Ace Vasquez and his family.
“Growing up was nothing but trauma for me,” says Asa “Ace” Vasquez. “I was always getting into trouble.” High school challenges included a series of displacements from his school in Lubbock, Texas, to juvenile justice centers and alternative education settings. “Those were dark days,” he says. But one caring adult helped him through it.
Vasquez, now 23, was 12 when he met Linn Walker, a health educator at Texas Tech University’s Center for Adolescent Resiliency. She showed up at his school for a wellness event held with Covenant Health. And then she just kept showing up.
“She took an interest in me,” says Vasquez. Through the years, wherever he landed, she managed to find him. “She’d ask how I was doing, and I started telling her about my life and what I was going through. And she just stuck around. It went a long way for me, it really did.” That support, says Vasquez, is what helped him finish school. “And I did it,” he says. “I got my diploma, and now I can go anywhere with it.”
Idea for CAPS inspired by student struggles
Today, dozens of students in Lubbock benefit from similar support, thanks to Texas Tech’s Community Advocacy Project for Students, locally known as CAPS. The program was largely inspired by Walker’s experience with Vasquez.
“Linn saw how students struggled when they came back to school from other settings,” says Amy Onofre, who helped Walker develop the program and now serves as its director. “She felt that these students could really benefit from an advocate – someone to follow them from campus to campus, teach them life skills, and sit with them as they explore the struggles they’re having.”
Since 2019, that’s what CAPS has been doing. In the 2021-22 school year, the program matched 91 students with volunteer advocates for weekly, one-on-one support, and worked with 442 others in groups. Covenant has been there all the way, providing $125,000 for the current school year from the Providence Community Health Investment Fund.
“Covenant has been a powerful partner, helping us to grow and reach more students every year."
- Amy Onofre, director of the CAPS Program
A transformative experience
Covenant provides both annual funding for the program and free counseling to participating students. “Education is one of the social determinants of health,”* says Tavia Hatfield, regional director of Community Health Investment for Covenant. “Helping students build support systems and resiliency not only improves their health in later life, but also increases the chances that they’ll finish high school. This is a way we can support early intervention and hopefully see some upstream results.”
“The CAPS Program has been an invaluable resource for our campuses. The experience has been life changing for students who have never had an adult ‘in their corner,’ going to bat for their needs. This has helped increase self-esteem and feelings of self-worth among students who have never believed in themselves, a crucial life skill that’s hard to measure.”
– Charlotte Sessom, M.Ed., director of counseling for the Lubbock Independent School District
Several Covenant caregivers, including Hatfield, also volunteer as advocates, an experience that is as transformative for them as it is for the students. “These kids’ lives are so complex, and have been since the moment they were born,” Hatfield reflects. “It makes you a more empathetic caregiver when you have a better understanding of what people are carrying.”
For Vasquez, the load these days is much lighter. He enjoys working full time and being a dad to three beautiful children. “It’s not like I pictured it would be, growing up,” he says. “It’s turned out better than I ever could have imagined.”
*Social determinants of health include factors like socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks, as well as access to medical care. Addressing social needs is important for improving health and reducing longstanding disparities in health and health care.
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