Rogaciano Ríos Marcial and his four children were not sure what last Thanksgiving or Christmas would bring. It would be the first one without wife and mother Maria Lorena Suárez Escobedo, who died the previous May from liver complications.
They were living in an apartment with leaks, wires hanging from the ceiling, broken cabinets, broken lights and the ceiling hanging down.
Then Austin opened its arms and embraced the family through the Statesman's Season for Caring program.
"It was wonderful," Ríos Marcial, 47, says through an interpreter. "The help was wonderful."
Last year, Season for Caring raised the most ever in its first 19 years with $1,065,095 given in both in-kind goods and services and monetary donations. On Sunday, the program will launch again with 12 new families representing hundreds of others served by local nonprofit agencies. It will be the 20th year of the program, which started in 1999 with six families in six agencies and raising $140,000.
Last year, the Ríos Marcial family was given a year's worth of rent at a new apartment complex through an anonymous donor. Season for Caring funds helped furnish the apartment. The family moved in just before Christmas.
Season for Caring helped give the family some stability, he says. Before, he says, "The kids were stuck. They were not progressing at all."
Many of their worries went away, and they have settled into life in the apartment with a washer and dryer inside so they no longer spend the weekend at the laundromat.
"It's a lot of change," he says. "It's better."
Now he, says, they are doing well in school; they are learning again.
Gael Guadalupe Gracia Garcia, 25, was caring for his father, Marcelo Gracia, as he declined in health from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. BrightStar Care was inspired by their story and donated reduced-cost caregiving services for Gracia to enable Gracia Garcia to work in a laundromat without having to leave his father alone.
"Having an extra hand to help him, it was easier for him to help himself with his needs," Gracia Garcia says about the care his father was given. Before, he says, his father was feeling distress about being by himself. "That wasn't a good thing for him," he says.
Gracia died February 7. He was 45.
BrightStar Care has continued to help Gracia Garcia by putting him through school to become a certified nursing assistant as well as giving him a job as a caregiver.
Today he works helping two different clients Fridays through Sundays and repairs washing machines at the laundromat on other days.
This year is the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without his father. "I still can't think about how it's going to be," he says.
"What my daughter and I got to experience last year was amazing," says Nikki Jones, 36. She and her daughter, Addie, 7, spent a night at the Driskill Hotel and got to push the button to light the Christmas tree there. They had never stayed in a hotel before. "That was one of the best nights in my whole life."
Jones has common variable immune deficiency, which means she's prone to infections. She is on the waiting list to get into the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to see if there is something else that can be done to help her.
She's also waiting to hear back to see if she's qualified to receive Social Security disability, something she's been working on for three years.
Being part of Season for Caring, she says, helped her and Addie create memories. "These memories that you allowed us are so important," she says. They will last long after the gifts and attention they received from the program.
Another intangible: "Addie and I, we got some pride back," she says.
She thinks of it as "that time where we were special" but also "normal," because they didn't have to worry about Christmas presents, and Addie learned she wasn't alone in having a mother with an illness.
Sami Khalil Ashour, 49, and his wife, Ahlam Fouad Al Battal, 39, and their five children have been making gains since they emigrated from a refugee camp in Jordan as part of the Syrian war crisis in 2016. Now they are both working: she as an attendant to a person with disabilities and he in a Middle Eastern store. She also received her driver's license, which means she can now drive the van that was given to them by an anonymous donor. She is continuing to work on her English.
Recently they moved to another apartment complex, but they were able to furnish it with a donation from Star Furniture.
Bertha Foster, 44, who had had multiple strokes, was in and out of the hospital this year. Meals on Wheels Central Texas was able to move her into a bigger apartment for her to be cared for by her mother.
Foster's son Donovan Clay, 16, has moved to Houston to be cared for by an aunt.
Jazmyne Johnson, 25, says the assistance she received has helped her grow up a lot this year. Her twin daughters, Nakayla and Nyliah, 5, are now in kindergarten. Son Nehemiah, 4, is still in the Head Start program.
Johnson now has a driver's license and was able to take some preliminary college classes. A tutor has helped her get on the college level with math so that she can pursue biotechnology.
