JEWELL: Moving toward community mental wellness

McKenna Foundation CEO Alice Jewell

Our McKenna history began in 1953 with the opening of this community’s first hospital. The next 50 years brought change, expansion, and ultimately financial success and stability to the organization. In 2008, at the time of the sale of the hospital to the Christus San Rosa Health System, the board and staff of our newly formed foundation had little experience as a grant maker and knew there was much to learn. This realization shaped our early roles in the community as ones of convener, listener and partner.

From the beginning, we started asking a lot of questions and we maintain the same level of curiosity today. Which community needs are being met? Where are the gaps in resources? Do we have nonprofits operating with the capacity to meet those needs? Who needs to be part of our conversations? We engage community stakeholders- including nonprofit staff and board members, public leadership, school representatives, and faith-based providers- on a regular basis. While the education provided and ideas shared are successes in themselves, the planning and goal setting that come from these conversations provide an invaluable path to positive outcomes.

Our first formal community convening was around mental and behavioral health with the goals of identifying needs, gaps in services, and ultimately a list of funding priorities to improve the system of care. Beginning in October 2014 and culminating in February 2015, about 30 nonprofit agencies as well as city, county, and school officials created a community vision and goals:

We envision unfettered access to quality, community-based mental health services throughout Comal County for families, children, and adults. We expect that services will reflect evidence-based practices whenever possible. In order to accomplish this vision, we intend to work together in multiple ways to:

— Promote community education and prevention.

— Develop a comprehensive continuum of locally available services that address the needs of the community.

— Expand and improve access to services for the outlying communities.

Over the past decade, local mental and behavioral wellness opportunities have grown extensively due to dedicated and passionate service providers and their collaborative partnerships alongside investments by McKenna and other funders. The McKenna Foundation board has committed $6.5 million in mental and behavioral health funding over the past 10 years to help meet the needs of our neighbors. Highlights of that investment toward new mental health infrastructure in our community include:

— Creation of a Mobile Crisis Outreach Team that responds to mental crisis anywhere 24/7.

— Creation of Mental Advocacy Partners:

— The first nonprofit mental health clinic in Canyon Lake operated by Hill Country MHDD.

— Major building improvements for the New Braunfels 24 Club.

— Therapeutic counseling for students through Communities in Schools.

— Seeding the operation and new facility for RecoveryWerks! for teens and young adults with substance use disorder and their families.

— A new facility for River City Advocacy and Counseling Center.

We are proud to have been part of the good work of so many, whose enthusiasm set us on a journey toward mental wellness in the community.

Alice Jewell is the Chief Executive Officer for the McKenna Foundation whose mission is to advance the well-being of the New Braunfels community. She has been with the Foundation since its inception in 2008, and with the McKenna organization since 2006. Prior to this role, Alice served as the Foundation’s Executive Director, Director of McKenna Children’s Museum and Director of McKenna Events Center. She oversees all aspects of the grant development process, as well as the Foundation’s strategic planning and community collaborations. Alice received a BA in Communication from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Public Service and Administration from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

October IDEA Forum meeting to focus on community mental health response efforts

Oct. 18, 2023

The public is invited to attend the next New Braunfels IDEA Forum general meeting to hear about area mental health response efforts.

Good mental health is an integral part of a person’s overall well-being. It allows people to cope with challenges, connect with others and thrive. However, stigma and fear can prevent those in need from reaching out for help.

Recognizing the importance of community mental health services and supports, the October IDEA Forum general membership will explore the community’s mental health response efforts.

The meeting takes place on Oct. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the New Braunfels Police Department headquarters at 3030 W. San Antonio St.

Speakers will include New Braunfels Police Chief Keith Lane, Officers Krifka and Cruz of NBPD’s Mental Health Unit, Maria Hoenigman with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater San Antonio and Jennifer Nieto of Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Centers.

Additionally, River City Advocacy, Connections and Mental Advocacy Partners – Comal County representatives will be on hand to answer any questions about their services.

