Irene White was about to drive to a funeral at a church in downtown San Antonio when her phone rang. On the phone was a woman crying for help. The woman said her grandmother had been abusing her and her infant son. White, a community health worker at Empower House, dropped everything and picked up the woman and her son, fed them and drove them to a shelter.

This is just one of many encounters White has had with community members fleeing domestic abuse, experiencing homelessness and facing other emergencies. 

“God will provide,” White said. “But I know that I’ve made a difference.”

Founded as the Martinez Street Women’s Center in 1999, Empower House is a nonprofit organization aiming to provide education, community health services and youth programs to underserved communities. 

Originally established to “improve reproductive health services and access for women — primarily brown and Black women — on the East Side of San Antonio,” the organization eventually expanded into the West Side and recently rebranded to become more inclusive to transgender, femme, nonbinary individuals and boys.

Executive Director Andrea Figueroa has been with the organization for over 11 years and said the name change was an attempt to serve other parts of the community. “Even though we do focus on women and girls, we wanted folks to know that we do serve everyone.”

The organization offers services like parenting classes, wellness workshops, tutoring and even housing assistance.

With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, Empower House is ensuring that people are educated about voting and making sure their voices are heard, said Figueroa. They are also prepared to help women “in any way possible.”

“We are going to have a greater need at some point for people to seek resources, so we have to be prepared to help,” Figueroa said. “It’s important for us as an organization to continue to encourage our families to be aware of their rights and aware of how they can contribute, how they can vote in the upcoming elections.” 

Part of Empower House’s mission is to create solidarity, creativity, collaboration and empathy through open conversations about tough subjects. Empower House Radio 101.5 was launched in 2018 as part of that mission to inspire youth and adults through on-air conversations on topics like democracy, gender relations, restorative justice and spirituality. 

Luis Valdes has been with the nonprofit for nearly 10 years and is the host of the radio station. He said building and nurturing community through his work keeps him going.

“On top of the wonderful people that we get to interact with and the fulfillment that we get from being of service to others, is the opportunities for personal growth,” Valdes said.

Working with youth has been especially rewarding for Valdes. “I feel like I recovered some of my childhood,” he said.

Dianna Santiago, facilitates a staff circle where staffers share thoughts and encouragement with one another Thursday.
Dianna Santiago facilitates a staff circle where staffers share thoughts and encouragement with one another Thursday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The Empower House Youth program is a youth development program rooted in restorative justice. It offers mentorship, support with goal setting, service learning projects and leadership opportunities.

Empower House has partnered with companies like H-E-B and organizations like P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, as well as participated in research studies with Methodist Healthcare and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Patricia S. Castillo, executive director of the P.E.A.C.E. Initiative, said the organization’s partnership with Empower House was necessary to address parental development.

“They handle the parenting piece and we handle the domestic abuse piece,” Castillo said. “It’s all about establishing respect, consistency and communication in parental relationships.”

Empower House provides free parenting classes through a program called Empower Parents. The classes focus on setting parents up to lead healthy households.

“It helps to have someone just hold your hand through the process,” White said. “The goal and desire is to get them to be independent and sustainable.”

White keeps in touch with many former clients, including the woman she helped escape abuse years ago. White said the woman received her G.E.D. and wants to pursue work in the community health care field.

“She’s in a much better place,” said White. 

Genevieve Adame is a Scripps Howard Foundation Emerging Journalist intern and a rising senior at Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio.

Ava Flores is a Scripps Howard Foundation Emerging Journalist intern and a rising senior at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio.