Support Services – the compassion, the healing – changed him forever. “It helped me with my personal mission of wanting to help people.”
Currently, Family Support Services has five departments: Emergency and Transitional Housing Services, Behavioral Health and Wellness, Crisis Response and Support, Education and Prevention, and the Veterans Resource Center. Through these five outlets, the organization is able to perform a remarkable amount of assistance in the region, from prevention to post-trauma recovery services and everything in between.
“We had four departments last year,” explains Womack. “But then we split off our safe house from those four, in order to be able to put more of a focus on our shelter services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.” The creation of the Emergency and Transitional Housing Services Department has allowed the organization to dedicate an entire team to those efforts. FSS has also recently started a transitional housing program for those same survivors.
A House and a Home
The newly created Emergency Housing Services Division provides safety, food and necessities to individuals and families in urgent need of protection from violence. In addition to providing shelter and three meals a day, the department offers nearly every kind of help you can imagine, from individual counseling to support groups, equine therapy, children’s groups, cooking and recipe events, job searches, addiction recovery, educational guidance and more.
How to Help
Donations are always welcome. Givers can either donate by calling or dropping in at the organization’s downtown office (at 1001 S. Polk St.), or they can donate online at www.fss-ama.org. That funding could go toward any of the myriad aspects of FSS’s mission. “For example,” says Jim Womack, “we don’t have funding to purchase food for any of the veterans who come into our VRC, who may be homeless. We’ve been buying it out of our own pockets, sometimes, so that they’ll have a snack or lunch.” Food isn’t just provided through funding, though. “We’ve had volunteers come and do cookouts for our veterans, and also for our safe house.” Other needs include unused pillows and blankets for the safe house, as well as toiletry items for the safe house and the Veterans Resource Center. “That’s a big one,” notes Womack.
The department’s director, Michelle Shields, says that most often these services begin through the hotline, where the caller will be given time to explore which direction they want to take after an assault or traumatic event. “Our services are all victim centered,” Shields says. “We believe that the client is the expert on their life, and we are there to support them in whatever choices they make. We educate about the cycle of violence, and power and control, give them a safety plan and provide resources for them. We have a 24-bed safe house, staffed 24 hours with advocates, case managers, a manager and maintenance person. We accept men, women and children seeking safety, and we have a pet shelter as well. During their time at the safe house, survivors will be encouraged to work on their healing, they’ll be provided with support and resources to create a life free of abuse.
“On average,” says Shields, “a single person will stay 30 to 45 days, and a family 45 to 90 days, based on their needs.” In that time, Shields often sees people transformed. “I love having a deeper conversation with someone and reminding them of their worth.”
The safe house, which for years was called the Domestic Violence Shelter, opened in the ’80s with the help of the Junior League of Amarillo. However, the facility’s philosophy has changed since it opened. For example, Family Support Services has recently placed more of a focus on shepherding people through the trauma recovery process. “Years ago,” explains Womack, “when survivors would come out of a domestic violence situation and come into the safe house, they would have to live by certain rules. And if they didn’t meet those rules, there was a chance they might be asked to leave. [Now], we’ve kind of flipped that. The safe house is their home and we’re here to help. We try to make it more of a home-based environment, so they’re not coming out of one controlling environment and going directly into another one.” In addition, Family Support Services changed the name from Domestic Violence Shelter because the safe house serves other groups besides domestic violence survivors. “We’re also serving human trafficking survivors, and we’re serving some sexual assault survivors, so we wanted to reflect that.”
Another important change to the safe house in recent years has to do with the site’s secrecy: “Everybody said, ‘Your shelter needs to be hidden from everybody,’” says Womack. “But what we’ve realized is that the people who were finding out where the shelter was were the people we didn’t want to find out where it was.” Womack was quick to note that the shelter has never seen a violent attack from an abuser; nevertheless, the secret location seemed to come with more drawbacks than benefits. So today, FSS is trying to bring the shelter out of the shadows. “We’re trying to open up awareness of our safe house now. So we do community tours with the United Way and some other foundations, to let community members know about us … A lot of people are surprised to learn we have a safe house. We need to get the word out about that.”
