A decade’s time in Wichita Falls
In 2015, Laura Sotelo watched the building intended to house Catholic Charities Fort Worth Northwest Campus burn to the ground. Father Jack McKone, then pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls, stood next to her.
“I wonder what God is trying to tell us?” she asked him.
Sotelo, who at the time was director of CCFW Northwest Services, was supposed to pick up the keys to the building that same day. She said the fire may have been started by a homeless person sleeping behind the building.
“He’s telling us to get back to work,” Fr. McKone assured her.
Sotelo and her staff of six had been working from offices at Sacred Heart. So, undeterred by the loss, they went back to work at the parish and eventually moved into a different building on the same block.
This March, the Northwest Campus celebrates 10 years in Wichita Falls serving families in the northwest portion of the Diocese of Fort Worth. Sotelo explained that the need for a Wichita Falls campus became apparent after a series of floods in the area. She said she worked with the campus planning committee, the local Northwest Advisory Board, and Fr. McKone for several years to bring the permanent campus to the area in 2014.
“We pulled together a planning team of parish and community leaders and people already engaged with CCFW in some way in the area,” she explained. “We leaned into their knowledge of the community and what they thought we needed.”
She said Northwest Services “started small” with mental health counseling, medical, dental, and vision assistance, immigration consulting, and long-term case management with some financial assistance.
Since 2014, the Northwest Campus has grown into a team of 28, supporting three major programs: the Veterans Service Center, Community Connections, and Education Navigation. During the past 10 years, the campus has served around 8,000 clients through Community Connections and Education Navigation alone.
The Veterans Service Center offers on-site mental health counseling for veterans, active-duty military, their families, and spouses of deceased veterans. Sotelo noted that the Veterans Service Center also seeks other providers to offer services such as Legal Aid of Northwest Texas which consults with veterans twice monthly, and Recovery Resource Council which locates housing for homeless veterans.
The Community Connection Program served nearly 500 in 2023 with strategic financial assistance, help with medical and pharmacy costs, and holistic case management.
Education Navigation began in 2015 with one navigator at North Central Texas College in Graham. Sotelo said that throughout the planning process, the Northwest Advisory Board stressed the need for an education program.
“They urged us to start an education program in the area,” Sotelo explained. “They were adamant that we needed something like that, and it’s grown into an incredible program.”
Today, Education Navigation is the Northwest Campus’ largest program with 11 navigators at eight junior colleges and three universities.
During the 2022-2023 academic year, navigators helped 454 students reach educational goals and financial stability.
At a recent Northwest Campus Creating Hope event, several Education Navigation graduates shared their success stories with an audience of 200. In a video, Blanca Gutierrez shared her journey from teen mom to nurse with a master’s degree.
“Our life before Catholic Charities was hard… we’ve worked two jobs before just to make ends meet,” Gutierrez recalled.
After graduating high school, Gutierrez enrolled in the licensed vocational nursing program at NCTC but did not have the funds to finish. She tried several times to return to school, but financial and situational barriers kept her out of the classroom. Everything changed in 2018 when she discovered Education Navigation at the Northwest Campus.
While receiving some financial assistance, Gutierrez and her husband, Victor, worked with their navigator on time management, goal setting, and creating a budget. With that guidance and support, Blanca exceeded her original goal of becoming an LVN, earning her master’s in nursing. Today, she works as a nurse practitioner and serves on the NCTC Graham Board of Regents.
Victor Gutierrez also advanced his employment from jobs in landscaping and as a cook to production supervisor at a shipping container company.
“I can say maybe we wouldn't be here if it weren't for Catholic Charities,” he said. “They really helped set us up for success.”
Harleigh Fowler told the Creating Hope audience that she hoped to someday attend veterinary school. She worked as a veterinary technician but when she enrolled at Vernon College, she was only able to afford one class per semester. In 2022, Education Navigation not only set her on a solid path toward her goal but also helped with a greater need.
Fowler explained that she had been born with multiple medical problems including club feet and a cleft palate which contributed to struggling with confidence.
“My navigator, Melody, has brought me out of my darkest times,” she said. “[She] always encourages me and reminds me of who I am and how far I have come.”
“I look forward to the day that I can be a donor to a student who has felt the way I do and give them the hope that I was given,” she added.