Alejandro Gonzalez is living proof that good things can happen when “the village” supports a student, and the student is willing to work hard in return. Gonzalez overcame homelessness stewarding the benefits of public programs and private support, functioning institutions and generous individuals. He faced logistical and emotional hurdles that would have felled less driven individuals, but he will be the first to tell you that he didn’t do it alone.
During Gonzalez’s freshman year at Churchill High School in Northeast Independent School District, his parents separated. His father was a Gulf War veteran with PTSD, and Gonzalez’s mother felt she needed to provide a more secure environment for her children.
Then his mother lost her job. Not long after, his dad lost his job in the credit market during the 2008 collapse. Without a paycheck from either parent, Gonzalez, his mother, and three siblings soon found themselves homeless.
Economists estimate that 60 to 70% of Americans are one paycheck away from homelessness. Without sufficient savings to absorb emergency costs, which include ordinary living expenses without monthly income, setbacks often spell disaster for the working poor. During the recession, even those with some reserves couldn’t weather the prolonged joblessness that settled in like a persistent cough.
Gonzalez spent his 16th birthday at the Salvation Army Family Shelter. Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Project, Gonzalez and his siblings were able to continue going to NEISD schools, considered to be some of the strongest in Bexar County. He had ample access to AP courses, and other advanced curriculum. It was a great opportunity, though not without stress of its own. He ended up at Johnson High School, a relatively affluent school where homelessness is not as common as it may be in inner city districts.
“I wasn’t really verbal about my situation, because I was afraid of the stigma,” said Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, his case worker pointed to Haven for Hope, where the Gonzalez family would be surrounded by more people transitioning out of homelessness, and more resources aimed at helping them make that transition.
Haven for Hope turned out to be a transformational experience for Gonzalez and his family.
“It didn’t feel like a shelter,” said Gonzalez, “They made sure we felt like real people with dreams and aspirations to get out of there.”
For Gonzalez’s mother, transformation meant job counseling and training. For Gonzalez, it meant doing well in school, which would require more non-academic work than it would for most of his peers.
To get to school, Gonzalez and his siblings woke up at 5:30am. He helped everyone get ready and out the door by 6 a.m. to catch the SAISD bus that would drop them off at a bus stop near the I-10/410 interchange. An NEISD bus would then pick them up and transport them to their schools. They were usually too late to take advantage of the breakfast program, or they arrived with just enough time to grab a quick bite and run to class.
The long journey was reversed for the Gonzalez siblings on the way back home, and they rarely made it back in time to eat the scheduled dinner at Haven for Hope. Fortunately, the staff would set aside a meal for them.
Then there was the school work itself. Teachers at Johnson confidently assign computer-based homework which requires students to have access to technology. When his U.S. History teacher assigned a report that required a significant computer and technology component, Gonzalez was forced to break the silence about his situation.
His teacher, Caroline Castellanos, immediately took action. She adjusted his deadline, taking into account the shorter stints of computer time he would have available in the school computer lab. She continued to support Gonzalez in other ways, even giving him extra food and new clothes.
When Gonzalez graduated summa cum laude from Johnson, he honored Castellanos for the role she played in his success.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s STAN counselor Carri Elliott reached out to Gonzalez and his sister as well. Her goal was to make sure that their high school experience was complete with yearbooks, prom tickets, and other trimmings of high school that would have been cost prohibitive.
“She made sure my sister and I had the best high school experience,” said Gonzalez.
Elliott even paid for Gonzalez’s cap and gown herself.
“(Castellanos and Elliott) relieved a lot of the stress for my family,” said Gonzalez.
When Gonzalez was accepted to Baylor University, Haven for Hope and Baylor threw him an acceptance party. Gonzalez received substantial scholarships from Baylor, but like many students overcoming poverty, he would need more support than most financial aid packages can offer. His dream was almost within reach, but it was just on the other side of the gap.
That was when he met Harvey Najim, who was visiting Haven for Hope. Najim was instantly struck by the ambitious young man.
“When we met, I really liked him and was impressed with him,” said Najim, “I then asked him if he planned to go to SAC after he graduated. He told me that he wanted to go to Baylor – which surprised me. I asked him if he had applied – which he had, and had been conditionally accepted, pending getting financial aid and taking some summer classes.”
Najim immediately began rallying support for Gonzalez. He talked to Greg Davis with Baylor, and worked with others including Bill Greehey, David McGee with Amergy Bank, and former mayor Phil Hardberger to secure his acceptance. This network of support bridged the gap, and continued to invest in Gonzalez throughout his education.
That investment is paying off. After college graduation, Gonzalez will head to Alpharetta, Georgia to work as a technology consultant for Hewlett Packard, putting his management information systems degree to good use. The estimated starting salary for the position is $65,000 per year.
Often in discourse on the American dream, we are told that hard work should be sufficient for success, whatever your background. Gonzalez would seem to fit that bill. He worked hard. He got up early. He stayed late. He deserves credit for his impressive accomplishments, but his success is also evidence of another secret of success: a community of support, and people who care for one another.
Top Image: Alejandro Gonzalez (center) at graduation from Johnson High School. Courtesy photo.