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Season for Caring ‘was just a blessing’ during difficult 2020

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman
Nicole and Brandon Overton and their family, Greeley, 1, Saben 4, Kafry, 6, and Mayken, 16, had many improvements made to their home, including new baseboards.

Last year when the Statesman introduced readers to the Overton family, they had a lot going on with four sons, three of whom had a blood disorder or a brain malformation or both. The medical bills were mounting, and their home had improvement projects that never seemed to get finished.

They were one of 12 families selected to be featured in the Statesman’s Season for Caring program. For the last 21 years, the program has raised funds to help the featured families as well as hundreds of other families served by local nonprofit organizations.

In 2019, Season for Caring raised $1,046,517 in monetary donations and in-kind goods and services, the third year to raise more than $1 million. Since 1999, Season for Caring has given more than $13.7 million to local nonprofit organizations.

On Sunday, the 12 families and their nominating agencies in the 22nd Season for Caring program will be introduced to readers, but first we catch up with last year’s families.

Nicole Overton pointed to all the remodeling work Simply Sold donated to the family: new baseboards, repaired bathrooms, closet shelves, painting the stairway and a room for two of the boys. It added up to be about $18,000 worth of donated work, says Ashley Wainscott, the owner of Simply Sold. The list and the needs keep growing, she says. “We had more to give, so we did more.”

Mueller Highlife installed sunshades in the backyard to make it more usable for the family, and Season for Caring money paid for a new fence.

The Overtons have more usable spaces, which has been helpful this year when the kids have been at home doing virtual school.

“My kids can play outside,” Overton says.

Kevin Moreno, 24, who has been the head of his household since he was 16, is now enrolled in a business administration program through Southern New Hampshire University as well as continuing to work at Baylor Scott & White. His little sister, Avia, 7, is doing school online as a second grader, and his brother Dylan, 20, is working and taking time off of school.

Season for Caring, “it helped us out tremendously,“ Kevin Moreno says. ”Just financially and emotionally, too.“

School had always been his goal, and the financial stability Season for Caring brought the family allowed him to make the decision to enroll in college.

Alicia Gonzales, 41, is also in school. The mom of three boys was able to finish her registered nursing degree and is now getting a Bachelor of Science nursing degree through the University of Texas Arlington virtual program. Because of needing to care for her sons while they did school at home, and her mom, who has kidney failure and had open-heart surgery in July, continuing with school was a better choice for her than trying to work and pay for day care right now or school at home.

Season for Caring, she says, “has been a huge blessing through the COVID situation. It’s provided so much assurance where we never really felt like we had to worry. ... We’re 100% blessed.”

This year has been hard for many Season for Caring families because of the pandemic. Fatima Babiker, 34, who came to the United States by way of Egypt and Sudan, does not have reliable work cleaning houses, but she picks up jobs when she can. The car she received through Season for Caring, “it’s really, really helpful to me,” she says.

She and her four children are struggling because of the pandemic, but she says she thinks about what would have happened if she did not have help with rent through Season for Caring. “Especially this time, they saved me and saved my kids. I am thankful.”

Kizzy Jackson, 39, lost her job in a restaurant because of the pandemic. Season for Caring “made it a little less stress on the family worries,” she says. She is taking care of her mom and her two sons, one of whom has autism and one of whom has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“We are making it with everything going on,” she says.

Monica Beakley, 48, who has stage 4 lung cancer, and her son Jesse Jakob, 20, who is blind and has a brain disability caused by a childhood accident, have struggled this year. Things they had planned to do such as finalizing her will have been on hold because of the coronavirus and her weakened immune system. Beakley is trying to manage her health as well as Jakob’s online classes right now.

Season for Caring has continued to help her with rent and a car was donated after hers was stolen. The rent, she says, “has been extremely helpful.”

