Four nuns and a handful of prominent El Paso women launched El Paso’s first orphanage for homeless children in 1919.

People who know the work of the El Paso Center for Children call it the city’s best-kept secret, but the quiet seven-acre campus in Central El Paso is increasingly in the spotlight.

The nonprofit, which cares for homeless and disadvantaged youth, celebrates its centennial with its first-ever gala fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 14. Last month, a conference on caring for troubled youth at the El Paso Convention Center put the organization on the map with youth care professionals, and not just locally.

Increasing visibility is one of the board’s most pressing challenges.

“We want to make the community more aware of the Center for Children and the great programs that we support,” said board chair Omar Tarin, adding that awareness helps bring in those most in need of the organization’s services – and helps raise funds.

“The kids touch my heart,” said El Paso attorney Jane Snow, who has been with the board on and off since 1988. “Some of the city’s most vulnerable children and teenagers are receiving services that change their lives. The center helps young people make connections – if not with their biological families, then with foster families, friends and caring professionals.”

In 2018, more than 2,200 El Pasoans benefitted from those services, which range from parenting classes to outreach to street children. Through partnerships and an uptick in grants, the center has tripled its programs over the last three years.

“My favorite word is yes,” said Beth Senger, director of the center. She likes to say it – and especially likes hearing it as she daily navigates an alphabet soup of alliances. Constant collaboration brings together Child Protective Services, courts, police departments, substance abuse agencies, health care providers, health care agencies and fellow nonprofits.

Senger estimated that about half of their budget goes to preventative programs, including counseling and working with families. They administer one of only four Department of Health and Human Services Strong Families grants. The five-year research and treatment project focuses on the five El Paso ZIP codes with the highest rates of child abuse.

The other half of their budget comes into play when “families are not successful,” Senger said, including their foster care programs, which increased 25% in 2018. The nonprofit also operates a runaway shelter and transitional living center for LGBTQ youth and young women escaping sex trafficking.

In 2014, the U.S. Justice Department listed El Paso among the nation’s top three locations for sex trafficking and in the top 20 for human trafficking.

Caring for kids in need was simpler in 1919 when four nuns and a handful of prominent El Paso women launched El Paso’s first orphanage for homeless children. The St. Margaret’s Home for Children was built on Ysleta farmland belonging to mayor-to-be J.D. Ponder. The eight-room house, built by Joe Morgan and named after his wife Margaret who died before it was completed, meant that homeless Catholic children in El Paso would no longer be sent to a Dallas orphanage.

A few years later, in 1923, another orphanage was opened after five children were abandoned outside the home of the pastor of Trinity Methodist. Soon more children showed up on Reverend William Hogg’s porch, and the first Protestant orphanage in the Southwest was born. They moved to a large house on Ange Street, launching the Southwestern Children’s Home.

Over a half-century, the homes raised thousands of El Paso’s homeless children. But orphanages began evolving. There were waiting lists for adopting healthy children; left behind were the children with mental, physical or emotional issues.

In 1982, the two homes merged. The new Center for Children focused on serving those special needs children, adolescents and, in some cases, their families.

Senger calls herself an aggressive grant writer. “Once I stacked all my grant documents for the center on the dining room table and the pile was three feet high,” she said.

Thanks to state grants, the center’s two-day August “Trauma and Triumph Border Youth Conference,” presented in conjunction with El Paso Child Guidance Center, “looked like what you see at state and national conferences,” Senger said. Nationally prominent speakers drew more than 400 behavioral health professionals, twice the center’s 2018 meeting.

Saturday night’s centennial gala at the Epic Railyard Event Center promises more surprises. “We’re going back to when our two orphanages started and celebrating 1920s style,” said Erik Baray, the center’s outreach and engagement specialist. “We’ll have a speak-easy lounge, jazz quartet, Art Deco decorations and you’re welcome to wear 1920s attire.”