Touring the Good Samaritan Center with Marcus Jordan on San Antonio’s near West Side is like following a local celebrity. Everyone is his friend. Everyone gets a high five.
Jordan, 33, is the coordinator of the center’s Youth Advisory Committee or YAC, and he knows every student’s name. “Everyone gets their own special handshake,” Jordan explains. “Remember the handshake, remember the name.”
He knows everyone’s business, too. “Are you singing tonight?” he asks a shy girl.
“I don’t know yet,” she confesses. “Maybe.”
Jordan is one of 60 full- or part-time employees at the community center on Saltillo Street affectionately known as “Good Sam.” Those employees are part of a history of altruism dating back to 1951, when the center was established as a downtown mission of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The main entrance proudly displays early photos of the site when this part of west San Antonio was undeveloped farm land.
Today, Good Sam’s 78207 zip code is less idyllic. According to City-Data.com, the estimated median household income for the area is just under $24,000, $600 below the 2017 Federal Poverty Guidelines for a family of four. Only 53 percent of adults older than 25 have a high school diploma, and less than 5 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In this setting, Good Sam wants to be “a catalyst for change … by providing excellent community services to overcome economic poverty,” according to its posted mission statement.
Eat, play, learn
Now that San Antonio Independent School District schools have started classes again, Good Sam’s afterschool program is back in session, too, helping local students using a simple three-pronged strategy: food, recreation, curriculum.
For that third prong, every classroom is named after a university. First- and second-graders meet in the UTSA room. Third grade meets in Texas Tech. There is also Ivy League, Texas A&M, St. Mary’s, and the UT game room, complete with video game consoles and a LEGO station.
At the basketball courts, Jordan points out sixth-grader Harvey Perez, 11. “He’s been through most of the stuff we have to offer,” says Jordan.
Jordan also works with Harvey’s older brother, Johnny Perez, 15, and his older sister, Bianca Perez, 17, both of whom serve on the Youth Advisory Committee. YAC, which Good Sam folks pronounce “yak,” provides leadership opportunities for high school students.
“It is about showing the youth that they have a voice,” Jordan says. Bianca, Johnny, and the other students “pick the different community projects that we go to. I am just the middle guy who helps arrange the details so they can get out and give back to the community.”
Recent projects include volunteering at an animal shelter, cleaning up a park near public housing and adopting a beach. The students especially like the beach clean-up because it involves a field trip to the coast.
In addition to the afterschool program and YAC, Good Sam offers a suite of programs all designed to rebuild the community: a summer day camp, a mentorship program that brings in local college students, overnight camps for youth and families, career and college counseling, classes for parents, and even senior services.
The center provides food, recreation, and enrichment to every stage of life, from toddlers to senior citizens.
Confronting the West Side stigma
The Perez kids’ mother, Cynthia, says she doesn’t know how she could have raised her children without Good Sam.
“They help a lot of people who come from a background of abuse or drugs or alcohol. If not for Good Sam, my kids would be out there doing the same thing.”
The Perez family first came to the center nine years ago, when they were living at Cassiano Apartments, a public housing complex a few blocks away.
A concentration of public housing projects in the area bring a steady influx of struggling families. Alejandra Navarro, Good Sam’s regional program manager, estimates there are 50 social service organizations in the 78207 zip code. Good Sam is one of the oldest.
For decades, the center has been fighting generational poverty on the West Side. Employees at Good Sam believe they are seeing some success. And recently, they found the data to support their belief in the April 2017 Community Impact report card from P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County, a local organization working to improve education success for every child in San Antonio.
Marquie Reyna, an executive assistant at Good Sam, said the report showed students attending Good Sam have higher growth in character development than San Antonio students who don’t. This matters because character development correlates with attendance, graduation rate, and better behavior. In short, the students are less likely to end up in the juvenile delinquency system.
Juvenile prison is a real possibility for students in the area. San Antonio’s West Side has the second highest crime rate in the city, according to Trulia Crime Data. There’s a history to that, too — in 1994, Texas Monthly wrote an expose on San Antonio gangs, and Good Sam was right there providing a neutral zone for the members.
“When gangs came here [in the 1990s],” Navarro said, “everything was put outside the gate.” Gang members set aside their grudges so they could play basketball. “At that time, some of the people working here were actually in gangs. And now they are adults and they are giving back to the community.”