Like many elements of the Family Support Service operation, the Behavioral Health and Wellness Division has undergone some name changes. Once known as the clinical division, the Behavioral Health section of FSS’s mission focuses on counseling services and treatment of emotional and trauma disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. “We have highly qualified counselors on staff,” says Womack. “And a lot of them focus on trauma issues, like survivors of assault or survivors of a homicide in the family.”
But FSS doesn’t just focus on the hardest of travails. “We also provide marriage counseling, family counseling, play therapy,” says Womack. The Behavioral Health Division even offers trauma-informed yoga therapy, a no-cost evidence-based therapy to help people who have had traumatic experiences.
In addition to counseling services, the Behavioral Health and Wellness Division also offers a safe location for supervised visitations, as well as a Battering Intervention and Prevention Program, which provides abusers on probation with tools to end the cycle of abuse, whether physical, verbal or emotional. The BHW Division also offers equine therapy, a form of experiential treatment that involves interactions between patients and horses. Equine Therapy has been shown to be successful in treating everything from ADD to dementia, autism and depression. “It’s really blown up over the last couple of years,” says Womack. “It’s a very effective and popular therapy.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Behavioral Health Division will work with clients to ensure they can afford treatment. “The difference between our practice and that of most others is that we have grants and United Way funding that allow us to offer services on a sliding scale basis,” explains Amy Hord, the division’s director. “We are also providers for insurance, Medicaid, some Employee Assistance Programs, and have many contracts with community partners.”
The Crisis Services Division performs some of the most vital and urgently necessary work at the agency. The department works with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, providing crisis intervention, resources, support and advocacy. As the division’s director, Kathy Tortoreo, explains, “We provide community education on the topics of domestic violence and sexual assault, and provide certified volunteer advocates to victims of sexual assault at the hospital emergency room and the Bridge Children’s Advocacy Center, following reports of rape and sexual assault.”
“One of the main duties of the Crisis Services advocates,” says Womack, “is, if a sexual assault survivor goes out to the hospital for a sexual assault exam, our advocates will go to the hospital and help the survivor and their family through the exam process. Sometimes it’s just holding their hand through the process.”
These advocates also often help with legal issues. “If there needs to be a protective order in place,” says Womack, “our staff will help with that, guiding the survivor through that process.” Advocates will also supervise support groups for these survivors. Thus, the FSS advocates serve as both a first line of contact and a steady ally throughout the recovery process. “We’ve found that support groups are very important for trauma survivors,” notes Womack. “Whether it’s domestic violence or sexual assault, or within the veteran’s program. It’s a very effective way to help people heal.”
Domestic and sexual violence remain a continuing problem, not just in the Texas Panhandle but nationwide. Sadly, notes Tortoreo, “our community has the dubious distinction of having some of the highest rates of both domestic and sexual violence in Texas. The Crisis Department must respond to victims and work in tandem with the Domestic Violence Coalition and Sexual Assault Response Team to continue to investigate how these partnerships as a whole can reduce these rates in our community.”
Tortoreo says the most rewarding part of the job, for her, is “watching victims become empowered on their own through their adversity, to become stronger and more resilient, and to overcome their pasts.”
“It can take a survivor seven or eight times of going back before they actually leave [for good],” adds Womack. “So we don’t say ‘You can’t come back.’ We’ll give them the tools, a safety plan on how to escape if it happens again. We help them through that process and don’t shame them for going back to somebody.”
An Ounce of Prevention
As mentioned, the Education and Prevention Department has grown to become the largest of the five divisions under the Family Support Services umbrella. The effort is based around “trying to head off problems before they develop,” says Womack.
“We work with whole families at risk for child abuse, substance misuse, violence and poverty by providing them with intensive parent coaching, counseling, social supports and educational attainment options,” explains Brandi Reed, who has been FSS’s director of education for nearly 13 years. In addition, says Reed, the education division provides more than 5,000 Panhandle teens with prevention education in the areas of teen dating violence, sexual harassment, conflict resolution, cyber safety, human trafficking and bullying. The department also provides those same teens with support groups, self-care strategies and connections to like-minded peers. And when an at-risk youth or a kid with an incarcerated parent needs a mentor, the Education Division will provide that, too. These mentors, says Reed, “increase their odds of graduating from high school by giving them the confidence and self-esteem to create big goals.”
