It was the sign on the wall that drew D’Erika Flowers’ attention: “Pathway.” That’s just what she needed–a new pathway.
D’Erika had stopped by VISTO, a social service agency based in Gainesville, to pick up supplies for her grandmother. She paused and thought about her own life–her dead-end job, her abusive boyfriend.
She needed a pathway out. She left with supplies for her grandmother without asking for help, but the seed was planted, and after mulling over the idea for about a year–uncertain of what to do and who to trust–she finally returned to VISTO for help.
Cooke County, population 39,266, is not listed among Texas’ fastest-growing counties–unlike its neighbors, Denton and Collin counties, to the south.
But this doesn’t mean the county that borders Oklahoma is unaffected by regional growth, said Bekki Jones, Executive Director of VISTO (Volunteers In Service To Others). When social service agencies in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex overflow, Cooke often takes up the slack.
“Cooke County has a very short waiting list for child care, for housing, for food stamps–all of that stuff–and so other counties–Denton County, Dallas County, Wise County–send folks to us,” said Bekki.
By “short waiting list,” she means three to five months.
In 2016, VISTO administered to 17,741 individuals, representing 46 percent of Cooke County’s population. In August, they even helped a couple evacuating from South Texas during Hurricane Harvey to purchase train tickets to Missouri.
D’Erika received financial assistance from VISTO, but it was the classes she was really after–cooking, couponing, financial–“to become a better you,” she said.
The agency, created in 1988 by a countywide ministerial alliance to pool resources, retains the religious principles it was founded on and relies on private donations for funding.
It has been like a family to D’Erika and her 4-year-old daughter, Esther. Volunteers have made sure Esther is well supplied for projects at her Head Start class. They also paired D’Erika with a financial mentor and even tweaked a few Pathway class schedules that conflicted with her work hours.
“They have been such a support system for my home, my daughter, me” she said.
D’Erika recently passed exams to become a teacher and to sell insurance. “I make better choices, but I have more tools to make better choices,” she said. She has a heart for children and works at a daycare until she can find a teaching position.
“She is employed and taking care of herself, taking care of her daughter,” said Bekki. “That’s a victory. That’s a huge victory.”
In that victory, D’Erika has found something more: “Hope is being restored in me, and I want to use that ability to restore hope in others.”
She recently found the confidence to share her story at a church. “It was freeing to be able to say it without shame or guilt,” she said, and she wants her daughter to feel that same freedom.
“I hope that she loves God, herself and life. I hope that she’ll be forgiving and yet know that she has value. I hope that she has the confidence that she was put on earth to accomplish something big and great, and know that the greatest thing of all is love.”