HONDO, Texas – Driving up to a home along a quiet road in the small town west of San Antonio, John Southwell recalls one of the worst stories of child abuse he’s ever heard.
“They’d get the kids drunk. Then they’d take the 13-year-old into the bedroom,” he pauses. “This went on for three years.”
That story is one of too many that prompted Southwell and his wife, Debbie, to found HANK, which stands for Helping Abused and Neglected Kids.
The Southwells worked as volunteers for CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, when they realized they wanted to do more.
“I started out and they told me about abused kids and I didn’t believe them,” John Southwell said. “Because I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never known of any abused kids.”
HANK is a nonprofit that is in the process of building eight foster homes in Medina County. Two homes will be located in Hondo, two in Devine, two in Castroville and two in locations yet to be determined.
The houses will be home for up to two foster parents and six foster children each.
The first HANK house opened in Devine in April 2016.
The finishing touches are being put on the second home, which is set to open in Hondo in the coming weeks.
The goal of HANK is to keep kids torn from their homes living in their home communities.
"You just imagine a 5, 6, 7-year-old child picked up in the middle of the night or the day. Nothing on their back but the clothes they’ve got on and they're sent to Austin,” said Southwell.
That's what HANK aims to prevent.
"They can stay in their school. If they’re involved with sports, soccer and stuff they can stay with their group,” said Southwell. “Very good therapy for the children to stay with their environment.”
See more about CASA in the video below.
The majority of what’s in the home, from kitchen appliances to beds to toiletries, is donated by the community.
That support is so strong that Southwell keeps several storage units full of donations waiting to be distributed among the next houses.
The first house to open in Devine is now home to foster mother Marj Verner and five foster children, who are siblings.
"These five children would very likely be spread throughout San Antonio, Houston, maybe Austin,” Verner said.
Verner has been a foster mother to more than 60 children over the years.
But this is her first time working with HANK.
"This is perfect. This is what I had always dreamed the perfect situation would be,” she said. “They see their teachers in church, they see relatives at Walmart. Their community stays the same.”
The children even get to celebrate birthdays and special occasions with relatives because they remain nearby.
One bed in the home in Devine remains empty but is already reserved.
"They have an older sister who's not able to be here right now, but we're saving the bed for her,” Verner said. “And whenever she's able to, it will be here so we can have all of them together.”
That’s the kind of stability and hope Southwell, an Army veteran and former CEO, strives to provide.
“I want to see it done right,” he said.
Sometimes, doing it right means keeping kids with their non-offending relatives who have offered to take them in.
One such example is Ramona Torres, in Uvalde.
Her great-great grandson, John, had been medically neglected before the state removed him from his parents.
John was 7 years old and weighed just 21 pounds when he came to live with Torres in 2013.
But first, her house had to pass inspection.
HANK paid to fix electrical work and buy Torres a new stove.
The group even gives the family gas money to drive to San Antonio for doctor's visits.
“Wow, what a blessing,” said Dora Rodriguez, the daughter of Torres. “I pray for him every night because he doesn’t even know the impact that he has on us,” she said of Southwell.
Southwell was told John would likely never walk or talk again when he was placed with his great-great-grandmother.
Today, John is walking and doing well in school.
It’s a turnaround Southwell calls emotional and an answered prayer, as he stopped our interview to wipe away tears.
“I’ve looked at a number of cases, I know a number of cases, that, fortunately I have never met the perpetrator. Because I don’t know if I could control myself,” Southwell said. “Little children deserve more than that.”