The list of FSS education programs goes on, and Reed is happy to list them. The amount of preventative work being done by the organization is truly staggering. “We implement youth leadership programs and parent education workshops in after school programs, community centers and on low income housing developments to prevent unplanned pregnancies and STIs. We’re implementing unique intervention strategies, such as beat making, filmmaking and dance, working with today’s youth to address tough topics. Our community mobilizers are organizing the first-ever anti-trafficking collaborative in the Panhandle.”
One of the reasons for the Education and Prevention Division’s explosion in size in recent years is the launch, a few years ago, of a Child Abuse Prevention Program. This exhaustive and intensive program sees advocates visiting the homes of children who are at risk of abuse. As Womack explains, ”[the advocates] help the parents learn coping techniques, parenting skills, stress management skills, so that they know how to be better parents. These parents, they may not have ever had a role model before. So it’s been a very effective program.”
The education branch also boasts a school-based Strengthening Families Program, which helps families develop various skills related to keeping a family strong. The organization’s work in the schools begged the question: How exactly does the staff at Family Support Services locate kids in need, to begin with? “A lot of times they’re referred by the school districts, doctor’s offices, or other social service agencies,” explains Womack. “We have a good relationship with the school districts.” Indeed, the group even provides some counseling services to Canyon ISD. “But,” continues Womack, “you’d probably be surprised: There’s a lot of kids that know they need help. And they reach out to us, too.”
Healing Wounded Warriors
In addition to its vast network of other services, FSS takes care of those who’ve answered the call of serving their country. The FSS Veterans Resource Center is a drop in, peer-run facility that provides veterans, family members and surviving spouses with the opportunity to make connections with those who’ve experienced similar traumas and travails. At the center, veterans can obtain help finding housing and employment, learn about benefits they’re eligible for, and receive aid in recovering from PTSD.
“Whatever the veteran’s need is,” says Womack, “if they come into the facility, we can assess them and help them.” The Veterans Resource Center got its start after Family Support Services received a mental health grant, so there’s a big focus on mental wellbeing at the center. That means, on any given day, there’s a lot of therapy happening there – but “therapy” can often mean simply speaking to someone who’s been in the same boat. “A lot of times,” notes Womack, “it’s just about talking with other veterans.”
The Veterans Center has also partnered with a group from Lubbock to provide housing to veterans in need, under the Housing First model (a national program that focuses on putting a roof over the heads of those in need, before other issues are addressed). Jim Womack says the Veterans Resource Center has “a very high success rate of getting veterans into homes.” In fact, during a single three-month period in 2019, the center found homes for 50 veterans. “You wouldn’t think there’d be that many veterans who are homeless,” laments Womack. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Once those veterans have a place to live, FSS and the Veterans Resource Center also have a high success rate of getting them jobs. That successful track record is largely due to the fact that everyone who works at the Veterans Resource Center is a veteran. The center’s director, Verlene Dickson, is a retired Sergeant Major, having served 27 years in the Army. In addition, the center’s three navigators, who oversee veteran cases, each come from either the Army or the Navy. And like the other divisions, the Veterans Center relies heavily on volunteer help. In the past, agencies like Pantex, Bell Helicopter and Xcel Energy have sent veterans to perform all kinds of tasks, from teaching financial education classes to helping plant trees in the Veterans Center courtyard.
Almost all the services FSS provides are given at no cost – the exception being counseling services, which are offered on a sliding scale according to the client’s ability to pay. This means that veterans, or victims of assault, don’t have to pay a dime to receive the caring attention of the FSS staff – not to mention shelter, food and whatever else they need. It’s all paid for through grant funding, as well as donations from the kind-hearted citizens of the High Plains.