Additional information on the IDEA Forum and future events can be found at

About the IDEA Forum: The IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Awareness) Forum examines racial, economic, and social inequities in New Braunfels, while promoting citizen dialogue and cooperation, to develop solutions for a lasting understanding of all groups within the community. While the IDEA Forum was created in 2020, the group has already raised awareness within the New Braunfels Police Department. The group has made strong connections with the New Braunfels MLK Association, the local LULAC chapter and several religious organizations in the area. The IDEA Forum was initially convened through City of New Braunfels leadership and staff, but administration of the initiative was assumed by the McKenna Foundation to ensure the sustainability of the effort.

Connections breaks ground on new 28,000-square-foot facility

Oct. 9, 2023

A New Braunfels-based nonprofit organization has taken the next step in its mission to support at-risk youth, breaking ground on a new 28,000-square-foot facility that will expand its service capacity.

Connections Individual and Family Services on Oct. 5 marked the start of the first phase of the project, which will provide residents of the emergency children’s shelter and transitional living home with improved facilities to support youth recovering from trauma.

Established in 1981, Connections offers support services for homeless, abused and at-risk youths, families and the communities in which they live. The agency serves 17 counties with counseling, prevention programming, an emergency children’s shelter and a youth transitional living program.

Connection’s chief executive officer, Jacob Huereca, described the expansion as a “once-in-a-generation” project.

“This is going to be a difference maker for the westside of this community,” Huereca said. “We’re going to revitalize this side of town. We’re going to bring hope for generations to come.”

The new campus at the agency’s West San Antonio Street address will bring together the emergency shelter and transitional living program, allowing youth to benefit from individual and group meeting spaces, therapy rooms and bedrooms designed for youth experiencing trauma.

The new campus will also enable growth within the counseling program to combat growing challenges with mental health.

The current residential homes have sheltered more than 5,000 youth during the agency’s 42-year history, according to Huereca. The agency has also provided counseling services to more than 10,000 children and substance abuse prevention services to more than 15,000 youth.

The expected completion of the first phase of the project is fall 2024. The second phase includes training and meeting spaces, community resource areas, counseling and prevention offices, play therapy and sensory rooms, intake rooms and administrative areas.

In addition to its emergency shelter and transitional living program, the agency offers free or reduced-cost counseling for youth and families and in-school and community events that support positive youth development and family stability.

Vanessa Dean, a former “foster kid” who had experienced homelessness as a youth, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony about the difference the organization made in her life, stating that “these walls have a lot of stories.”

“When you walk into a place like this, it can be pretty terrifying,” Dean said. “You feel very alone but, yet you are surrounded by 20 other children. They don’t let you feel that way for very long here. They fill you up pretty quickly. I didn’t know what it was like to be loved on. I didn’t have much self-worth. Connections really made a difference.”

Huereca said that the agency has raised $5.4 million for the new project but has about $2.2 million to go.

“We’re going to be able to serve more kids,” he said. “And we’re going to be here 42 years from now, still bringing hope to the community.”

In 2021, the McKenna Foundation provided funding that allowed Connections to purchase land for the project.

For more information on Connections or to donate to its capital campaign, visit or call 830-629-6571 ext. 221.

Suicide prevention organization founder comes to NB Sept. 13 for Brauntex event

September 7, 2023

On Sept. 13 at 7:30 p.m., New Braunfles and the Brauntex Theare will welcome Sam Eaton, author of “Recklessly Alive: What My Suicide Attempt Taught Me About God and Living Life to the Fullest.” He’s a powerful voice, dedicated to eradicating suicide deaths worldwide.

In 2011, Eaton gave himself an ultimatum — on Christmas Day, he would either end his life or never think about suicide again.

“I wrote goodbye letters and boxed up my belongings because I believed my life was meaningless and disposable,” Sam says on his website.

In 2020, he published his first book entitled “Recklessly Alive: What My Suicide Attempt Taught Me About God and Living Life to the Fullest.” The book became a No. 1 Amazon best-seller.

