Creating lasting community in San Antonio

Family Service Association of San Antonio has been a fixture in the community for 114 years. Established in 1903, Family Service has been providing financial assistance to families struggling with poverty and in need of support. Guided by its mission to “empower individuals and families to transform their lives and strengthen their community,” Family Service offers a wide range of services, utilizing a holistic method that supports members of the community around education, counseling and senior support, job training and financial stability, as well as parent and community involvement.

One piece of that has been the FAST® Program, which the organization has been implementing for nearly 25 years. “I started with the organization right around the time we were beginning to implement FAST. We wanted to focus on preventative services for youth and were looking for an evidence-based program that could support students and families. FAST was the right fit,” says Mylinda Swierc, senior vice president, Quality and Systems.

Family Service has implemented 231 FAST Cycles at 69 different schools, and has served 3,164 families since 2003. “We have parents who participated in FAST as kids who are now doing FAST with their own children. We’ve had an impact on multiple generations,” commented Laura Mata-Delgado, manager, Family Strengthening at Family Service. A team of dedicated staff, as well as long-time funding through, among others, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and the City of San Antonio, have allowed Family Service to make a powerful impact on the community through the FAST Program.

The program not only supports children, but empowers parents, some of whom go back to school or are able to find a new job because of the confidence and the social networks they build during FAST. “I hear all the time, ‘I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I hadn’t done FAST,’” Service Coordinator Bernadette Vasquez, says of FAST Parent Graduates.

If anybody understands this, it is Ms. Vasquez, whose first interaction with FAST was as a parent being recruited to participate with her family. “When I was first approached to participate in the program I said, ‘no, thank you.’ I was a stay-at-home mom. I didn’t know anyone at the school other than my child’s teacher. I didn’t know any other parents and wasn’t involved in any organizations or the PTO.” Eventually, her son convinced her to give it a try, and she and her family graduated. “I attribute everything I have done since to the FAST Program,” explains Ms. Vasquez. “Before FAST, I wasn’t interested in getting a job or going back to school.”

After graduating from FAST, Ms. Vasquez started volunteering in her son’s school, became a parent liaison, and then eventually a parent partner on the FAST Team. She went back to school, earned her degree in social work and when she graduated, she joined the staff at Family Service. Through her work with Family Service, Ms. Vasquez has been able to continue those connections with parents and families through the FAST Program. “I see me in some of those parents,” she says. “I see some of them go back to school and get a job. I see their self-confidence increase when they realize that every family has challenges and struggles. They are not alone.”

Through the years, Family Service has worked diligently to build strong FAST and FASTWORKS® groups, often graduating more than 20 families per cycle. “Having a strong partnership with the school and a principal, who not only supports the program but is welcoming to the families, shows the families that they are appreciated and important to the school, is critical,” says Ms. Mata-Delgado.

Additionally, having strong FAST Teams and a dedicated staff helps support the program and allows families to thrive. “Our FAST Parent Partners really get to know the families. They can make that personal connection,” adds Ms. Mata-Delgado. “We have an invested staff who works with these families, staff that have been here for many years. When you have that kind of tenure, you’re really able to build a strong team that can work well together,” describes Ms. Swierc.

When a former FAST Grandmother passed away, FAST Families gathered together to support her family. “FAST isn’t just about having fun. It’s also about supporting and being there for each other during times of crisis,” says Ms. Vasquez. FAST helps cultivate lifelong friendships and relationships that families can call on years later.

It is not always easy. FAST requires persistence and hard work, but the impact makes it worth the investment. “FAST creates lifetime connections,” says Ms. Swierc. Many families stay in the community across generations so those strong connections and networks between parents, families, principals, and FAST Team Members, remain in the community as well. “It is not just the longevity of the relationships that is powerful, but there is so much positivity in those relationships. People have done well for themselves, and that is so great to see.”