But paying for it all is never easy, says Jim Womack. The staff at Family Support Services is constantly having to think of new and creative ways to bring in money. “It forces us to look for some of those grants that are sort of outside the box. Not just insurance funding or Medicaid funding, but for example, grants that will pay for veterans’ counseling. Or we have a dedicated grant that can pay for counseling for first responders.” To gather the necessary funding, Womack and the heads of the various divisions split the onerous work of writing innumerable grants each year.
Furthermore, the counselors at Family Support Services are often working for a fraction of what they could make elsewhere. “They really have a heart for this,” says Womack. “They believe in the work.
“All of our departments can use some kind of volunteer help,” adds Womack. “We have our special events, and two yearly fundraisers.” Another area where Family Support Services could use a helping hand is in its safe house. “We have a 24-hour crisis line that’s housed over there. So we’re looking at expanding that volunteer base.” But, according to Womack, the area where the agency needs the most volunteers is in the Crisis Services Division. “We have a volunteer pool,” explains Womack, “and they go through an intensive training process to become domestic violence and sexual assault advocates. And then they can actually go out on some of those calls to the hospitals and help those survivors. It’s a [rigorous] process, but it’s very rewarding.”
The Present, and the Future
“It would be fantastic,” says Jim Womack, “if we could one day put ourselves out of business.” But, despite the best efforts to create a Panhandle that has no need of its services, the work continues. These days, says Womack, the good folks at Family Support Services are staying busy. “There’s definitely a need for our services here [in Amarillo].”
Since Womack returned to the fold six years ago, Family Support Services has grown in size, though Womack is quick to share the credit. “That’s more a function of our leadership, our board and our directors. We still respond to crisis and provide counseling and that kind of thing. But we’ve also put more of a focus on intervening earlier, breaking cycles. Seven years ago, our Education and Prevention Department was our smallest department and now it’s our biggest. Because we’re trying to head off problems earlier and get people out of situations before they get deeply involved. And help them to live healthy lifestyles.”
Amy Hord agrees, calling Family Support Services “vital to Amarillo for so many reasons.” She adds, “Without FSS, the community would have no formalized operation to help prevent and intervene in situations related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.”
“The services we provide aren’t duplicated anywhere else in Amarillo or Canyon,” says Womack. “Other than counseling, which is underserved.” Kathy Tortoreo is straightforward about the importance of the work of Family Support Services. “This agency helps many thousands of people every year who would have no help otherwise.”
“Without FSS, the Panhandle would suffer greatly,” says Michelle Shields. “A mentor once told me: Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to sit with them and witness their suffering. My agency is a testament to this. We witness the most horrific events in someone’s lives and hear tragic narratives, and we witness amazing strength and courage.”
“I absolutely love my job,” adds Amy Hord. “I have so much respect for my staff … My excitement comes in seeing the healing: a child that hasn’t seen their parent in many years and, after [a long] time, shows so much excitement in seeing their parent; a domestic violence offender who starts to become accountable for not only the offense he was charged with, but accountable for many other ways he may have hurt his partner and recognizing his desire to change. My excitement also comes from seeing the many lives that are changed by breaking the bonds of traumatic events and moving forward in a healthier manner.”
Brandi Reed has innumerable stories about the importance of the agency. “I’ve been employed here for so long that I’ve been able to see some major success stories – real life tear jerkers that are documentary worthy. I’ve worked with foster youth who were dealt the worst hands in life, and who are now parenting their own kids like champs. They’re in successful marriages and living out of poverty. I’ve worked with victims of human trafficking, who experienced torture and assault you can’t even imagine, and who have now graduated from college with degrees that I wouldn’t be able to pass any of the classes in. I’ve seen children raised in homes filled with years of domestic violence, who turned into advocates and motivational speakers. I’ve seen a teen who was seconds from ending their own life, now loving life and sending me selfies with their family at Disney World. I could go on and on.”
“We are making a huge impact,” concludes Womack. “It all comes down to breaking some of those cycles and expanding awareness of our services so we can reach more people. We’re not reaching everyone who needs our services. We have to figure out ways to do that.”