Anna Castañeda was good at her job. As a cocaine and heroin dealer on the San Antonio’s Westside, she was a 23-year-old girl doing the job of a drug industry veteran, and commanding plenty of respect.
“You come to buy two dimes of heroin, and you leave with ten dimes and a bag of coke,” Castañeda said, reflecting on her business skills.
The problem was that, by 26, Castañeda had four kids and a felony conviction, possession with intent to distribute cocaine. She was living on a precarious edge that couldn’t last forever. Over the next year she would find herself on a perilous journey in and out of homelessness, in which her remarkable grit and determination would be matched only by the generosity she encountered along the way, finally bringing her to a place of hope.
That place is the Alamo Colleges Westside Training and Education Center (WETC) where Castañeda works as a Public Ally. To talk to her now at 28, bright, hopeful, and stunningly articulate, you would never guess how close she had come to becoming a statistic of poverty.
The daughter of a single mother who worked farms in Texas and Michigan, Castañeda knew what it felt like to be alone. From the age of 10 she assumed responsibility for her younger siblings. Her mom would leave basic ingredients in the house, so Castañeda learned how to cook. She asked her mother for the money she needed to enroll herself and her siblings in Boys and Girls Clubs to that they wouldn’t be sitting around getting into trouble on evenings and weekends.
Eventually, however, trouble would find her, and Castañeda carried her childhood loneliness with her into adulthood surrounded by drugs.
Ironically, it was her love of her children that kept her in the drug trade as long as she stayed. When she was convicted of her felony drug charge and sentenced to eight months probation, Castañeda was 23 with three children. Getting a clean job with her limited education would mean working grueling shifts with no flexibility. Her mother was now in a position help her a bit with childcare, but she remembered what it was like to grow up with that same mother struggling to make ends meet.
“Selling drugs gave me the flexibility to be a stay at home mom,” Castañeda said.
She was making more money than she could elsewhere, with more flexibility, and far more respect. Being around drugs constantly, Castañeda continued her own casual marijuana use as well. At night, she felt tortured, wondering if she even deserved to be a mother if this was how she was going to live.
When she was finally caught in violation of her probation in 2014, it was only a fifth pregnancy that prevented her from being sent to the Bexar County Substance Abuse Treatment Facility or Intermediate Sanctions Facility for six to nine months. She realized then how close she was to losing her children permanently.
“That’s when I was done,” she said.
Castañeda, like many Americans living in poverty, was caught in between two worlds. To qualify for help from nonprofit resources and social services she needed to better herself, she had to be unemployed or homeless. However, she knew that simply getting a minimum wage job with no education and soon-to-be-five children was not going to get her out of poverty without a long-term plan.
She took the long view, asked her mother to take care of her children, and effectively rendered herself homeless. She checked into the Salvation Army where she could stay for three months, and began a difficult weekly routine of traveling between mandatory narcotics anonymous meetings, out-patient counseling, job interviews, and public services where she could use computers and access resources in search of a viable future. There were days she went without food, in order to send what money she did have to her kids.
In the midst of this daunting mid-pregnancy routine, Castañeda said, she found an unlikely answer to her loneliness. She learned to ask for help, starting with God.
“I gave everything up, and gave everything to God,” she said.
From there, she says, things began to fall into place, and she was surprised by doors that began to open. Her life of self-sufficiency had left her lonely, but learning to ask for help introduced her to the generosity of others and filled her with hope.
The AmeriCorps Public Allies Program takes young, diverse people and plugs them in to full time apprenticeships with nonprofits.
The program has multiple benefits. The Ally receives valuable experience, as well as access to food stamps, subsidized housing, health insurance, a stipend, and scholarships. When she completes the program Castañeda will qualify for two years of scholarships up to $6,000 per year at the Alamo Colleges. She will also have experience on her resume, and confidence in her skills. She’s applied her formidable determination to going above and beyond.
“I want to do not just the task given to me, but to do more,” Castañeda said.
The nonprofit, in this case WETC, benefits from the perspective of their Ally. They have someone involved in management meetings who has experiential knowledge of the neighborhoods and populations they are trying to reach.
For those served by the nonprofits, having “one of their own” working in the nonprofit or community service is vital. It breaks down the barrier between the haves and have-nots and makes it more likely that the services will speak to the real issues of the community.
“It’s not so much that we need people to be empathetic or to put themselves in our shoes,” said Castañeda, “We need people who are in those shoes.”
The hard work is not over for Castañeda. She wants to go to school, and continue giving back to her community and providing for her kids.
“I want to offer my kids something,” said Castañeda, “I had my love, but it goes beyond that.”
One of the most encouraging things for Gene Gonzalez, Castañeda’s mentor and manager at WETC, is knowing that whatever resources they can give the young mother will benefit her children. When Castañeda went into labor on her first day of work at WETC, the staff was supportive.
“Many of our clients are women. This isn’t the first birth this center has seen,” Gonzalez said.
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Castañeda was welcomed back after her maternity leave, to begin in earnest. Still, she was always treated like a woman and mother in addition to a worker.
“This is the first place I’ve worked where I’ve had that,” Castañeda said.
She plans to extend her time as a Public Ally to a second and possibly even third year, continuing to learn and gain experience. She wants to invest in her community, a place where she feels people with resources won’t usually venture into deeply.
“But I will,” said Castañeda, “I will all day.”
Top image: Once Castañeda completes the Ally Program she will qualify for two years of scholarships up to $6,000 per year at the Alamo Colleges. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.