At a reception in the courtyard of Overland Partners, local philanthropist Harvey Najim announced a $5 million gift to ChildSafe, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling services to abused children in Bexar County. ChildSafe executives and County officials were in attendance to celebrate the gift, which will largely go to the creation of a 70,000 sq. ft. multi-use complex on 36 acres of public land that the City will designate as a park along I-10 and East Houston Street.

The new Harvey E. Najim Children and Family Center, designed by Overland Partners, is scheduled to break ground in May 2017. It will house staff members of ChildSafe, Child Protective Services, the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, the San Antonio Police Department, and Bexar County Juvenile Probation. The multi-agency system is intended to offer a safe, child-friendly environment where strategies and care plans can be coordinated to fit the needs of each individual child and its family.

ChildSafe Board Chairman Ray Battaglia said that the expanded facility will combat the high prevalence of child abuse in the city.

Harvey Najim greets Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau.
Harvey Najim greets Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

“San Antonio ranks the highest in the state of Texas in cases of child abuse and neglect on a per capita basis,” he explained. “And there’s no easy answer. We have a perfect storm of poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse, financial stress, and intergenerational patterns of abuse.”

Battaglia added that the new facility, coinciding with ChildSafe’s 25th anniversary next year, will do what it can to turn that around.

“Last year, we educated more than 14,000 people on identifying and preventing child abuse,” he said. “Next year, I hope it’s twice or three times that number. Every year we need to educate more and more people and bring this problem out of the dark.”

Kim Abernethy, president and CEO of ChildSafe, said that the new facility is the result of a long process of teamwork with the City, County, and health officials as well as researching similar facilities around the nation.

“We’ve been working together now for almost a year … and it’s a love fest,” Abernethy said. “It’s the best group. Every time we bring somebody in, they get engaged in the mission. It’s really fun and it’s very exciting.”

She also said that its location on the Eastside gives the center a unique opportunity to act as a community center for the neighborhood it will be located in.

A rendering of a distant view of the interior courtyard of the new center.
A rendering of a distant view of the interior courtyard of the new center. Credit: Courtesy / Overland Partners

“The black culture is the heritage of that neighborhood,” Abernethy explained. “So we are making sure that we have the space to exhibit and highlight some of the cultural diversity (of the neighborhood). We don’t want this place to just be an advocacy center. We want it to be the community center.”

Harvey Najim said that upon visiting the original ChildSafe offices several years ago, the sight of a mother and daughter crying as they left reminded him of his grandchildren, and inspired him to get involved.

“Bexar County has approximately 10 victims of confirmed child abuse or neglect per 1,000 children,” Najim said. “Unfortunately, this metric does not accurately portray the total number of cases in Bexar County. There are 40 alleged cases per 1,000. That is way too many. One in 1,000 is too many.”

He added that his involvement with the new ChildSafe facility is part of a larger campaign to make sure children in Bexar County are educated, protected, and well fed.

“This (past) Monday, I convened and chaired a group of 140 people that are developing a community children’s agenda in San Antonio that ensure that children from birth to 8 years old are smart, healthy, happy, and most importantly protected,” he said. “In my opinion, protecting children from child abuse is one of the critical keys to the agenda.”

He said that this will be his largest single gift to date, and that it will go a long way to keeping children in Bexar County safe.

Attending the reception, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) told the Rivard Report that the new facility provides a chance to speed up and alleviate the process of healing for abused children in San Antonio and uplift the Eastside.

“It’s a huge gift from Harvey Najim. But it’s not all that they have to do to fundraise. It’s a 70,000 sq. ft. facility so this is just getting the ball rolling,” Warrick said. “It’s also there to inspire other people to give what they can to make this project happen for the young people in San Antonio.”

He added that $1 million in City funds has been set aside to match a potential donation from the County.

“So we’re in conversations with Judge Wolff and Commissioner Calvert in order to push this project along and have them match that million dollars so that we can make this facility everything that you see in these (renderings).”

James McCandless

James McCandless

Former intern James McCandless is a recent St. Mary's University graduate. He has worked with the San Antonio Current and Texas Public Radio.