Devine Texas – A San Antonio woman is turning her painful past into a bright and resilient future for victims of violent crimes across South Texas.
Margaret Fernandez is the founder and CEO of the non-profit 3rd Street Closet.
The organization is located at 211 West College Avenue in Devine and today, looks like a large boutique store filled with donated clothes, food, and other necessities people going through violent situations may need.
Fernandez got the idea working as a detective and officer for the Natalia Police Department, which is located on 3rd Street.
“We started this so victims of crimes we were handling had some sort of resources without having to wait for someone in the morning,” Fernandez said. “We had victims all the time. That was the basis of it. We wanted to ensure we had clothes and shoes and a little bit of supplies in our police department to always ensure we had emergency food and resources.”
Fernandez started working for the department in 2017 and started the closet in 2018. Now she is no longer an officer after dedicating her life to her non-profit.
“I completely left doing that to start this,” she said. “It was just a calling I had, and I don’t regret it. It has been the best thing so far for me because I was looking for some kind of refuge.”
A friend who is the commander of the VFW in Devine gave Fernandez the spacex, which didn’t look the way it does now.
“We were talking and the more I spoke about what I wanted to do, he said, ‘You’re that cop that is feeding people.’ I said no it was a bunch of us and he said, ‘Whatever! What do you need?’ I said I needed a place to store all of this stuff that was in the closet ,which was in the police department at the time and we were running out of room.”
She said he graciously gave her the building that she turned from cobwebs and limited space to several rooms filled to the ceiling with necessities.
“I felt at home here and it wasn’t until about a year ago or a little more than a year ago, we opened to the public,” Fernandez said. “When you do come here, we help you with free clothes and shoes. Depending on your needs, you make a list of food and you get free food once a month.”
Fernandez said this was all an idea based on her own lived experiences. When she was a child, she grew up homeless with her family.
“The building was rough and filled with spiderwebs and was much smaller, but I started dividing the rooms up in dedicated rooms. I wanted to set it up like a store-like setting. My mom and dad struggled a lot. We were living in $3 motels and people had to give us resources like clothes and shoes. It takes a toll on your psyche as a child when you see your parents go through that. It does something.”
Fernandez said because of that, she goes over and beyond to make sure her clients feel special while shopping.
“Anytime I get donations, I always want to make sure the clothes are clean and neat,” she said as she became emotional. “I always ensured they were hanged up and clean and neat and folded because I wanted the families to come and shop like they were in a store-like setting. I do believe that restores some dignity and respect.”
Sadly, as a child, Fernandez said she went through horrors growing up.
“We lived out of a car,” she said. “It wasn’t until we were blessed to find Godly Godparents who helped us when they could. They were legally blind. My dad needed a lot of help. It was a violent upbringing and full of abuse. It changed us in so many ways. When the authorities got involved, it didn’t end. It continued on.”
She said that is what truly motivated her to get into law enforcement.
“I was blessed to end up in the policing world because I was able to recognize the gap between police and victims,” she said. “We were removed from our parents and placed with another family member where I experienced human trafficking. As an adult, I had to grow from that and really get help. As much as people thought I had it together, I really didn’t.”
Even more devastating, in 2006, Fernandez learned that her at-the-time boyfriend and now ex was sexually assaulting her three young daughters.
“It was pretty bad because I was a police officer and I couldn’t protect my kids, so it was hard to put my uniform back on,” she said as she wept. “All of that other stuff didn’t matter. Even though I went through it because when it happened to my kids…it makes you snap and that is what changed my life.”
She said it was through ChildSafe that she and her daughter overcame that dark chapter, which motivated her even more to fight for children of violent crimes.
It is the very reason why 3rd Street Closet has grown from helping nine families to now helping 144 different families of violent crimes.
“This was really easy to take all of the experiences in my life and turn them into this,” Fernandez said. “I am grateful first to God because that is the only reason this is put together and that is the only reason I am here today to testify to you. Know that this is all His plan. I could never be this smart. God did this. God did this and He does it through the donations of people.”
Her three daughters, which are all adults now, are her biggest supporters.
“My girls have come out to being really independent and strong,” Fernandez said. “They are really self-motivated and are leaders and I am so proud of them.”
She said she will never let her past dictate her future.
“It is not anything that I look back on and it doesn’t make me hate where I have been,” she said. “I understand that this was supposed to happen. All of this. With the families we see that come here and get the hope they need, I motivate them to never stop.”
She said the success stories are major blessings as well.
“I appreciate the families that have allowed me to become a part of their lives,” she said as she became emotional. “They are always telling me, ‘Thank you,’ but if they only knew how they saved me. I am so grateful to God and I want anyone who knows of a non-profit that you love to please give. Get involved. We need more programs like this to get people up and where they need to be. They are strong like everyone else and they do not have to be victims. We are not that anymore.”
Fernandez said there is a reason why she is so positive.
“It is the people I surround myself with,” she said. “I have been blessed to join different fellowships. I make sure the organization’s supporters and volunteers are God-fearing people. This is all His plan.”
Fernandez said all appointments with her clients are one-on-one with privacy. She said they work with crisis organizations to step in to help when they need it.
With the community of victims growing more and more every day, the organization is need of donations and staff constantly.
If you would like to donate, you can visit their website at thirdstreetcloset.org.
“What I will tell anyone in need of our services is to never give up,” Fernandez said. “I know it’s cliché and played out, but I kept going and my kids’ love get me going and kept me in the fight. I reconnected with God and it changed my outlook on my life. I no longer wanted to live behind lies or anything. You have to understand what you are going through in the moment is just in that moment. Things are always changing. I don’t know that little girl that was scared at the moment. I would have told her it is going to change, and all of this is going to be ok. You are going to find great people and programs. Embrace the help and get up and don’t be on that help forever. You make it out.”