Small town tries solving its own problems

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Oct. 10, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.
Updated Oct. 13, 2017 at 6 a.m.

Lillian Solis-Smith describes how survivors of a hurricane can experience emotional highs and lows. Solis-Smith is the chair of the Palacios Wellness Council. She is a licensed professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist.

Lillian Solis-Smith describes how survivors of a hurricane can experience emotional highs and lows. Solis-Smith is the chair of the Palacios Wellness Council. She is a licensed professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist.   Jessica Priest for The Victoria Advocate

PALACIOS - A deadly nightclub shooting more than a thousand miles away inspired some Palacios residents to improve access to mental health care.

This month, they watched as another shooting become the deadliest.

"I thought, 'As long as nothing seems to happen at the national level, what can we do at the local level?'" Edith Gower said.

They knew talking about guns would be a nonstarter for many, so they focused on building relationships within their city instead.

Then, they thought, they could talk about how to prevent such shootings.

Palacios is diverse.

Although white people hold positions of power as they do elsewhere in the country, more than half - 60.8 percent - of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015.

The city is home to Filipinos, Vietnamese, African-Americans and people of two or more races.

Gower said these groups don't often talk to one another, though.

She is one of the founders of the Palacios Wellness Council, which is also trying to improve race relations, youth activities and acts of kindness in the city.

The council has been meeting for a year and has spent part of that time taking stock of Palacios' slim mental health resources.

Palacios Police Chief David Miles said his officers regularly drive residents in mental health crises more than an hour away for care.

And Maggie Lara, who most recently served as the chief nurse officer at the Palacios Community Medical Center, reported the same. She said at least three people with mental illnesses come to the emergency room each week.

A $7,500 grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation has supported the council's efforts.

Now, the council is vying for a $10,000 grant from that same foundation and hopes to use some of it to send police officers to training.

By comparison, a group set up for a similar purpose in Victoria initially proposed asking the Texas Legislature for $10 million.

That group left the Capitol with only a chance to compete for a portion of $18.8 million the state set for mental health care during two years.

In Palacios, Lillian Solis-Smith is counted as a resource.

She's a licensed professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist who spends two days a week working in Palacios.

The Palacios native explained she tried to open a practice there but couldn't support herself or her family.

She spends most of her time working more than 20 miles away in Bay City.

Twenty percent of Palacios lives below the poverty level, and 27 percent do not have health insurance, according to 2015 Census Bureau data.

"My goal was actually to have interns come here, but nobody wants to come to Palacios because there's no money in it," said Solis-Smith, who is chairwoman of the council.

At a recent council meeting, Solis-Smith brought up how she'd like to work some days of the week at a clinic in Palacios, but it's not open when she's available.

The council talked about whom to contact about adjusting the clinic's hours of operation and then encouraged each other to attend a mental health training in Bay City.

Margaret Doughty, also one of the council's founders, doesn't appear daunted.

She and Gower moved to Palacios about 20 years ago, about the same time a French explorer's ship from the 17th century was raised from the muddy bottom of Matagorda Bay.

Gower now works at the City by the Sea Museum, while Doughty is retired.

They see themselves as part of a growing community of retirees or transplants who bring a wealth of knowledge and skills to a city that already takes care of its own.

"We're a community that kind of isn't on the map in terms of major resources and expectation from the government, state or federal," Doughty said. "We're used to asking the question, 'What are the best ways that we can solve this ourselves?'"

Click here to read the full "Minds that Matter" series.


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