Luis Vargas spent most of his childhood in a community center in the Prospect Hill neighborhood on San Antonio’s West Side. In between basketball, summer camps, and after-school programs, it became like a second home to him. Now he is back to help the community that helped raise him as the project manager in charge of redesigning a century-old building.
The nonprofit House of Neighborly Service (HNS) and Divine Redeemer Presbyterian Church partner to provide family support and child development programs, senior care, and food distribution in a shared space. The last time the community center, located at 407 N. Calaveras, was redesigned was in 1929.
After all those years of use, the disrepair began to mount: roofs leaked, plumbing broke down, and air conditioning gave out. And the population it serves keeps growing. Rev. Rob Mueller of Divine Redeemer Church mentored Vargas in his youth and kept his name in mind when the church and HNS began renovation plans after an electrical inspection revealed several issues with the building.
“I want to be able to give to other kids the opportunities I was given,” said Vargas, who works for the Dado Group, the design firm contracted for their architectural services on the redesign. “Being able to remodel the complex is a way to do this. To me that means a lot of other Luises will get that same help that I got. It means the world to me to know that I will be involved in a little part of that.”
Vargas doesn’t think of it as just another project. To him, it’s about setting an example. Many of the people at HNS helped him get through school and guided him through life.
“[There were] people like Rob Mueller, who was present the day my grandfather died to pray for him, and others like Santiago Caldera, who gave me examples on what to do and what not to do, and who also reminded me to stay on the right path,” Vargas said.
Vargas’s family often goes back to the community center when visiting his parents. While he is there, he takes the opportunity to talk to some of the kids who play in the same place he once played.
“The kids that I know are up to no good, I try to pull them aside and say, ‘All you got to do is make a choice to have a better life for yourself, and it can happen,’” Vargas said.
Some of the friends Vargas grew up with did not make those types of choices. Many of them did not continue their education or landed in jail. But, because of HNS, Vargas was able to take a different path.
“It gave me an option of what to do instead of doing the bad things that were around me,” Vargas said. “There were a bunch of people like [Mueller] that told me, ‘you can do more than just graduate high school. You can go to college and one day you can be doing something that you love to do.’”
After school, before he did anything else, Vargas would throw on his basketball shorts and head to the community center. When his parents went out looking for him, they always knew to go to the basketball court.
“I remember growing up, just seeing the basketball [court] light on at night,” Vargas said. “I just gravitated towards [it], and seeing all the kids around there made me feel like a had a place to go.”
HNS provided Vargas with more than just a place to play. Although his family did not have the means to travel, Vargas took a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with HNS in 1994. He remembers meeting people from other states.
“I got to talk to people from Florida, Chicago, New York,” Vargas said. “It allowed me to know there is more than just the neighborhood I live in.”
While he was in high school, Vargas used the tutoring services and guidance from the House of Teens program. After he graduated, HNS awarded Vargas a scholarship to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he studied architecture. Even when he was in college, he would go back to the community space and use their printers and internet to finish his work.
Recently, he has collaborated on the designs of Dough Pizzeria at Hemisfair downtown, Signature restaurant at La Cantera, Rosella Coffee on Jones Street, and The Brown Residence in Austin.
His younger sister, Hilda Vargas, also spent her childhood in the community center. She attended UTSA for her undergraduate degree in psychology with the help of an HNS scholarship. Hilda, who had a child when she was 19, now works at Seton Home, a counseling center for teen parents. She also provides free counseling at HNS.
“My desire to work with these nonprofit agencies stems from being around HNS,” Hilda said. “I saw firsthand what it’s like to receive that help and now I provide that help to the community. It has come full circle.”
She said she believes Vargas’ design will help the children of the community find a safe space.
“The environment influences children because they need safety,” Hilda said. “It will definitely attract them more. Having something new in the community will spark up that light again in the kids and the parents.”
The renovation of the community center was estimated to cost $2.5 million. A capital campaign has raised about $1.4 million so far. HNS has received $500,000 from the city and the rest from various charities and donations.
Part of Vargas’s design will involve converting the old basketball court to a covered community gathering hall.
“I imagine it will be used to help people in the same way it has been doing before: providing assistance with food for needy families, elderly people who are on their own with a warm meal, and kids around the neighborhood a place to go play and feel safe,” Vargas said.
Mueller said he hopes the church’s charity inspires others to pass it along, like it did for Vargas and his sister.
“One of the things that I try to communicate to this congregation is that what we are given, we are given so that we can pass it along to other people,” Mueller said. “Luis got the message and he has become an example of the very thing that we have tried to preach.”