Serena Simmons Connelly – a remembrance by Bill Holston

The world is less bright today, because we lost Serena Simmons Connelly.

Serena was the co-founder of our agency. In 2000, along with her good friend Betsy Healy, they opened the doors of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. I met Serena in 1997. I was a private attorney, doing pro bono work for Proyecto Adelante, a legal services organization that is no longer around. I met Serena, because she was concerned for the mental health of the clients of Proyecto, many of whom were torture survivors. Because of her background in Social Work, Serena was concerned not only about the legal rights of immigrant survivors of torture, but also their mental health. She provided the leadership and initial funding to begin the Center for Survivors of Torture, as a project of Proyecto, and later an independent 501 c 3. As a pro bono lawyer, I was very thankful for the CST, and the assistance they often gave to my clients. At that time, there was nowhere else for them to turn. And it saved lives.

In 2000, along with Betsy Healy, they founded HRI. Their vision was brilliant. Because they envisioned an agency providing very high quality legal services, with integrated social services. They also envisioned doing the work through a network of volunteers, so that this lean agency could leverage the services of a small staff with hundreds of volunteers. That vision continues to guide us as we continue to meet the increasingly complex vulnerabilities of our clients.

In 2012, I left my law practice to become the Executive Director of HRI. Serena was on the board of directors and as a result of that I had the privilege to spend much more time with her. Of course, I was very thankful for her personal support of HRI, as well as the support of her sister Lisa and the Simmons Foundation which continue to provide essential funds for our operations. But she was also a critical influence in how we operated, making sure that we continued to pay attention to the needs of our clients, beyond their legal cases. AND she was concerned with the welfare of our staff, funding chair massages for staff, because she knew how stressful the work was and is.

Of course, Serena had a dramatic impact on our agency, and so many other non-profits in our community. But the real loss to those of us who were privileged to know her was the loss of who she was as a person. For Lent this year, I wrote personal notes to the individuals I admire. The first note I wrote was to Serena. The second was to Betsy. These two women have changed our world for the better and they have done in an a kind and beautiful way. They have changed my life. They have made me a better person, because I knew them.

Here’s the note I sent to Serena. I’m so thankful I did that, because it would really make me sad if I’d missed the opportunity to tell her just how much I admired her. She responded of course with her own gracious note of acknowledgment.

“Dear Serena,
Of course I appreciate your generosity to HRI. I think you know that! I also appreciate your courage and wisdom and vision in starting this great agency. I know I’ve said that as well. Every day I see how wise your planning and design was.
But what I want to really express to you is my admiration of you as a person. I see you as a loving mother. And that’s been obvious to me. You are a great and loving wife as well. You are a great neighbor and friend to the people in your life. But the thing I admire the most about you is a quality I really respect: your humility. You are a person of great influence, your mark is all over this city, but I’ve never once detected a hint of arrogance or pride, and that’s a truly remarkable thing. That is character.
So, Serena, thank you for being the wise and kind person I’ve always found you to be. This world is a much better place because you are in it.”

I would have added if I had known, ‘And I’m really going to miss you.’

Bill Holston is the Executive Director of Human Rights Initiative.

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