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Social Work Alum, Philanthropist Dies

Serena Simmons Connelly and her husband, Tom Connelly, from March 2015. Serena passed away April 22, 2020, of cancer
Serena Simmons Connelly and her husband, Tom Connelly, from March 2015. Serena passed away April 22, 2020, of cancer

Serena Simmons Connelly, a UTA Social Work graduate and passionate advocate for immigrant survivors of human rights abuses, has died. She was 50.

Connelly co-founded the Dallas-based Human Rights Initiative of North Texas which provides free legal representation to refugees who have survived abuse. She also served as director of philanthropy at the influential Harold Simmons Foundation, which was started by her late father, billionaire Harold Clark Simmons.

Connelly graduated from UTA with a Master’s of Social Work degree in 1995. She earned an undergraduate degree a few years earlier at Brown University, colleagues said.

Connelly died April 22 after a battle with throat cancer.

School of Social Work Dean Scott Ryan extended condolences Friday to Connelly’s family.

“Serena’s contributions to the School and the Social Work community are immeasurable,” he said. “She leaves an incredible legacy for our students to follow.”

Her former professor Catheleen Jordan mourned Connelly’s passing as both a personal loss and one with ripple effects in the philanthropic and Social Work communities.

“She was truly an exceptional Social Worker,” said Jordan, who taught Connelly more than two decades ago in a foundation Social Work master’s program class. “Her passing is a huge loss.”

During her career, Jordan taught scores of students; Connelly was different, she said.

“I remember her out of the hundreds of students I have taught over the years even though she was very quiet and unassuming,” Jordan said. “She had an intensity about her and an inquisitive approach to the material.”

The Harold Simmons Foundation donated $1.1 million to the UTA School of Social Work’s Innovative Community Academic Partnership. The iCAP program supported critical research in a number of areas, including racial and ethnic disparities in mental health and the study of family violence.

The program, which was in operation from 2010 to 2016, initially supported projects in Tarrant County through a gift from the Amon G. Carter Foundation. The Simmons Foundation funding in 2012 supported the expansion of iCAP into the Dallas County community.

In 2012 Connelly stated, “The iCAP shows the range of skills that social workers bring to the field of human services — we are not just counselors but also researchers and administrators who aim to ensure best practices.”

Under the iCAP program, UTA Social Work researchers applied for and earned grants to collaborate with community agencies to investigate ways to better deliver services to underserved communities and clients.

The Simmons Foundation expansion funding supported projects in Dallas County such as with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, Mosaic Family Services of Dallas, Second Chance Texas at Phoenix House of Texas, Grand Prairie Independent School District and Children’s Medical Center of Dallas.

Katherine Sanchez, who earned a research grant from iCAP, said her study resulted in a community clinic changing its policies to better serve Hispanic clients.

“The clinic implemented evidence-based best practices for underserved populations in North Texas which have, no doubt, been life changing,” said Sanchez, who now is associate dean for research and faculty affairs in the School of Social Work.

Another School of Social Work researcher, Peter Lehmann, who now is retired, and Jordan, investigated ways to best support offenders who were being released from prison and to prevent their return.

“We wanted them to have a successful reentry into the community,” Jordan said. “We looked at what resources they needed and how successful they were at staying out of jail once they'd received supports such as housing, education, therapy and so forth.”

“Peter Lehmann and I were very appreciative of the funding allowing us to continue our work in the area of criminal justice,” she said.

For her part, Connelly was recognized by UTA in 2014 with the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Across Texas, professional Social Workers were profoundly saddened by Connelly’s passing.

In Austin, the National Association of Social Workers Texas Chapter published a moving tribute to Connelly that described her deep passion for human rights and for helping those who have been traumatized by abuse.

“Serena could have lived a life of privilege and luxury, but she chose to exercise her compassion,” wrote Linda Wassenich in the NASW Texas tribute. She added that Connelly had little interest in social climbing, but more “wanted to solve some of society’s problems.”

“She was willing to courageously stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized, to take unpopular stands because it was the right thing to do,” Wassenich wrote.

The organization’s Dallas branch named Connelly Social Worker of the Year in 2001.

Social Work advocates remembered Connelly as a hands-on supporter, serving on their boards of directors and influencing both their missions and financial viability.

In a Facebook post on May 7, TexProtects Champions for Safe Children wrote that Connelly, who served six years as a board member, was integral “to the nonprofit world’s work to uplift the voices of the vulnerable, underprivileged and voiceless.”

“Serena was one of the most selfless, giving, thoughtful and kind souls we have ever had the honor of knowing,” TexProtects officials said in the post. It included a photo of Connelly and her husband Tom.

Madeline McClure, founder of TexProtects and also an UTA MSW graduate, told The Dallas Morning News in an editorial published May 6 that Connelly had been a longtime supporter of the non-profit, whose mission is to eradicate the abuse and neglect of Texas children.

McClure told The News that Connelly had made a donation to the organization on the day she died.

This week, Connelly and her husband were listed as financial supporters of TexProtects at the “Protector” level, having donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to the agency, according to its Web site. The Harold Simmons Foundation, which Connelly was director of philanthropy, was TexProtects’ largest donor, giving the nonprofit $150,000 and above, according to the site.

In Dallas, the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which Connelly founded with a friend, ran a banner on its Web site.

It read simply: “HRI mourns its co-founding parent Serena Simmons Connelly, 1970-2020.”

This week, Jordan, Connelly’s former professor, reflected on her student, saying she could not have predicted Connelly would leave her classroom and go on to create such a legacy.

“At the time, I had no idea of her background - or that she would come to make such an enduring impact,” Jordan said.

Connelly is survived by her husband Tom; two children; her mother Sandra Simmons; stepmother Annette Simmons; sisters Lisa Simmons, Scheryle Simmons and Andrea Swanson; her stepsister Amy Simmons and stepbrother Andy Fleck and their respective families.

The Connelly family requests that those wishing to make a donation in memory of Serena Simmons Connelly may do so to the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas at www.hrionline.org or the Early Matters Fund at the Dallas Foundation at https://www.dallasfoundation.org

News Topics: Faculty, Students, Staff, Alumni