In 1893, an abandoned newborn baby girl was found in a shoebox in the Austin train station. News of the baby quickly spread throughout the small city of about 20,000, eventually reaching a group of women who were leaders of missionary societies. They agreed to take responsibility for the baby and named her Mary Austin.
Out of the hard work of those women, and the generations of volunteers that came after them, the Helping Hand Home for Children has been serving abused and abandoned children in Austin ever since.
Westbanker Marsha Mayfield Lockett is one among thousands who have volunteered over the years to serve the children housed at Helping Hand Home. She began volunteering about four years ago because she heard friends discussing the work the organization does. The residential facility houses 41 children, ages 4-13, who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their family members. While the important work of the organization drew Lockett in, the children are what kept her coming back, week after week.
“For a long time, I had a buddy, a little girl that had been here at the home about a year,” Lockett said. “I would come every Wednesday to spend time with her. We’d do art projects and have lunch, various things she was interested in.”
The first time Lockett met the girl and told her that she would be back to see her next week, the child gave her a look that said, “Sure, I’ve heard that one before.”
But Lockett showed up, and that simple act helped secure a little girl’s trust in adults.
“When I showed up week after week after week, her faith was restored in people, that some people will do what they say they’re going to do, and some people will come when they say they’re going to come,” Lockett said. “She had been disappointed so many times, and when someone finally did what they said they were going to do, it was a wonderful thing.”
Even though that little girl has since moved on to foster care, when Lockett arrives at the home to spend time with the kids, they don’t call her by her name, they call her “Katie’s buddy.”
While working with the children is incredibly rewarding, saying goodbye to a buddy can be bittersweet, Lockett said.
“You’re happy for them that they are going to a home, but sad because you won’t have any more interaction with them,” Lockett said. “It’s hard. Usually placement comes up quickly, and you don’t have time for goodbyes.”
When Lockett speaks about the Helping Hand Home and the work its volunteers do, her passion and enthusiasm light up her eyes, and she talks animatedly about the difference the facility can make in the life of a child who has nowhere else to go.
“I just take my membership so seriously.” Lockett said. “It’s such a gift, and I wanted so badly to be a part of this. If I can make just a little bitty difference in a child’s life, then I want to do it.”
Her work for the home, which also includes a regular class for young mothers and a Bible-study workshop, fits well with her approach to life, she said.
“There are three things that I need to do every day,” Lockett said. “The first thing is to honor God, the second thing is find joy, and the third thing is do something for someone else.”
And her work for the home allows her to do all three.
The Helping Hand Home for Children often cares for some of the most traumatized children in state protective custody and provides therapy, medical services and even a special school for those who need it.
“These cases are the worst of the worst,” said Ted Keyser, executive director for the home. “These are the cases you see on television and read about in the paper and think, ‘Who does that to a child?’ After you’ve had that reaction and moved on with your life, that child has to go somewhere. This isn’t just a place to lay down; it’s a place to heal.”
The Helping Hand Home for Children has been a darling of the Westbank community for many years, and residents have lent their monetary support and volunteer efforts in substantial numbers, Keyser said.
“We’ve just been blown away by their support, and the support of other communities in Austin,” Keyser said. “It allows us to go way above and beyond for these kids. It takes a village to make this situation more than just bearable.”
Honoring the support of volunteers, activists and other people that make a difference in the life of children at Helping Hand Home is the driving force behind Champions for Children, an annual banquet that honors several outstanding members of the community for their work on behalf children and the organization.
When Lockett was approached last year to lead the group in putting the event together this year, like so many other things in her life, she jumped in with both feet. And the sleepless nights, countless hours and endless meetings have paid off.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity because we get to honor the caregivers that are taking care of these children,” Lockett said. “They are the real heroes to me. That’s why I got so excited to take this job, because we are honoring these people that make such a huge difference. They are in the trenches day in and day out with these children.”
The honorees this year include: Westbankers Pam and Neel White, for their philanthropic efforts; Harriet O’Neill, a retired justice of the Texas Supreme Court; Meredith Cooper, executive director of Wonders and Worries; Demetria Hernandez, foster parent; Carolyn Nicewarner, a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer; and members of the Texas Wranglers, a University of Texas student spirit group.
When Lockett is not working with children or putting together gala luncheons, the mother of two, who is in her 50s, spends her miniscule free time swimming, watching Texas Rangers baseball games with husband David and traveling.
Professionally, she does commercials and voice-overs for a wide variety of clients and at one time had her own radio show, “Today’s Woman,” an Austin-based program that focused on women’s issues.
Before coming to Westlake in 1994, Lockett worked as a television news anchor in Dallas for three years, owned a design firm and made regular appearances on TV show “Dallas.”
Even though she spent her formative years in the Dallas area, her heart is in the Westbank now.
“I had heard so many wonderful things about the people (in Westlake) and the school district, and everything we heard was true,” Locket said. “Westlake takes a lot of bum raps from outsiders, but until you live here, you don’t know how great these people are. They would give you the shirt of their back, and when they get behind a cause, they can move mountains.”
We welcome your comments on our stories but will publish only those that do not violate our commenting guidelines