Roy Maas Youth Alternatives (RMYA), a local nonprofit that helps and houses youth who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned, will move its 24-hour youth emergency shelter called The Bridge into a new facility in June 2017.
RMYA officials, staff, and child advocates celebrated on Monday during the official groundbreaking ceremony where they thanked The Charity Ball Association and Valero Energy Foundation for donating a total of $1.25 million to the project. The new Bridge will be constructed next to the existing RMYA facility at 3103 West Ave., where its administrative office, thrift shop, and counseling center are located.
Construction will begin in July, and by next summer the space will be home to a new, state-of-the-art residential facility, a major step up from the shelter's existing location that opened in 1976 in a former furniture store. RMYA officials hope the new space will feel more like a comfortable, safe home for the children it serves.
"Basically, a child's bedroom (at The Bridge) right now is four cement walls," said Renee Garvens, RMYA senior director of community and donor relations, "so that initial reaction of where you've been taken (after) you've also been traumatized is important.
"(The current Bridge) is a depressing place, so it's all about (building) a place that's no longer depressing – that feels the way that our staff treats the children that come into our care," Garvens added. "That way they immediately know they're somewhere safe, that they know they're somewhere structured and that it just feels like a home."
(For a more detailed look at the floor plan, click here.)
The new site won't be a whole lot bigger than what it is right now, Garvens said, but will still provide short-term housing for up to 23 runaway, homeless and/or abused children between the ages of five and 17 at a time. The rooms will have windows, a key element missing from the current facility, to make the environment much more inviting, Garvens said.
The current site of The Bridge will be renovated to accommodate the RMYA Family Counseling & Resource Center, where staff provide individual and family counseling, short-term pediatric and adolescent psychiatric services, and low-cost parent education classes for youth and their families.
Both buildings will be united by a pathway between them, where children can safely walk from their rooms at The Bridge to the other facilities to take part in various recreational and cultural activities as well as life skills classes.
Nieves Hernandez, a former long-term RMYA resident, came to the facility when he was 12 years old and thanked the RMYA staff for changing him from a "problem child" to a community servant. Since exiting the program 30 years ago, he has become a chef with his own catering company, and continues to return to RMYA to cook the organization's annual Thanksgiving dinner.
"I had a mentor who would always talk to me every time I got in trouble, and that was Roy Maas," he said. "That man changed my life from the streets to what I am now, so I thank him."
After graduating from Texas Lutheran University, Maas, a La Grange native, worked in a children's home where he discovered his passion working with children. He later received a master's degree in counseling from Texas Christian University and moved to San Antonio where he eventually spearheaded the growth of The Bridge into his namesake agency.
RMYA's campus in the Northside also includes the TurningPoint Independent Living Program, located adjacent to the West Avenue building, which serves as transitional housing for young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 who have aged out of the foster care system.
The nonprofit offers long-term residential housing at its Meadowland Campus in Boerne, where it educates at-risk students in grades 1-12 at the Meadowland Charter School.
Maas' work and that of his dedicated team at the agency is applauded by many across the city and state. Bexar County Deputy Chief of Criminal Investigations George Saidler shared his experience as a patrolman in 1975, when Roy Maas and The Bridge were not yet in the city.
"When I'd pick somebody up (I'd ask) 'Where are we going to take them? Who is going to take care of them?' And even though my focus was on law enforcement, in the back of my mind as a father and now grandfather I always wondered what happened to those children," Saidler said. "It's organizations like this that make my job a lot easier because I know there's somebody there to take care of those children after I drop them off."
State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) thanked RMYA staff for serving nearly 80,000 children over 40 years. While Monday was a day to "celebrate new beginnings," he said, San Antonio has a long way to go to end youth abuse and neglect.
"It's a really tragic day when we're reading the newspaper and (see) so many children who are being treated in ways that we wouldn't even treat our pets," he said. "When 25% of our children are living in hunger everyday in San Antonio, we've got all the work left to do."
Top image: The Bridge at the Roy Maas Youth Alternatives center is located at 3103 West Ave. Photo by Camille Garcia.