Some of the biggest help was with getting better treatment for Nakayla, who has a birth defect that caused her brain to not grow normally. Johnson says she has more consistency with Nakayla's care, and they are exploring other resources like the Shriners Hospital for Children in Houston.
The outpouring of gifts from Grisham Middle School meant that Johnson didn't have to buy any clothes for the children last winter or this winter.
"Everything is in place," she says. "Everything is moving forward."
Kenneth and Joyce Marvel love their redone condo, which they moved back into in April. CG&S Design-Build gave them all-new vinyl floors and redid the bathroom and kitchen.
"It's beautiful," Joyce Marvel says. "It looks pretty."
The couple both have intellectual disabilities, and Joyce Marvel, 74, uses a walker. Kenneth Marvel, 66, is still working as a dishwasher.
"He's going to quit," Joyce Marvel says. "I don't know when. He will let me know."
They are doing OK, she wants us to know.
Hawa Hassan, 31, and her children have made progress this year, their second year in America since leaving a refugee camp in Kenya. Season for Caring funds helped them get additional tutoring and helped Hassan learn more English.
The biggest difference is the motorized wheelchair for son Haji, 10, donated by National Seating & Mobility. He has a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Before the wheelchair, Haji was stuck inside the apartment while his sisters went out to play. With the wheelchair, he can play outside with them or when the family walks to the local library. He also uses it in school.
The family also welcomed a new brother, Idris, in March. Season for Caring helped get all the baby gear the family needed.
Margarita Matias, 73, husband Jessie, 61, and son Ricky, 47, are doing OK, she says. They are using the new walk-in shower in their redone bathroom from Austin Facility Services.
She is still living with ovarian cancer but has made some health improvements this year.
The part of Season for Caring that was the most memorable for Matias was their $500 shopping spree at Academy Sports and Outdoors.
She kept saying, "I feel like a princess."
Trisha Sherwood, 41, and her sons Jacob, 14, and Alden, 17, were finally able to move into a house that has hardwood floors and is accessible for Alden and his wheelchair. Alden had complications from cancer treatments that have left him in a wheelchair, but Sherwood says he's starting to make progress and take unassisted steps in physical therapy.
Jacob, who has autism, was able to get some of the therapy he needed with help from Season for Caring funds.
Things haven't always been easy this year. Trisha, who had already been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, has now been diagnosed with Parkinson's. "Sometimes it's hard to remember all the good stuff when there's a lot of bad stuff," she says. Sometimes, she says, it feels like the family is "doomed to have a tough time, and then we learn how to fight."
Season for Caring gave them an amazing Christmas, Sherwood says. "It was a blessing for us, for sure."
Lyric Wardlow, 20, who was once homeless, has been in college studying communications.
In addition to starting to get an education, Wardlow was able to grow a support network.
"Season for Caring really enabled me to meet people that want to help me in different ways," she says. "They are helping me be stable."
Donors have mentored her and donated a car to her. She says she now feels like she has a support system that her mom, who has her own struggles, couldn't give her.
"It made me create goals," she says.
Through Capital Area Dental Foundation, she got her teeth cleaned and braces. "They're not the funnest things in the world, but they make me feel good about that progress is happening." Soon, she says, she "will be able to smile and not have to worry about it.
Samanta Osorio Negron, 26, says being part of the program "helped us push forward." Last year she was dealing with non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatments, which came quickly after her family lost her step-father in a car accident just before Christmas 2016.
"It was such rough times for us," she says.
Now her health has improved and she's in remission. She's able to be in college with Season for Caring's help.
Her brother Luis, 11, got a distraction from the anniversary of his father's death. He was able to see wrestling, including Monday Night Raw in San Antonio, and was able to get a big president of a wrestling cage for his wrestling action figures. It was a present he had wanted for three years but the family couldn't afford.
"It helped to keep my little brother going," she says of Season for Caring. He's now doing better socially and academically in school.
Her younger sister Mayleth Aguilar Negron, 19, is trying to figure out what she wants to do. She's looking at nursing programs.
For her mom, Mayra Negron Romero, 46, it wasn't such a weight on her as a single mom. "It gave her a big piece of mind," Osorio Negron says.