Sam will share his story to equip and empower the New Braunfels community to engage in real and honest conversations about mental health, depression and suicide. The presentation is free and open to the public. The Walmart Foundation, Downtown Rotary Club of New Braunfels and Sissy Preston sponsor the event.

The event is free. To reserve a seat, click here.

For more information about the Brauntex, visit

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available 24/7. Call or text the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat Call the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team of Comal County for local support at 1-877-466-0660 or text 741741.

Confidential crisis support is available for veterans and their loved ones by dialing 988, then pressing 1. Veterans can also text 838255. If someone is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

RecoveryWerks! readies for National Recovery Month; Sept. 15 Open House

Sept. 6, 2023

September is National Recovery Month, an observance promoting and supporting new evidence-based treatment and recovery practices, the nation’s recovery community, and the dedication of service providers and communities who make recovery possible. The 2023 theme is “Recovery is for Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community.”

Comal County is home to several organizations that promote, encourage and celebrate recovery daily. RecoveryWerks!, a local nonprofit, is one such organization.

RecoveryWerks! provides recovery support services for teenagers and young adults experiencing problems with substance use. Through state-certified peer recovery support specialists, they provide counseling, peer coaching, support group meetings, sober social activities, role modeling and accountability to help young people discover the freedom of life without the effects of mind-changing chemicals.

“We know that to young people, their peer group means everything,” said Zach Saunders, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and RecoveryWerks! youth services program director. “Nowadays, when a kid tries to become sober, it’s very different. It’s virtually impossible to avoid contact with other kids experiencing substance abuse problems. Ultimately, when we identify a young person with a substance abuse issue, they need a different set of friends. They need a different place to be. That’s what we try to provide.”

In addition to working with teens and young adults, RecoveryWerks! provides similar support to family members, ages nine and above, who have a loved one struggling with substance use disorder.

“Family members come here because their teen is in trouble, and they want to get them help,” said RecoveryWerks! Executive Director Debi Dickensheets. “The parents are concerned with their teenager dying or going down a path that is not recoverable. We work with the family members on how to enable recovery versus enabling addiction. We have a 12-step support group meeting for parents and grandparents, while other counselors are having a 12-step support meeting for the teens. We also have a 12-step support group meeting for brothers and sisters who are not using between the ages of nine and 17. Everybody in the group gets tools on how to help enable recovery.”

The Comal County Commissioners Court recently proclaimed September as National Recovery Month in Comal County, recognizing that while mental health and substance use disorders affect all communities nationwide, many within the community have embarked on a journey of improved health and overall wellness.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, launched National Recovery Month in 1989 to increase public awareness surrounding mental health and addiction recovery.

On Sept. 15, RecoveryWerks! is hosting a fun night for the entire family to celebrate the outpouring of community support for persons in recovery and the many lives changed through the recovery process.

The free event will be held at 790 Landa St. in New Braunfels from 6 – 10 p.m., featuring music, games, prizes, food trucks, community resources tables and an outdoor family movie that begins at sunset. The public is invited to bring lawn chairs, bring the family, and help celebrate National Recovery Month in the community.

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month observed in July

July 10, 2023

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is observed each July to bring awareness to the unique struggles that racial and ethnic minority communities face regarding mental illness in the United States.

Racial and ethnic minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes due to multiple factors, including lack of access to quality mental health care services, cultural stigma surrounding mental health care, discrimination and overall lack of awareness about mental health.

Read more here or here or here.

Point-in-Time 2023 count identifies more homeless individuals in Comal County compared to previous counts

July 5, 2023

A homelessness survey conducted during a cold January morning indicates more people in Comal County may not have a permanent roof over their heads this year compared to 2022.

Local agencies and organizations annually conduct a Point-in-Time count as a snapshot of the number of homeless persons on a single day. The survey is conducted throughout the state and the country. However, the count does not capture the total number of people who experience homelessness in the community on any given day or even over the course of a year, likely missing unsheltered individuals.

