Joven’s summer camps struggle to stay afloat financially

J. Michael Short/Special to the Express-News
Joven’s Christian Guajardo explains “Marco Polo” to Angelique Huerta, Sofia Galunga, Daniel Flores, Roman Villarreal and Ramiro Lopez.

Elaine Ayala – Express-News

PoolThe “Marco Polo” game is known the world over, but on a recent day at San Pedro Park Pool, six children from San Antonio’s South Side played it for the first time.

“You have to say, ‘Marco,’” camp leader Christian Guajardo told a 5-year-old boy. “Then, we say, ‘Polo.’”

Playing water tag named for a 12th-century Venetian explorer made for a perfect afternoon.

It was a small portion of Joven camp for low-income kids ages 4 to 17. Every summer for the past 10 years, the nonprofit social service agency has offered free camp to thousands of children. A slot has never gone unfilled.

Thursday was the last day of camp for this summer.

But it almost didn’t happen, says James Parsons, Joven’s chief executive officer, citing diminishing public and private funds and increasing need. At the last minute, a $12,000 grant from the Dena and Lawrence Cade Fund of the San Antonio Area Foundation arrived. Coupled with small amounts from other sources, Joven was able to serve 120 children, 60 in each of its sessions, the majority of whom come from Mexican American families living below the federal poverty level.

“Some summers we’ve had 200,” Parsons says, “and we could easily double that.”

Joven, Spanish for “youth,” is headquartered on West White Road in the Harlandale area, its urban base. It runs a camp there and a second in a rural area farther south called Losoya. Parsons says it offers services to children and teens, many of whom spend their summers in the care of siblings or other relatives.

At both sites, children remained on waiting lists this summer.

But it’s getting harder to keep Joven camps free. The city of San Antonio’s Kid Quest camp faced similar pressures this summer when it raised its $5 fee to $250, spurring heated criticism. It later dropped rates for low-income families.

Joven faces more than poverty, however.

Parson says its service areas deal with “a lot of gang activity, a lot of drugs and a lot of crime. We sometimes see it in real time.”

Joven was established in 1992 by the Benediction Resource Center, run by the Benedictine Sisters, as a direct result of the county’s rising juvenile crime rates.

Parsons says the area’s rapid growth has compounded need.

“Meanwhile, the city has 300 gangs. It has a serious drug problem, especially in meth labs. It has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, and it has a lot of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases).”

None of the young campers splashing around the San Pedro pool last week had any idea that such issues are at stake, however.

Their only concern — other than a minor dispute settled with an apology and a timeout — was fun.

Counselors see firsthand what issues their charges face, however.

“A lot of the kids come from family situations in which they see things they shouldn’t have to see,” says Guajardo, a children’s service specialist who just graduated from UTSA and is working on a master’s degree in mental-health counseling.

“They are labeled ‘at risk,’” adds George Lozano, a Texas Department of Health worker helping out for his third summer, “but the only thing they’re at risk of is boredom. They come from good families, but they don’t want their kids to stay home watching TV.”

The kids look forward to camp. Through wholesome activities such as dancing, swimming and arts and crafts, Joven works on character development.

Whether visiting a museum, the missions or hiking a wilderness trail, Joven hopes to build resiliency in each child. Its field trips are to places that are free, low-cost or, like the San Antonio Children’s Museum, where Joven gets a break on admission.

“Many of them don’t wander beyond their own neighborhood,” Parsons says, and outings to SeaWorld and Fiesta Texas are out of reach.

In all, Joven has 12 programs funded by city, state and federal grants.

The bill for summer camp came to $70,000. Joven wants $200,000 for next year’s program. With that, it can serve 200 children in each session, 400 total.

Parsons says Toyota has been an economic engine for the area, but its success “hasn’t rippled out” to the community. “The situation is ironic. The demand and need keep increasing, but the resources are lower,” he says.

Joven’s dance program is considered its most successful, teaching discipline and team work.

“They may never go to the Joffrey Ballet,” Parsons says of its dancers, “but they are growing as individuals. Most of our dancers show improved grades year to year.”

He likes telling the story of a conversation between a dance instructor and student at a Joven gala held in the three-story, 12,000-square-foot Red Berry Mansion on Gembler Road.

As the dancers readied for a performance, one girl looked around and said, “Someday I want to live in a place like this.”

Then the instructor asked her, “Well, what do you have to do?”

“I’ve got to stay in school.”

“Then what?”

“I’ve got to get good grades.”

“And then?”

“Then I have to go to college.”


“Then I’ve got to get a job.”