Dedicated to His Children: Volunteers make strides to spread awareness, build community

North Texas Catholic
(Mar 1, 2024) Local

Debbie Alvarez and other Safe Environment coordinators from around the diocese receive training at Safe Environment University on Oct. 25, 2023 at St. Mark Parish in Argyle. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

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FORT WORTH — Called to share their talents and time to protect the vulnerable, 175 of the diocese’s faithful dedicate their expertise and passion to volunteer as facilitators for the diocese’s Safe Environment department.

The live and participatory trainings they lead in parishes throughout the diocese provide initial and renewal training for the care and protection of children and vulnerable adults.

“It’s not a matter of that person standing in front of the group and lecturing about safe environment or child sexual abuse, but rather engaging people to have the discussion,” Director of Safe Environment Sandra Schrader-Farry said. “Our system lends itself to the opportunity for people with life experience, practical experience, and professional experience to be able to interact and share that wisdom with the other people in their parish or diocese.” 

Read what drives two of the 175 volunteer facilitators. 


God is in the gut

“Every day, I pray: ‘Lord, make me today a better Catholic, a better wife, a better mom, and a better detective,’” Maria Orand, an 18-year member of the Fort Worth Police Department, said. “Every day I say that, and I know that He’s not going to give me more than I can handle.”

Along with being a loving wife, mother, and dedicated officer committed to protect and serve the Fort Worth community, Orand has been facilitating Safe Environment trainings in the diocese for the past twenty years.

“I like to teach these classes, but I wish I didn’t have to teach this class,” the human trafficking detective said. “I wish that we could abolish child sexual abuse, and that my unit would close down… I wish that would happen. But until that happens, we have to be the voice, and be the facilitators, and go out and spread this information.”

Safe Environment facilitator Maria Orand leads an introductory session on Sept. 26, 2023 at Holy Family Church in Fort Worth. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

The parishioner at Holy Family in Fort Worth believes the trainings “really do correlate with the grooming and the things we see in the Safe Environment class because 99 percent of our victims in trafficking were sexually abused in their home or by a close friend or relative at a young age,” Orand explained. “For me, I just don’t want it to get to that point. So any [warning] signs, these are signs they may see. We may never see the sexual abuse happen, but we’re going to see the warning signs.”  
In her classes, she stresses “any one of us, at any time, can be and have been vulnerable, [and in a position] where people may have taken advantage of us, manipulated us in some way… If you’re going through a divorce, if you’ve lost a spouse, or a child, or a parent… [abusers] know what they’re looking for, so they know how to pick up on things and take advantage of it.”

She understands that the faithful in the diocese may at first simply come to the Safe Environment training to just meet the requirement, but she prays that everyone leave a little bit more empowered, more knowledgeable, and more likely to talk about it.

“The more we talk about it, the more people are aware and know that it’s not that stranger who’s kidnapping people off the street,” she said. “The majority of our perpetrators are people in the family or people the child or youth knows: teachers, coaches, things like that… I just want you to be aware.”

However, she also believes that God has gifted His children with the ability to defend themselves.

“I truly believe that God gave us that gut feeling so that we would act, and that is there to protect us — or to protect someone else,” Orand asserted. “If something’s not right, it’s not; if something makes you uncomfortable, there’s a reason for it.”


Listen and Speak

A social worker with nearly 40 years’ worth of experience, the safe environment coordinator for Arlington’s St. Matthew and St. Joseph Parishes, Aracelis Rivarola, has seen abuse affect all types of families, kids and adults alike, in the metroplex.

"I fell into this ministry like a puzzle piece that had been missing for the local church," Rivarola shared. "I love participating because it gives me joy and pride that volunteers are returning to the church. It's a personal goal of mine to help others return to the church and participate as volunteers."

The introduction session, she said, is an incredible opportunity for people to learn more about such a delicate yet important topic.

“Awareness drives prevention. It's beneficial to think about this, to speak about it, discuss with others because abuse isn't something that should be kept quiet," Rivarola said. “In education, there is strength. If we educate ourselves and are alert of everything that is happening around us, we can speak on it. Silence is destructive. We must not remain silent when violence is present."

"The whole world should know this information," she continued. “Not only of the technical knowledge we cover in the training, but the true understanding of what's going on around us and how to help our vulnerable. Circumstances and things to look out for can change so quickly, and people don't always notice the danger."

Rivarola urges for more people to join the church, to participate in giving their gifts back to the church, and to not be afraid.

She acknowledges that the background check may draw some away due to the amount of sensitive information it requests. "But I would like to give others confidence that the people of the diocese that the Church is doing this for the good of His children, and all of the information will remain secure. Have confidence and join as volunteers."