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Giving Mast


The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine


Perla Sarabia and her family still honor the legacy of her late husband, Fermin, for whom the Sarabia Family Counseling Center is named.

Building a Legacy

Sarabia family helps fund endowment to support efforts at UTSA counseling center

A stately portrait of Fermin Sarabia hangs on a wall inside the UTSA Sarabia Family Counseling Center, located in the downtown campus’s Durango Building. The image is there to remind the faculty, staff and graduate students about their mission and purpose — to meet the needs of the people who go to them for help.

Throughout his life, accomplished psychiatrist Fermin would tell his wife, Perla, that he wanted to leave San Antonio better than when he first arrived in the late 1960s. “That was his own mission that he had in his heart,” she says. “I do feel he accomplished that.”

Perla Sarabia

In the years since Fermin’s death in 2010 at the age of 78, his family and friends have continued working toward that mission, contributing annually to the counseling center that Sarabia helped create. So far, they have donated nearly $75,000 and hope to reach a $100,000 endowment.

“Even when we get to $100,000, if God still gives me health and a good head on my shoulders, I will continue raising money for the endowment,” Perla says.

The center first opened in 2007 in the Guadalupe Community Center on San Antonio’s west side. It grew from a collaborative effort among Fermin, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; the UTSA College of Education and Human Development’s counseling department; and the Stardust Club, a nonprofit dedicated to education and philanthropy. The center was later moved to its current location and named the Community Family Life Center. The name was recently changed to officially include Sarabia’s as a way to honor his legacy and memorialize the collaboration that continues today.

Al Cervera, past president and member of the Stardust Club, says the center is a legacy not just for Fermin but for the entire community. Cervera says the outreach by UTSA graduate students, especially with local school counselors, has helped ease at least some of the strain on a burdened mental health system. That’s just one of the reasons, he adds, that the Stardust Club holds an annual Mardi Gras Gala fundraiser for the center.

COEHD students and faculty provide counseling services free of charge. Master’s and doctoral students fulfill their required practicum training while providing a much-needed service to families. This past fiscal year, 269 clients attended nearly 2,000 appointments at the center, according to Catherine Somody, the center’s director. They also served 31 groups in the juvenile justice system, including 1,348 teens and parents.

The center’s neurofeedback training program is the only one of its kind in the nation, accredited by both the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs and the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance, according to Somody.

“The center provides an excellent opportunity for UTSA counseling students to work with children and families under the supervision of full-time, professionally accredited counseling faculty and center staff,” says COEHD’s dean, Betty Merchant. “The Sarabia Center is a compassionate response to the systemic and financial constraints of both schools and families, providing excellent services to families at no cost. In doing so, the Sarabia Center epitomizes the core beliefs and values of the COEHD.”

Center director Somody says the gifts to the center help cover costs for a variety of resources, like new equipment or even printed forms that need to be filled out by clients. “We always need new books and materials to stay current with developments in counseling,” she explains, “and we constantly need to expand our playroom and other creative materials to engage our youngest clients.”

There is currently a waiting list for services because the demand greatly outweighs the six counseling rooms available, Somody says. The “ultimate dream,” she adds, would be to move to a small but more accessible building near the campus that offers more counseling space.

Both Cuban-born, Fermin and Perla arrived in the United States prior to the Bay of Pigs Invasion and moved to the Alamo City following his psychiatric residency in Norman, Okla. They chose San Antonio, Perla Sarabia says, because her husband had heard about the need for Spanish-speaking psychiatrists here. His first job was at the San Antonio State Hospital. When he opened his private practice he treated some families at no charge.

“We are very grateful for the first UTSA doctoral students that opened up the clinic with him,” Perla says. “Thanks to the Stardust Club and UTSA, we have as a group started to make a difference. And that’s all that we can hope.”

–Michelle Mondo



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