#HCDEGives: ABS East, Business Services Bring Smiles and Thanksgiving Feasts to Students and Families

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November 17, 2023 by HCDE Communications

Superintendent James Colbert Jr. often says that Harris County Department of Education saves lives by advocating for all learners by using innovative methods. That sentiment proves true as we roll out #HCDEGives, a series of stories showcasing how the Department and its employees are stepping up this holiday season to support our students, their families, and community members.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to gather around a delicious meal to show gratitude for life’s blessings. With donations from employees and community partners of the Special Schools and Business Services divisions, more than 100 HCDE students will enjoy a traditional holiday meal with their loved ones.

ABS East Educational Aide Martha Ruiz, left, and Attorney Joe Ray Rodriguez, right, supply an elementary student with Thanksgiving trimmings.

Academic and Behavior School East students will have that opportunity this year because Martha Ruiz, HCDE’s 2023 Educational Aide of the Year, often overhears students expressing their hunger at school due to a lack of food at home.

“I know times are tough right now, especially with the price of groceries so high. It broke my heart to think some students might not have food over Thanksgiving break,” said Ruiz.

Seeking to bring joy to her students and a Turkey Day spread to their families, Ruiz published a post on Facebook requesting donations of canned goods. She quickly learned the power of social media when Amanda Serna, a healthcare professional, responded. Serna was aware of a local attorney who wanted to make a large Thanksgiving donation.

“Amanda asked what we needed, and when I said, ‘About 100 turkeys,’ she answered, ‘Done.’ I literally cried,” said Ruiz. “I was worried about not getting enough donations and needing to pick which students to help, so this is a blessing.”

On Thursday, the pair coordinated with the law office of Joe Ray Rodriguez to distribute 100 boxes of food containing turkeys, canned goods, all the trimmings, and dessert to students. ABS East faculty and staff also pitched in to provide students with additional non-perishables to ensure food before and after their families’ harvest festival. 

As a mother of a child on the autism spectrum, Ruiz expressed that her call to action stemmed from empathizing with the daily struggles of ABS East parents, who try to provide for their family while also catering to the unique needs of their child. Students at ABS East are referred by districts in greater Harris County to receive individualized education in an environment designed for students with intellectual, developmental and behavioral disorders, autism spectrum disorder, or other significant health impairments.

“I see my son in our students and their challenges,” said an emotional Ruiz. “I genuinely care about every student and want to show them love because some don’t get that. Every day, I work to make them feel special and appreciated—it’s why I love working at ABS East.”

Just up the 610 Loop, the focus was on Harris County’s youngest learners as tears filled parents’ eyes. Members of HCDE’s Business Services division partnered with the Compton Head Start campus to provide Turkey Day baskets for two families.

Compton’s Family Services Providers, Guisell Gastelum and Lynnete Holiday, recommended the families based on their need for comprehensive assistance, including nutritional support. Accounting members consulted the Head Start’s nutritional plan before surprising students and their families with a basketful of donations. Boxes included a turkey voucher, canned goods to cook their favorite sides, along with fruits and vegetables.

“These donations have a big impact on Head Start families, and I’m grateful to work with an incredible team who are always willing to give back,” said Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Dr. Jesus Amezcua.

Amezcua, a longtime Head Start Real SuperMENtors Read program volunteer, started the annual initiative of “adopting” Compton Head Start families for the holidays several years ago. His team continues to answer the call enthusiastically by contributing their personal funds to purchase food items for the families. 

Three-year-old student Oscar Escobar and his mom, Glenda, described the donation as a blessing. The family recently immigrated from Honduras and were chosen due to financial need.

“My husband lost his job earlier this year, and it’s been difficult to provide for everyone.

We have three young kids to feed,” said Escobar. “I thank the Lord because this eases the pressure. I’m going to make this food last for them.”

Though the spirit of gratitude was palpable at ABS East and Compton Head Start, employees may never know the true impact of their donation.

“I had several parents tell me they weren’t planning to have a Thanksgiving dinner before this donation,” said Ruiz, the educational aide at ABS East. “Now, they are inviting their whole family to celebrate, and that’s what this season is about.”

To learn more about HCDE’s Special Schools, visit hcde-texas.org/special-schools.

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