Sunday Conversation: Patti Rivela discusses her connection to county youth, women’s shelters
Now tucked behind the trees along New Trails Drive in The Woodlands, the Yes to Youth office recently relocated and got a new name. It used to be known as Montgomery County Youth Services and has existed for almost 40 years.
It’s an organization near to community member Patti Rivela’s heart—she has volunteered with the nonprofit for 14 years and has been a board member for six years. While she works with the youth at their emergency shelter, she also works with the Montgomery County Women’s Center.
She was named as an Interfaith Hometown Hero in August for her contributions. Rivela sat down with The Villager to tell her story of impact.
QUESTION: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
RIVELA: We’ve lived in The Woodlands for 20 years. When my husband was recruited by Memorial Hermann hospital to be a plastic surgeon, we moved here and I was pregnant with my last kid. She’s now 20, and we also have a 24-year-old and a 27-year-old. Our two older children both went to the University of Texas and live in Austin now, and our youngest is at New York University as a sophomore. I went to UT as well, and have two degrees from them: a studio art degree and an art education degree. I taught public and private school for many years, and I still do art projects at the youth shelter and the women’s shelter.
QUESTION: What was it like to come into a new community when you moved here?
RIVELA: I didn’t really know anything about The Woodlands when we moved here. Memorial Hermann was very welcoming, and I met a lot of doctor’s wives. Immediately upon coming to this community, it was neighbors and other moms that I met that really cemented this as our new home. I had taught in the inner city in Houston and my husband did his training downtown in Houston, and we thought, we can always go into Houston — we don’t go into Houston that much. We love The Woodlands. It’s our home.
QUESTION: You do work with Yes to Youth, formerly named Montgomery County Youth Services. What do you do, and what is your favorite part?
RIVELA: As a board member, I help with guiding principles. The renaming was part of that. I am the head of the capital campaign. We are in a super exciting time that we’re doubling the number of kids we’re able to serve in our shelter. We currently have one shelter which houses eight girls and seven boys. We’ll keep that building, but we’ll be building two cottages: a girls’ cottage and a boys’ cottage. We’ll have 15 girls in one building and 15 boys in the other.
This is my favorite time of year. I’m very involved with the shelter kids. As a teacher and a mom, I work very hard throughout the year to make their experience as normal as possible. We make sure they have something new for the beginning of the school year. When homecoming comes around, I go out with other moms in The Woodlands and we make mums. For Halloween, they came and did some volunteering here (at the organization office) but they got to wear costumes and got some candy. We do a Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter, and now we do a secret Santa with their Christmas wish-list. We either buy (the presents) ourselves or we match them with individuals in the community so they don’t just get generic boy or girl things.
QUESTION: What situation are the kids in who come into the shelter?
RIVELA: Each child is unique. Some kids are community placements, where there’s bad stuff going on in their house. You can utilize the shelter as an everyday citizen. We get the kids in school, if they like sports they do sports. The vast majority of kids are in Child Protective Services placement and are between placements. We get the kids who have just been taken away from their families and try to ease the transition. It’s not unusual for a child to have lived with five or six foster families before they come to us. Unfortunately, we have a big problem in Montgomery County with kids who are not being cared for.
You would think the shelter is a sad place, but it can actually be a very healing place. When the kids come to the shelter, it’s an even playing field. Every child has their own situation. One thing is that they’re all shelter kids and there’s no one who’s “normal” or “not normal.” The shelter is the new normal. But the kids are very normal, and we try to keep it that way. We try to keep it as home-like an environment as possible. It’s usually a very positive place, and if it’s not, if someone just came in, we’re gentle with them. The shelter kids are very supportive of each other. They help them assimilate and tell them it’s going to be good.
As a volunteer, my favorite thing is to draw portraits of the kids. I’ll sit and sketch them. My volunteering and visiting with the kids is to make them feel beautiful and that they have value.
Something I don’t often share is that I actually grew up in a difficult situation myself. I lived with foster families from my church my junior and senior years of high school. My step-father had been abused as a child, and as will many times happen, he was verbally and physically abusive of me. I would sit in my room and draw. Sometimes when you go through a hard situation, you actually get a gift out of it. If I had not gone through what I went through, while I would not wish it upon anyone else, I might not have this gift or the sensitivity to art. When I was in this unhealthy situation, I did very poorly in school. When I lived with foster families, I went from someone who was in the remedial group to actually being in accelerated classes.
QUESTION: What do you do with the Montgomery County Women’s Center?
RIVELA: I do the portraits as well, and share a little bit of my story with them. Everyone has beauty and worth. My sketches, and what I do for my husband’s practice, where I do the marketing for the office, my goal is that everyone should see their value and worth. Everyone should feel beautiful the way they are. That is my goal at the women’s shelter and the youth center. To show them an example of a person who has gone through adversity and overcame it. If it I had not gone through it, I might not have this gift. Beauty is not just the way you look, it’s what you do.
I’ve been doing portraits there for 12 years, and I have seen the population in need in our community touch. I’ve met children at the youth shelter who I first met when they were with their mothers at the women’s shelter. I have met women at the women’s shelter who, when they were youth, lived at the youth shelter.
Usually you have to pay someone to have your portrait drawn, but it’s taking that time to see the value in someone. Particularly, the women at the women’s shelter and the youth at the youth shelter, a lot of them feel invisible. A lot of them want to feel invisible, and a lot of them are in a very sad place. I ask them questions and have them close their eyes to find that softer side of themselves. I share a little bit of my own story. I’m not a volunteer swooping down to help them, I am a human being reaching across the room and saying that you have value and a beautiful soul. That’s my message.
I also love finding individuals who have gifts and plugging them into Yes to Youth. Not everybody is an artist, but someone else may love to bake cookies and go do a recipe lesson, or finding someone who wants to go and do their hair and makeup. Seeing the value in every person and plugging them in, and also getting the kids involved. When I have more time, I have kids at the youth shelter make something for the women at the women’s shelter, and vice versa. By doing that, they see themselves as a volunteer and not as a victim. That’s another thing, to give them an opportunity to go beyond their situation.
QUESTION: You were chosen as a 2018 Interfaith Hometown Hero. How does it feel to be given that honor?
RIVELA: It’s very humbling. It’s an amazing group of people, and we live in an amazing community. I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to get involved in the ground floor of Yes to Youth and other charity events, but I am completely humbled by the honor because I know I am one of just tens of thousands of volunteers who do so much. We have so many heroes in our community. The thing I love about it is that it’s given me an opportunity to showcase what Yes to Youth does, with our counseling and shelter programs and give those children a voice.
QUESTION: What do you like to do in your free time?
RIVELA: I love living in this forested community. If I’m not (at the Yes to Youth offices), you’ll probably see me out walking. I try to make my own art and get together with my family and friends. We are super excited — my husband and I are going to become foreign exchange parents to a student from Thailand who will go to The Woodlands College Park High School.