Family Service Association's new CEO Mary Garr.
Family Service Association President and CEO Mary Garr. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The Family Service Association is celebrating 115 years of service to San Antonio communities with new programs and a brand refresh the agency hopes will better reflect its growth and mission.

While the organization has evolved over the years – adapting to meet specific yet changing needs of struggling families throughout the city – its focus has remained on strengthening local communities by providing the resources they need to improve their lives, said Mary Garr, the new president and CEO of San Antonio’s oldest social services organization.

“Our strength [as an organization] is that we do a lot of different things. We aren’t the biggest or the best, but we take care of the families that we help as a collective and on an internal basis,” Garr said. “Community and family wellness and making sure that San Antonio is a strong, vibrant, and healthy community includes addressing” physical, mental, environmental, and financial well-being, she said.

The $23 million annual budget funded by county, state, and federal grants, donations from foundations and individual supporters, and its modest program revenue supports more than 600 employees who provide services in schools, community centers, and in homes in Bexar and 15 surrounding counties.

The Family Service Association main office.
The Family Service Association’s main office is located in Northwest San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The majority of the programs the Family Service Association offers in Bexar County are run out of the Neighborhood Place, a community resource hub located in what was once an Edgewood ISD elementary school on San Antonio’s near West Side. Programs include counseling, early childhood education and head start, parenting education, family strengthening classes aimed at building individual self-esteem, and safe exchange programs for parents who share custody of children.

Following the 16-year tenure of former President and CEO Nancy Hard, Garr arrived at the Family Service Association in March 2018. She spent the previous three decades in various roles in military health care administration, including a stint as a consultant on health care administration policy, for which the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army handpicked her in 2012. Garr said over time health care systems and professionals have grown to understand that poverty is directly related to community health outcomes.

“We have a lot of services that support the hard-to-reach clients who are deeply entrenched in multi-generational challenges,” Garr said. “We are not here to judge. In order to understand why [people need help], we have to understand their family history and work to break those cycles.”

In 1950, an increase in sexual abuse of San Antonio children prompted the nonprofit to develop mental health counseling services to address the needs of this vulnerable population, Garr said. Today, the Family Service Association offers counseling for domestic violence survivors, substance abuse and addiction, family therapy, and court-mandated therapy for people involved with Child Protective Services, and continues to expand offerings to meet individual needs, she said.

“Since its beginning, the Family Service Association has combined innovation with a sharp understanding of community needs,” said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), whose district is home to the organization’s largest service hub. “San Antonio has been made better through the century of their work and the many people who have dedicated their energy to our community.”

Gonzales recently helped the association secure City funding to train promotoras – or community health workers – to address the high rates of child abuse in the 78207 zip code. The promotoras both live and work in that Westside zip code, teaching parents in the community how best to guide and nurture their children and how to keep them healthy and safe.

“Their support has been vital in fighting and preventing child abuse,” Gonzales said.

(From left) Monica Lara holds her son Jordan as she works with promotora Maranda Hernandez.
(From left) Monica Lara holds her son Jordan as she works with promotora Maranda Hernandez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As the organization continues to expand its service offerings, it has made modifications along the way. A new teaching kitchen is currently under construction at The Neighborhood Place, made possible by Chef Johnny Hernandez, whose non-profit Kitchen Campus teaches area middle and high school students about food, nutrition, cooking, community involvement, and leadership while exploring careers in the culinary industry.

“As a community, we are trying to collaborate more to see how we can come together to help people make better lifestyle choices,” Garr said.“This is not a problem solved overnight, obviously – it was not solved in 115 years. But we can’t give up. Our community cannot give up on this, or it will continue to drain us as a community.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, the Family Service Association will celebrate its 115th anniversary by rolling out a new branding campaign, which Garr said will include pops of color that are “more representative of San Antonio and the amazing work being done by the organization” and the people it serves.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.