When Margarita Romo looked out her window, she saw an old pool hall defaced by graffiti. Some would call it an eyesore. Romo, executive director of the nonprofit agency that helps poor farmworkers, called it something else. Opportunity. Two years later, her vision has come true. With the assistance of a variety of community donors, Farmworkers Self-Help purchased the building and named it Mi Otra Casa (My Other House). And last week, a group of about 60 volunteers age 14 through 21 — including a church group from an affluent Connecticut community — worked several days to transform it into a teen center.
Romo envisioned a place where teens served by her agency could have meals and snacks, get tutoring and counseling if needed, perform dance and drama productions, and learn to use computers.
"Education is the only ticket out of the poverty cycle for these kids. This is why we need to give them places to learn," Romo said. "And while we have a center for little kids, we also need a place for our teens, many of whom have to take care of their little brothers and sisters at home. They don't know how to play."
The work at 37105 Lock St. was supervised by a group of young people whom Romo helped secure scholarships at Saint Leo University, where they are now honor students. They guided four teams of Farmworkers teens and the members of Quest, a youth group from the Congregational Church of New Canaan, Conn.
The kids worked Monday through Friday installing a kitchenette, a fenced patio and doors at the teen center, as well as a patio area and a sewing room at the Lock Street thrift store.
The church in New Canaan raised $35,000 for the construction materials.
Eddie Lopez was one of the Farmworkers volunteers. "We're doing this to help the community," he said. "We want the kids to stay away from drugs, go to college, to do things we haven't been able to do before, and to have fun."
Julie Hsu, a San Antonio Rotary volunteer who helped oversee the project, also has high hopes for both Mi Otra Casa and the thrift store sewing room where teens can learn to make their own clothes, including costumes for their song and dance performances.
"This is a safe place for them to come and learn skills," she said. "This will be a place of 10
s, where they can learn to be a leader."
The New Canaan volunteers learned something as well, said group leader Skip Masback.
"This group has adopted the Biblical verse John 17:21-22, in which Jesus prays that we all may be one," he said. "The kids learn that, while we come from very different cultures, God makes us all one. They also learn to think beyond themselves, their college and career plans, and they learn that despite their differences, all kids have the same concerns and anxieties."
And, he added, "They get to meet heroes like Margarita Romo, who are so passionate about helping people. Hopefully they will find this passion in their own lives. At 14, 15, 16, they discover the capacity to change the world."
Will Hennessey, a 16-year-old Quest volunteer, said his work with the group has been "a big part of my life."
"The experience has been transformative," she said. "I've learned construction skills, and have learned to interact with students from cultures that are different from ours."
As kids finished up their work Friday morning, they also took the time to laugh and talk, give each other wheelbarrow rides and dance to the music blasting from a nearby radio. They talked about the great possibilities of the rooms they were creating.
"I feel so blessed to be getting a good education," said Maria Vasquez, 20, a Farmworkers volunteer about to begin her sophomore year at Saint Leo. "So I'm glad that this will be a place where kids will get tutored."