When Randy Berlanga came to Camp Good Sam – a free summer camp for the city’s Westside youth – as a third grader, he never thought that going to college was a reality for him. Growing up on the Westside, Berlanga didn’t have many role models who pursued higher education, let alone earned a degree, he said.

But the more Berlanga came back to Good Sam for summer camp, and then for after-school activities during the fall and spring, the more he and his friends built relationships with the Good Sam staff, who all had or were working toward college degrees. Some also grew up on the Westside just like him.

For Berlanga, seeing someone from his barrio – a historically underserved area of the city – achieve the unthinkable inspired him to do the same. He recently graduated from University of Texas at San Antonio with a kinesiology and physical education degree and after, he become a Good Sam counselor, too.

Izaiah plays basketball after the morning activity.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Izaiah plays basketball after the morning activity. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Berlanga wants to be a positive example, a beacon of hope for the camp kids he interacts with, he said.

“It’s just about showing them that even though they come from a certain part of the city, that they still have the opportunity to go (to college). It’s showing them that there’s resources out there to help them do it,” Berlanga said. Being from the same neighborhood as the campers, he added, helps establish a deeper connection and a sense of trust with them.

“They can relate to me, I can relate to them,” he said. “We’ve gone through the same stuff.”

Camp Good Sam is operated by Good Samaritan Community Services, a nonprofit based on the Westside that provides comprehensive services to more than 5,000 underserved individuals and 1,800 families in eight locations around South Texas. The San Antonio summer camp, which also is held at the organization’s North-Eastside campus, is one of a variety of free programs and resources Good Sam offers San Antonio youth every year.

Monday through Friday, the Westside camp draws hundreds of kids to the main Good Sam building, located at 1600 Saltillo St., to learn, play, and interact with their neighbors in a safe, educational environment. The campers, most of which are from low-income households, participate in interactive games, field trips, and other activities in small groups each day. Most activities are things they may not otherwise be doing if they stayed at home while their parents were at work.

“Community time” is the first activity of each day at Camp Good Sam. All of the campers and their counselors compete in friendly, high-energy games like hula-hoop contests to get them awake and ready for the rest of the day.

The camp is fun, but also incorporates educational elements into most of the programming, which is essential in overcoming the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families. The gap is 30-40% larger among kids born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to several studies. Lack of educational opportunities in the summer time only increases learning loss among lower-income kids, who often can’t afford or attend summer programs for various reasons.

As the summer comes to a close, it’s the hope of Berlanga and the other Camp Good Sam counselors and staff that the campers return to school refreshed and with little to no problems readjusting to the school environment.

“If you test the kids in poverty who don’t have an enriched summer, (you see that) they’ll lose ground in math and science and reading when they go back to school, but if they have a great summer (with an educational component) they don’t,” said Jill Oettinger, who has been the Good Sam CEO for the past 20 years.

Jill Oettinger has been the CEO of Good Samaritan Community Services for nearly 20 years.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Jill Oettinger has been the CEO of Good Samaritan Community Services for nearly 20 years. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Reading, for example, is a key part of Camp Good Sam. Each camp session is themed after a book series appropriate for all ages, and each camper reads one or more books in the series and completes activities centered around it. This year’s series was The Five Kingdoms by Brandon Mull.

Alfonso reads a book during the morning activity. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Alfonso reads a book during the morning activity at Camp Good Sam. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“It turns out that having these literary themes is really a smart way to go,” Oettinger said. “A lot of kids don’t even have a chance to buy books, so this way they can get as many books as they can read in the summer.”

Oettinger said that researching is a key component of Camp Good Sam, and allows staff to refine teaching methods and develop a special curriculum tailored toward low-income kids that the camp serves. They also work on building each camper’s individual assets using the Search Institute‘s 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents.

“What the research is showing is that there’s a strong correlation between kids in poverty that don’t have as many experiences and the number of assets that they have,” Oettinger said. “And there’s also a strong correlation between success and graduating from school and the more assets you have.”

Good Sam staff works with the children on developing internal assets, such as self-esteem, responsibility, or interpersonal skills, and external assets, such as family support, access to youth programs and services, and general safety. Attaining a college education also is at the forefront of the Camp Good Sam programming, as each classroom the children work in is named after a different university.

Since its impetus in 1951, Good Samaritan Community Services has worked primarily to help improve the quality of life for the community members it serves. In the most recent year, the majority of the individuals (95%) were Hispanic, 80% under the age of 19, and 80% living below the poverty level. The main campus on the Westside has evolved from an aging building to a thriving, multi-structure campus. When Oettinger first came to the campus decades ago, it was in subpar conditions, she said.

“We spent so much money on programs, which if you only have a little bit of money that’s what you want to do, but I couldn’t reconcile wanting my children to have wonderful experiences and things and schools and not these kids,” she said. Her and the Good Sam team committed much time and effort to manage the organization’s funds, collaborate with the community, and transform the organization into one with exceptional programs and services for area adults and children.

From left bottom: Valerie, Sabrina, Jessica, Evelynn, Ruby play on the jungle gym at Good Sam. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
From left bottom: Valerie, Sabrina, Jessica, Evelynn, Ruby play on the jungle gym at Good Sam. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Aside from Camp Good Sam, which just ended its summer 2016 term, there are resources for families in need of employment or food, for seniors in need of salvation from isolation, and for adults looking to attain their GED or Citizenship.

For Berlanga, Good Sam has provided him lots of opportunities, for which he is grateful.

“It’s different (being a staff member and not a student), but I enjoy it,” he said. “I get a satisfaction out of helping kids that are growing up in the same neighborhood I grew up in and showing them that they can make it.”

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Top image: From left: Giovanni, Delanie, and Xavier look on as the morning activities take place at Camp Good Sam.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com