The count helps non-profit agencies and organizations understand how homelessness changes over time across numerous variables such as economic conditions, societal factors and policy advancement. It also allows organizations to spread awareness, engage and build relationships with unhoused neighbors and collaboratively address gaps in community resources.

The results of the 2023 annual snapshot count identified more individuals in Comal County self-reporting as experiencing homelessness compared to prior counts and more people experiencing chronic homelessness.

This year’s Point-in-Time count, conducted by the Comal County Homeless Coalition to determine the extent of homelessness in the community, identified 98 people experiencing homelessness, compared to 89 in the 2022 count. In the 2020 count, 46 homeless individuals were identified. Additionally, the survey identified 82 youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

The Point-in-Time count follows the federal definition of homeless: People living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter, in transitional housing or exiting an institution where they temporarily resided.

Of those self-identifying as experiencing homelessness, 45 were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping on the street or sidewalk, in an outdoor encampment, under a bridge or overpass or in a vehicle.

“There was a 113% increase in the number surveyed between 2020 and 2023 and a 10.1% increase from 2022 to 2023,” said Kellie Stallings, executive director of NB Housing Partners, citing the survey results. “This shows that we are improving on our outreach and ensuring we survey all who are residing in a shelter. At the same time, it also indicates that homelessness is growing in our community.”

The count showed that 59% of those surveyed were experiencing homelessness for the first time. Even more concerning, the survey indicated that 32% had experienced homelessness more than once. The most considerable portion of those individuals, about 40.6%, have experienced homelessness four or more times.

“Homelessness creates or exacerbates health problems, substance addictions, and mental illness,” Stallings said. “It increases exposure to physical violence, police involvement, and the need for emergency care services, straining community resources.”

According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, people who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population.

Two-person volunteer teams conducted surveys of people experiencing homelessness in selected areas in Comal County during the morning hours of Jan. 26. In addition, volunteers passed out supplies to individuals, regardless of whether they chose to participate in the survey or not.

Most surveyed were between the ages of 25 to 54. However, the most considerable increase of those surveyed was for individuals ages 18 to 24, with a significant increase also seen in youth younger than 18. Currently, 8% surveyed were younger than 18, and 8% were over 65.

The survey also indicated that 22% of those surveyed reported chronic homelessness, defined as individuals living in an emergency shelter, other safe haven or on the streets for six months or longer, compared to 15 during the 2022 count.

Additionally, the count showed a 250% increase in those who have experienced homelessness longer than three years compared to the 2020 survey to 2023 and a 16.7% increase from 2022 to 2023.

“The concern about the growth in those who have experienced homelessness more than once or for longer than six months is the negative impact on the person’s ability to obtain and maintain housing or employment, as well as the negative impact on their health and life trajectory,” Stallings said.

Also, six children under age 18 and five young adults ages 18 to 24 were experiencing homelessness in January. Of those children, two were five to 12 years old.
Of those participating in the count, 5% were veterans, 25% reported a serious mental illness, 9% reported a substance use disorder, and 9% were domestic violence survivors.

“Expanding affordable housing options in the community and increasing comprehensive care is vital, requiring both a healing and a housing focus, to resolve the emotional and physical cost of homelessness for both consumers and the community,” Stallings said.

A separate survey conducted in conjunction with the New Braunfels and Comal school districts identified 82 students experiencing homelessness. The survey found 75% of those individuals reported a history of family violence, 42% reported a history of child abuse, and 36% reported a history of sexual assault.

The National Runaway Safeline reports that family dynamics, abuse or neglect, mental health, and peer issues are the top four reasons a youth might run away or experience homelessness.

“Think about it this way,” the organization’s website states. In a classroom of 30 students, at least one of them will experience homelessness this year, without a safe living environment to call home and forced to couch surf, bounce among relatives and friends, live in shelters or stay on the streets.”

“These types of risk factors really impact future housing and high needs that contribute to long-term housing insecurity if these youth do not receive intervention that changes their current trajectory,” Stallings said.

To learn more, visit