Gangs and crime are not as prevalent today as 15-20 years ago, according to Navarro, but too many people in San Antonio still have a negative view of the West Side. Reyna grew up here, and people still sometimes tell her, “You act West Side.” Google “San Antonio West Side,” and the search engine will deliver on that prejudice: “San Antonio West Side Gangs,” “San Antonio West Side Shooting,” “San Antonio West Side Stabbing,” and “Worst Neighborhoods in San Antonio.”
But those who live there insist this isn’t the whole story.
Navarro says, “This area of town has a stigma.” She remembers taking a group of Good Sam students to visit a nearby college. “I won’t say where, but it was close — and the tour guide said, ‘This neighborhood is bad. If you are going to live here, have your phone with you all the time with 911 on speed dial like it’s Chicago.’ We laughed and the tour guide said, ‘You don’t understand. It’s so bad. I wouldn’t live here.’”
This to a group of students who do live here.
“They bring us together”
The Perez family is finding it hard to escape the stigma of the West Side, but they moved out of the neighborhood when domestic violence left their mother with a broken ankle. She now has two screws and a rod in her foot. Even more than the surgery, Good Sam helped her get back on her feet. “If it wasn’t for Good Sam,” says Perez. “I wouldn’t be able to have my job. I would be a mother living on the West Side, with my kids at home.” Support from the center allowed Perez to attend additional schooling that led to her current position at a health care agency.
Bianca Perez remembers her mom wearing a boot during her freshman year at Lanier High School, but she has trouble talking about that time.
“The kids were very well aware of that happening,” Navarro explains for her. “It was right in front of them. Bianca was a freshman in high school, and she was taking on everything at home basically.” Her mom went back to work and school as quickly as possible and relied on her daughter to take care of the family.
“It was a bad spot,” says Bianca Perez. “My mom said, ‘We’re a family, and we have to stick together. We’re a team.’ A lot happened. I think everything happens for a reason, and it was good that we got out of the situation we were in.”
The Perez family now lives about 20 minutes away from Good Sam, but they still come because it is free and because it is their community. Navarro, Reyna and Jordan all refer to the students as their kids.
Bianca Perez says they feel like family. “I like the people here. Everyone is nice to each other. If there is a problem, you settle it the right way — you know — talk. They bring us together even if we don’t want to until we resolve it.”
When a problem arises amongst the third-graders, Jordan disappears for about 10 minutes, and we can see him talking with the students, then walking them one by one to the bathroom and back. He tells us later, “They are painting today and thought it would be funny to paint each other’s clothes. Until it wasn’t funny anymore.”
Raising up more Good Samaritans
As coordinator of the Youth Advisory Committee, Jordan aims to help older students take a stand for their community.
The student president of YAC, Albert Perez (no relation to Bianca), explains why he likes to clean Father Albert Benavides Park next to Cassiano Apartments. “Sometimes you see drugs in the water fountain. I want kids to have a better experience with parks than I did. So we clean up and keep it safe. We paint over a lot of graffiti, and we are getting a sign up there and trying to make ourselves known.”
It’s a different kind of gang, one that marks its territory with good deeds rather than chaos and crime.
The attraction is so strong, Bianca Perez once skipped school to visit the center early. She laughs about it. Navarro and Reyna remind her that they never want to see her during school hours again, but they also understand.
“This is their literal safe space,” says Navarro. “If there is a zombie apocalypse, they all say that this is where they will come.”
Bianca Perez, at least, has grown strong enough to carry that safe space with her. When her friend’s family faced immigration and deportation, Bianca offered friendship, prayer, comfort.
“I pray for her a couple of times, and we get together and pray. I prayed at school with her, here at the park, but usually at school in the morning.”
This is perhaps the most revolutionary idea coming out of Good Sam: It isn’t enough for individuals to escape poverty only to leave the neighborhood. They stay, or return, to help build the community.
Bianca plans to come back and serve her community through Good Sam, perhaps working as a coordinator of YAC like her mentor, Jordan. When she overheard the staff talking about filling positions, there was a sparkle in her eye.
“I was like, ‘Bye, I want to interview for their positions,’” Perez says laughing.
“Being a successful adult is someone who comes back to the community,” Reyna agrees.
But how many people actually come back?
Reyna raises her hand.