On a recent Monday afternoon, four young children sit in the front a West Side church sanctuary and tie black pieces of cloth over their eyes. Four other children help them to their feet and guide their partners through the rows of pews, laughing, as they compete to reach a predetermined spot.
When the game is over they head back to the front of Divine Redeemer Presbyterian, where pastor Rob Mueller is waiting for them.
“What is the hardest part of helping your friends?” he asks after the children have taken their spots on the floor around him.
Mueller spends most of his summer in the church sanctuary with children from the neighborhood—many of whom are not church families—as part of its program Multi-level Education Outreach (MEYO).
The program is designed to improve the West Side by educating its children—a mission the church has been doing in one way or another since it was formed 101 years ago by a Mexican pastor who fled a violent civil war.
The neighborhood around the church is primarily made up of immigrant and refugee families, Mueller says. These families often have a hard time getting ahead because of low educational attainment, lack of resources to get started, or even their legal status.
The church is located in 78207—the near West Side, which is the poorest area in San Antonio. Slightly more than 20 percent of households operate on less than $10,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data.
A quarter of adults have a ninth-grade education or less, and 49 percent have no high school diploma.
“Our experience and research holds up that education is the way to break generational poverty, which is why we put a lot of eggs in that basket,” Mueller says.
About 70 percent of adults without a bachelor’s degree—even those with associate degrees—live in poverty.
“On the West Side it feels like everyone is saying, ‘You’re not capable of being really smart or going to college,'” said Oscar Chacon, who graduated this year with a degree in psychology from the University of Houston in Victoria.
In the first grade, Chacon started with the MEYO after school program for elementary kids, Peace Pals, and stayed with it through high school graduation. This summer, he returned to work at Peace Camp, MEYO’s summer program, as a volunteer.
MEYO operates year-round to provide students in the neighborhood a safe place to be, when their families are at work, and access to tutoring, food and information about college—despite a thin budget.
This summer, 46 children are enrolled in Peace Camp and seven more are on a waiting list.
There are many reasons this program is in demand. It’s basically free. Most children can walk to the church in the mornings, and it has a reputation for helping students stay in high school.
In fact, Mueller claims that 100 percent of the students that stick with the program graduate and move on to college or steady jobs.
Why education is threatened outside of school walls
On today as on most summer days, Bobby Watson sings “Chiquita! Banana!” around 9 a.m. at the front of Divine Redeemer. Forty-six students jump around excitedly, their heads barely passing his elbow, as Bobby Watson begins a new tune at a much slower tempo.
“This is going to take forever!” Juarez Elizarraraz, 10, complains to Bobby Watson while flashing him a dimply smile. “Can we do 50,000 speed?”
The church’s sanctuary is in a large building on the corner of North Calaveras Street, just a few blocks north of Commerce Street, the West Side’s main east-to-west artery.
It shares the 16,000-square-foot building with the House of Neighborly services, a Presbyterian nonprofit. The clean exterior walls and manicured lawn are in stark contrast with the houses around it, many of which are dilapidated.
Inside the sanctuary, it is obvious that loving care—not money—has kept the building in its current condition.
The 150 members of Divine Redeemer cannot sustain the church, let alone the $150,000 budget of MEYO.
Through donations and grants, MEYO is able to operate Peace Camp in the summer and two after school programs: Peace Pals (kindergarten through fifth grade) and House of Teens (sixth through 12th grade).
The after school programs focus on education. Statistics show that someone living on the West Side needs to have a bachelor’s degree before they can expect to earn more than $24,000 annually (the national poverty line). Only 4 percent of all adults in the area have a bachelor’s degree.
The MEYO staff is alarmed because of low test scores; only 10 percent of all students in San Antonio Independent School District are considered college ready. Only 3 percent of Lanier High School students—the public high school just one mile from the church—are ready when considering their math and reading scores.
“These children need an increase in their standard of living,” Bobby Watson says, his chest puffed up. He watches the Peace Camp children play in the church’s lot for a few moments. “That is what MEYO is trying to do through education.”
Just 10 feet away, between his truck and the fence for the church’s property, the word “Blood” is painted on the sidewalk.
For many of these students, the struggle with education is outside of the classroom. Some join gangs for protection or turn to drug dealing—which they tell the MEYO counselors is “no big deal” because they have siblings or parents who do it.
“I started bringing my kids over here because it is a safe place,” says Ignacia Cruz, co-coordinator for Peace Pals.
Cruz, a single mother of four who lives just a few streets behind the church, started bringing her older children to the summer program while she stayed home to raise her youngest child. She volunteered with the church for 14 years before being hired three years ago.
Her two oldest children are now enrolled in college.
