PALS (Peer Assistance Leadership & Service) in Austin ISD
Servando Varela, Crockett PALS, 1980
Servando Varela was a freshman at Crockett High School the year that the PALS program was created. As one of a handful of students selected to be mentors in this pilot program, he agreed to participate without many expectations of what was to come.
To his surprise, the experience turned out to provide skills he would use throughout his life and career. “I probably didn’t realize what I was getting out of it when I was in it, but looking back, PALS gave me real insight into compassion,” he said. “It taught me how to talk to strangers.”
Turns out, talking to strangers would become a large part of Varela’s career. After high school and college, he joined the Austin Police Department and served the city for 23 years. “As a police officer, you’re dealing with the public every day. You have to be able to strike up a conversation with a stranger…to learn how to relate to all kinds of people.”
In his second career as the owner of a home remodeling business, Varela continues to value those interpersonal skills he learned through PALS. “Every day I’m dealing with employees or I’m doing estimates for the company. I’m always meeting new people. When I think about the PALS program, I wonder if I helped the kids as much as they helped me in the future. Because PALS gave me the tools to walk into any setting and confidently say, ‘Hi, I’m Servando. How are you?"
Robert Moore, Lanier PALS, 1981
Pastor Robert Moore is very clear about what PALS did for him: it completely turned his life around. Moore’s story actually began the day of his graduation from Lanier High School. Right before walking the stage, he learned that he had missed his graduation requirements by half a credit and wouldn’t be allowed to graduate. He was devastated. “I had my whole family sitting there waiting. It was an honor for my family because not a lot of graduates were coming out of my family,” he said. “Somehow I drove home to east Austin from the Toney Burger Center, but up until this very day I couldn’t tell you how I did that.”
Once he got over the hurt, Moore returned to Lanier for the fall semester and joined PALS. He spent three days a week mentoring eighth graders. When the fall semester ended and his graduation requirements were met, Moore decided to complete the school year so he could finish counseling the young students. And so began his lifelong journey of working with youth.
Early in his career Moore worked with agencies such as Travis County MHMR and Family Forward, where he was the first African-American parent liaison in Texas. Later on he served inner-city fathers, counseled inmates, became certified in anger management facilitation, and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degree. Today Moore is a pastor and is working on his PhD. Of all the lessons PALS taught him, he believes integrity was the most valuable. “I didn’t fully understand the power of integrity until I dealt with kids who knew what it felt like to be let down. So integrity has been my priority ever since. To keep my word. On that integrity you build respect.
”As one of the earliest alumni of PALS, Moore calls it an honor to be part of the groundwork of the program. “I know for a fact that if this program can take and change the mind of Robert, it can take and change the mind of many others. I just know it can. I have faith and trust in the program. I’m living proof that it works.”