WESLACO — It wasn’t long before Maria Elena Ramos remembered one of the more emotional cases she’s undertaken.
“She put her hands on her heart and said, ‘Mommy is with me every time I touch my heart, and I can always talk to her,’” recalled the 66-year-old program director at Fountain of Mercy Ministries on Tuesday.
She pulled the memory from an encounter with a 9-year-old girl, one of two children whose mother died of cancer. It was a heart-wrenching case in which Maria Elena provided grief counseling for the youngsters.
“For me, it would be the two young children whose mother died and were brought in for counseling to deal with the mother’s death,” Maria Elena said in identification of the calling that compels her and FOMM executive director and president, 73-year-old Maria Antonia “Tonie” Fuentes, to continue their work.
As licensed counselors with nearly 70 years of experience in education between them, Tonie and Maria Elena finally made good on decades’ worth of planning by incorporating in 2010. A faith-based nonprofit organization that provides pro bono family and grief counseling, among other services, FOMM occupies modest accommodations on South Westgate Drive near Tierra Santa in Weslaco, where hundreds have sought the help of an almost entirely volunteer staff.
In fact, the only paid employee is Briana Sauceda, the clerk.
“We didn’t know exactly what shape it would take, just that we wanted to serve,” Tonie said of the idea that eventually became FOMM. “I was offered a principalship in Mercedes so many years ago and was told not to leave, but I told the superintendent at the time that someday, I would be a Christian counselor coordinator and not charge for those services.”
Even before founding the ministries, Tonie and Maria Elena were already at work counseling, organizing pilgrimages and participating in retreats all over the world. They’ve traveled as far as Israel, Poland and Spain.
“The Lord put it in our hearts to spread the gospel of love and mercy, so that’s been evolving,” Maria Elena added.
Since incorporating FOMM, they enjoyed the help of the community through donations made to the facility, which included everything from furniture to monetary contributions.
Described as an apostolate of Catholic divine mercy teachings, though not serving as a branch of the church itself, Tonie explained that the ministries also provide spiritual and marriage counseling.
“We do a lot of family and relationships, from a young man that doesn’t want to tell his parents that he’s different to single parents that left and walked out on their kids,” Tonie said. “Also, we help kids that have attempted suicide in the past, as well as adults. They decide to come over here if they have depression, anxiety, or if perhaps they’re cutting, which also includes teens that are referred by their doctors because they continue to cut themselves.”
Maria Elena credited the Weslaco and Progreso school districts for working well with FOMM when students enrolled in their campuses come to the organization.
Fountain of Mercy’s founders are familiar with the public school system, after all, with Tonie working as a special education counselor in Mercedes for three years, and for nearly 30 years as a coach, counselor and counselor coordinator in Weslaco. For four years, Maria Elena worked as a family counselor for all Weslaco campuses.
What’s more, Tonie is a certified spiritual director and has a master’s degree in counseling from Pan American University (now UTRGV). She also holds a bachelor’s in physical education. Maria Elena has a bachelor’s in education and two master’s degrees — one for counseling and supervision and the other for mid-management administration, the latter she earned from Stephen F. Austin University.
The two met when Maria Elena was completing her practicum for group counseling at a summer school program in which Tonie served as the director. They’ve been inseparable ever since, sharing more than devout faith but the aforementioned calling that later sparked a desire to serve those in need.
With a clientele largely comprised of the poverty-stricken, as Tonie put it, FOMM’s professional counseling services has grown over the last several years and now include consultation and referrals from throughout the South Texas region. Grief support groups are another service that Fountain of Mercy provides.
According to Tonie, much of this is accomplished with monthly expenses reaching nearly $6,500 — savings she attributes to employing a single staff member while the founders go uncompensated for their work.
Knowing they’re a positive influence is payment enough, she added.
“I knew a lady who had an abortion 40 years ago and she cried every day since, because they say it ends really quickly but it never really feels like it’s over,” Tonie said. “She said she hasn’t cried since the retreat. So after 40 years, the power of the retreat still helped her.”