Mohammad Karim, 35, shifted from working as a taxi driver to driving delivery for GrubHub when the taxi job went away. A Season for Caring donor gave a car to his family, which allows his wife, Minatt, 27, to go to school for English as a second language classes. Laptops that were donated allowed her to continue classes virtually and helped the two oldest of the three children shift to online school.

The family of Rohingya refugees came to the United States in 2015 and haven’t found people who speak their language. Minatt Karim never had the chance to go to school as a girl, but now never misses her classes. She’s in the intermediate English class instead of the beginner level.

“Last year was so wonderful, Mohammad Karim says. ”Everything, everything is good.“

At the beginning of the pandemic, Maria Hekmati, 43, a refugee from Afghanistan, put the sewing machine to good use and began sewing masks with fellow refugees. Her husband, Kamiz, 43, has been able to keep his job working in security but is waiting to get an accounting internship through Goodwill soon.

Their four children are doing school virtually, even 4-year-old Mehr, who is in preschool and getting used to connecting with kids and the teacher by computer.

Amina Makamba, 35, says her 3-year-old triplets have gone through a lot of changes since last year. She works at Austin Community College, and when her daughters’ day care closed, she had to try to work from home and take care of them.

Now they are back in school, which she says is good because she wants them to have good communication skills. Makamba came to the U.S. from the Congo.

“For me, I really feel like (Season for Caring) was just a blessing,” she says. “... This year was so crazy. I really got a lot of help. If I didn’t have this program, I don’t know.”

One cool thing that happened for Makamba: A friend from her childhood school who now lives in Europe found her after watching her Season for Caring video on YouTube and reading her story.

Velma Pace, 85, continues to care for husband Johnny, 83, whose Alzheimer’s disease is progressing; he is now receiving hospice care. Her son Howard, 65, who has developmental differences, had surgery for a clogged artery. Doctors want her to have hernia surgery, but Pace doesn’t have time for that right now. She can’t leave her husband or her son alone.

She says Meals on Wheels Central Texas, which nominated her to Season for Caring, “and all the people who work there, they’re a great bunch of people. They are willing to help do anything you ask.”

Eden Welply, 26, was in a rehabilitation hospital in Houston this time last year after being hit by a car the winter before. She is now able to move her wrists and has more control over her torso. Moving her wrists means she can feed herself and pick things up on her own.

She continues to work on her music and collaborate with people. She’s also writing a screenplay with two friends about a young woman whose life gets thrown to the wind after she gets hit by a car. It’s a dark comedy, she says.

She’s become an advocate, working for the nonprofit organization Unite 2 Fight Paralysis to try to get funding for better research on spinal cord injuries in Texas.

She’s also doing research into clinical trials for restorative treatment, but with the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of things will have to wait because of her health risks and ability to travel right now as well as costs of travel and some programs being affected by the pandemic.

She’s also actively looking for work that she can do from home, but it’s tough because everything takes her longer.

“I learned to carve out a place for me in this world that didn’t exist,” she says.

Welply works hard every day at improvement. “It’s such a process,” she says. “I do feel like I’m getting closer. I’m trying really hard to move forward and not backward and not stay still in my still body. If I’m uncomfortable, it’s a good place to be.”

One thing to look forward to is the donation of Lasik surgery from Sharpe Vision.

Without Season for Caring, “I would not have been afforded the luxury of selfhood,” she says. “I would not be living in a home. I would be living in a nursing home.”

Season for Caring gave Eric Swieter, 47, one last Christmas with his wife, Cathy, before she died in January. They went to see a movie together and had date nights. She got flowers that made her face brighten up every time, he says.

“What Season of Caring has done for Cathy and me is priceless, and words can't express the way we feel,” he says. “We were happy.”

Eric is now living with a friend. “This year is rough, but I manage. Everything is a first without Cathy.”

“Thank you, Season for Caring, for everything you have done for Cathy and I,” he says.

Statesman Season for Caring

Find out more about Season for Caring and make a donation at statesman.com/seasonforcaring.

The Overton family can now play outside because of landscaping, sunshades and a new fence.