SA Hope Center’s transition from food bank to a holistic service center that targets the root causes of poverty wasn’t easy, said Executive Director Megan Legacy.
“We had [up] to 5,000 families a month stand in line for food,” Legacy said. But many families were frustrated when the organization shifted to case management. “It was a painful process.”
She recalled a disabled veteran who was upset that the center discontinued its regular food and clothing handout events. He told a case manager that he had been coming to the center for seven years.
“Sir, if you’ve been coming here for seven years,” said the manager, according to Legacy, “then we’ve never helped you.”
As it turned out, the man had made a mistake on a veteran assistance form – so he wasn’t receiving the benefits he was entitled to. His case manager was able to clear that up, and he started receiving regular checks and stopped relying on feeding programs, Legacy said.
“Without building relationships – without treating people with respect and hearing their hurt and trauma — they would stay on the street,” said Legacy, whom the board hired in 2012 to lead the transition. “That one-on-one relationship is so important.”
SA Hope Center started out as the Oak Hills Church’s food and clothing donation program in the 1980s and has become a multi-program nonprofit at 321 N. General McMullen Drive. SA Hope Center offers courses on financial literacy, parenting, job readiness, and more. The nonprofit still provides food and clothing to those in need – but clients must also talk to staff or volunteer mentors first to see if they can help in other ways.
The center’s name change and rebranding in October last year, from San Antonio Christian Hope Resource Center, was a much easier transition, she said. Removing the word “Christian” had no impact on their operations.
“We’re a faith-based organization, and we always will be,” she said. “But people were walking in and saying, ‘I’m not Christian, will you serve me?”
Under its new name, the center will be able to reach more people, and most people were referring to it as Hope Center anyway, she said. “We didn’t take any Christianity out of what we’re doing.”
The call to “meet people where they are” is deeply entrenched in Hope Center’s programming, she said.
SA Hope Center has deployed several caseworkers to work with other community partners including Ogden Academy, First Presbyterian Church downtown, and Good Samaritan Community Services‘ Restore Education program.
Carla Castro, an SA Hope Center case manager, has set up an office to help students and parents find the help they need at Ogden.
“People come here, and their mind is blown” when they see the “paperwork hoops” someone has to jump through just to see if they qualify for benefits such as housing, Carlos said.
SA Hope Center builds relationships with low-income and homeless individuals and families to be a guide through those hoops, she said.
Marylou Flores lives with her four sons – ages 9, 11, 16, and 18 – and her boyfriend on the West Side of San Antonio in a small two-bedroom home.
She’s ready to move on – to find a bigger place on her own, but she doesn’t make enough money at her job cleaning homes to afford rent and raise her four children on her own. She wasn’t sure where to start.
“My kids, they don’t want to leave the school,” Flores said, so they’re hoping to find something nearby.
Flores and her family received food and clothes from SA Hope Center, but Castro has also helped her with her taxes and got her on local and federal housing waitlists.
But families can spend years on those waitlists, so Flores and Castro are also looking into other options such as mobile home parks.
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SA Hope Center’s campus, which opened in 2005, serves as a home base for its caseworkers and clients. It’s also where it hosts most of its courses and programming, including a small thrift shop for clothing and food pantry where families can pick their own groceries.
Alicia, who asked only to be identified by her first name, attended a recent parenting class at the center’s headquarters. She has 10 grandkids and hopes to adopt the five that live in her home, ages 5 to 17. First, she has to take a State-mandated parenting class.
Classes provided elsewhere were too far away, and she would have had to wait several weeks for the 10-week course to start again before she could register, Alicia said.
“This one was a lot quicker, convenient, and free,” she said.
Hope Center’s parenting class, which takes place every Tuesday, lets participants join at any point throughout the course. Since Alicia started the course, she said she’s considering signing up for a GED program, too.
Alicia was joined by about 10 other people, some couples, in the course. The day’s lesson focused on breaking the cycle of domestic violence. The activity is to make Valentine’s Day cards for their children, many of whom Child Protective Services has taken away from them.
“When there are fights [in a home] … a child absorbs all of it,” caseworker Ruby Ann Sanchez told the class. “This [violence] becomes love in their eyes. … But hurting someone is not love.”
Sanchez focuses on family programming at Hope Center and usually teaches the parenting class. She opens the class by asking each student to rate their mood from 1 to 10 as well as asking them what’s going on in their neighborhoods.
“It’s not just about what’s going wrong,” she said. She also wants the students to share what’s going right.
At the center’s Milestones of Hope ceremonies, clients and their families have an opportunity to celebrate achievements from completing a course in financial literacy to finding a new job.
“They’re not necessarily finished with everything, but we like to acknowledge them and say, ‘Look how far you’ve come,'” Sanchez said.
Hope Center’s annual budget, more than $1 million, is funded almost entirely through donations from private foundations, individuals, and corporations, Legacy said.
“Private philanthropy really allows us to be flexible and responsive,” she said. Donors can specify what they’d like their money to go toward – including rental assistance, food, or Hope Center operating funds.
This year, the center will kick off an estimated $4.5 million capital campaign to replace its aging portable office and class space with a permanent building. Legacy is also looking to sell the property next door to an affordable housing developer, as it’s zoned for apartments.
The two biggest obstacles for lifting clients out of poverty and homelessness are housing and transportation, Legacy said. If someone can’t get to a place that can provide assistance or get to their jobs, “they’re trapped” in a cycle of poverty, she said.
The Hope Center is a key partner in the Decade of Family movement, a coalition of community leaders and organizations that launched Feb. 24.
Its mission is to strengthen nonprofit and public partnerships to better serve families and is in the “listening” stage of collecting input on how to make that a reality.
The group will host a series of meetings across the community, Legacy said.
“We don’t want to look back and see that we missed a perspective,” she said. “We want every side of the city, every community group to [show us] us their barriers and what we can do to support families.”