Gang and drug activity is prevalent in the neighborhood, said MEYO director Lea Watson, Bobby’s sister. Many children see it—especially if they attend Lanier High School, which only has a 3 percent college readiness rate.
The gangs and drug dealing “have never caught my attention,” says Kimberly Hernandez, Cruz’s 17-year-old daughter, who plans to attend college and become an elementary school teacher. “I feel like it’s because of [MEYO]. They keep us out of it.”
Watson, the director of MEYO, blames the high teen delinquency rate on bad home lives. Many children are raised by single mothers. Others deal with their parents divorcing or being evicted or deported. Many face food insecurity. More than 92 percent of students in SAISD are considered economically disadvantaged.
Quinn Morris—Lea and Bobby Watson’s sister—added that an unstable family means children are often moving between houses, are up late cooking dinner and caring for their siblings, or are witnessing domestic violence and other crimes.
“We try to be that stable family that they can come to,” Lea Watson says.
Morris, who is now a teacher in Wimberley, started Peace Camp in 2012 with Lea Watson, after they had been college volunteers with MEYO for only one semester.
The Watson sisters recognized that for children to reach their educational potential, like MEYO hoped for, they needed a safe place to be during the summer—a place where they could connect with their peers and see positive role models like the Watson family.
With the help of their two brothers, they built the program from scratch, drawing on their experience in summer camps when they were younger. The camp includes arts and crafts, song and dance, outdoor activities and volunteering.
Lea Watson, 24, became the director of MEYO in 2014 after graduating from college.
“It took them about a year to know my name because they are so used to white people coming in and out of their lives,” Lea Watson says.
One year, a sixth-grade student approached Lea Watson and Mueller and told them he could not read or write and did not know the entire alphabet. The staff worked with him to get him caught up. He graduated high school and landed a good job.
More recently, a senior in high school dropped out just a few months before graduation. Lea Watson asked the young woman what happened, and found that she had been unable to attend her classes because she was being bounced between several family members after her parents divorced.
Lea Watson and another volunteer picked up the student and took her to the bank to get paperwork, then drove her to an alternative school to enroll in classes. Now, she is set to graduate this summer.
When the Watsons and Mueller claim the graduation rate is 100 percent, it is not because they track those numbers on paper. It is because they have personally seen that every student makes it through high school.
Morris says the program’s high success rate is because of the “culture Lea has created.” That culture is to work hard, try hard in school and go on to college, if that is the right path.
Lea Watson says it is because the program is small enough that it can create a stable support group.
“It’s all about relationships,” she says. “The people who are able to stick around call the Yellow House their second home and the staff their second parents.”
Sustaining the program
As Lea Watson leads the group in song, Zahara Elizarraraz, Juarez’s 6-year-old sister, holds back. A rock has gotten in one of her small, pink Crocs-like-shoes, and she is sitting on a flimsy picnic bench in the Time Dollar garden.
Time Dollar is a nonprofit that helps low income individuals learn skills like gardening that can help improve their standard of life. They rent a small house across the street from Divine Redeemer and grow a garden that helps feed MEYO children.
Bobby Watson bends to talk with her about keeping her shoes on as Lea Watson encourages the group to sing the song in Spanish this time.
After promising to wash her shoes later, Bobby Watson gets Zahara back on her feet and singing within in the group—though she insists on hiding behind one of the tall volunteers.
Most of the church’s campus—which consists of the church’s main building, two houses, an activity center, two play grounds and a basketball court—has been cobbled together thanks to the help of other nonprofits and donations.
The church sustains itself with an investment it made after selling part of their property just before the last recession hit, drawing from the principal just to pay builds that the congregation cannot afford. The congregation members only donate about $10,000 of MEYO’s $150,000 budget.
The rest comes from constant grant writing and donations.
In the past, any child who wanted to show up was allowed in Peace Pals, but the Watson’s realized this was not a sustainable and safe method to operate the camp. Now their size is restricted based on how many people they are able to hire to work in the program.
This year there are 21 staffers; the three Watsons, and 18 high schoolers that have gone through MEYO’s “leadership” training to become counselors.
Mueller estimates that just $50,000 more in donations would free the staff up from having to write grants day in and day out. Those donations cannot come from the congregation because it has not supported itself for at least the past 23 years.
A church in Austin has donated a portable building, but Mueller has been unable to bring it to the lot because of the amount of paperwork that must be done to get city permits. That kind of paperwork takes time and expertise that he and the volunteers lack, so they rely on capable people to donate their time—which has proven to be a slow process.
When that is done, the church will be able to host a community boxing program that had been successful in the past. It will also look to build an activity center where quinceaneras and other events can be held.
“I have big dreams for the program,” Lea Watson says. “But, I constantly just have my head down trying to find enough money to buy food and keep the lights on.”