“Within the 90 days that we have them here, we want to infuse them with love and compassion, with respect and dignity.”
– Gladys Gonzalez, New executive director, St. Peter-St. Joseph Children’s Home
New director at home at St. PJ’s
By Carol Baass Sowa
SAN ANTONIO • “I have the best job in the world,” says Gladys Gonzalez, new executive director at St. Peter-St. Joseph Children’s Home, known as St. PJ’s. “I have the grace, the ability to help people and to serve people.” It was a journey of faith that brought her there, one which she believes God was positioning her for all along.
Gonzalez grew up on San Antonio’s South Side, attended Harlandale High School and San Antonio College, and earned her B.B.A. from the University of the Incarnate Word. During 19 years at USAA (United States Automobile Association), she worked her way up from clerk to business analyst in the office of the chairman and CEO. Then came unexpected lay-offs and a number of “Moses in the desert” years, working in various fields and searching for what God wanted her to do with her life, a longing which, at one point, led her to attend an ACTS Retreat.
“The day you say you’re going to serve God,” she says with a smile, “you better be prepared for the journey, because he is going to transform you to his liking.” Seemingly by chance, she became a contractor for the city, working in different community centers, something she had been totally unfamiliar with. Here, she discovered her calling — helping people. It led to her coming to work for Catholic Charities as director of the Guadalupe Community Center in 2013. While overseeing services offered there, she was appointed deputy director at Catholic Charities and took on managing a growing number of programs for them.
The center’s number of clients rapidly expanded. What had been 26 at the start, grew to 126,000 annually. Her team was big on prayer, though, both petition and thanksgiving. Almost miraculously, just as they would be about to run out of necessities, a donation would arrive, enabling them to meet the need. “So, we became very confident,” she said, “that as long as we did our work, things were going to happen.”
Promoted to vice president at Catholic Charities, she took on responsibility for 45 programs. Then, when the need arose to fill the executive director’s position at St. PJ’s, she volunteered to temporarily fill in there until the right person for the job could be found.
Sitting in her supposedly short-term office one day, she suddenly became aware of the details in the colorful poster of St. PJ’s on her wall. There was Our Lady of Guadalupe, watching over the shelter’s children at play on the grounds and encircling them with a heart. Her job at Our Lady of Guadalupe Center had led her here. It was a coincidence to ponder as she went about observing operations at St. PJ’s.
Originally an orphanage founded in 1891 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, today St. PJ’s is an emergency shelter serving as a safe and loving refuge for children in crisis, accompanying them on their journey to healing and wholeness and breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect “one child at a time.” They receive funding from the Archbishop’s Appeal.
The more Gonzalez saw, the more she began to wonder if God was calling her here, a thought she at first rejected. A visit to their Kiddie Cottage, where neglected and abused children from newborns to age three are cared for, and the eyes of a sad little boy there, back from the dentist with no mother beside him, touched her deeply, leading her to visit the lovely old campus chapel to pray. “What do you want from me, God?” she asked.
The staff at St. PJ’s had been encouraging her to apply for the job of executive director, but she was hesitant, afraid she was not what they needed. Confirmation came when she read God’s words in her daily devotional: “Trust in me, that I will equip you with what you need.” Final confirmation arrived in St. PJ’s mail — a check for $26,000!
Hired as executive director on May 16, Gonzalez has set to work to make St. PJ’s more welcoming to the children, from sprucing up room décor to having chili available at meals, when she learned a number of the international youngsters were mixing ketchup and mayonnaise as a substitute that at least looked like what they were used to having.
St. PJ’s is an emergency shelter licensed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and houses two separate groups of children, she notes, domestic and international, as well providing counseling services.
On the domestic side, they look after children ages birth to 17 years, who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, for up to 90 days. It is a short amount of time to transform a child, relates Gonzalez, and takes a team effort, which St. PJ’s is well-equipped to handle. A clinician, therapist and case manager are involved, as well as direct care staff and teachers who hold classes on-site to extend the sense of safety that encircles their young charges. A University of Texas charter school will soon be in place, and the sprawling, tree-studded campus offers playgrounds, gymnasium, chapel and Stations of the Cross.
During their stay, the children learn what good behavior is, what good discipline looks like and are exposed to religion, which some are not familiar with. “These kids have been traumatized,” Gonzalez notes. “So they may have PTSD. They might have behavioral issues. They might have been abused. So for them trust is so important. This has to be a safe haven of hope for them.”
On the international side, established a few years ago through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), St. PJ’s takes in unaccompanied minors who have fled their native land and been apprehended and released by the authorities. Once it is determined they have “credible fear” of returning to their homeland, the children are reunited with family members in the United States. “We’ve helped over 2,400 children who have come to our doors,” says Gonzalez of the international program, “and the reunification is beautiful.”
Sometimes former residents return for a visit, the place having been their home in the truest sense of the word. Gonzalez recalls a young man who lived there when it was a long-term facility. Today he is in the military and, when he finished boot camp, the first place he wanted to go was St. PJ’s. “We were family,” says Gonzalez.
“We have a history,” she notes, “and we hope we can continue that history.” It is a challenging time for shelters at present, however. Money is needed to pay for activities and volunteers to do things as simple as read a book to a child or kick a ball with them.
“Within the 90 days that we have them here, we want to infuse them with love and compassion, with respect and dignity. That’s what they deserve,” she says, adding St. PJ’s is not merely a shelter. “This is truly a home.”