Leave It To Bea

How a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a fierce commitment to helping poor kids stay in school turned one Carrollton woman’s life around—and what Texas can learn from her example.

July 2010By Comments

Never, Ever Give Up: Bea Salazar, with several children from Metrocrest Village, photographed on May 13, 2010.
Photograph by Peter Yang

Let’s begin with a few facts and figures. In the past twenty years, the number of Latinos under age eighteen living in the United States has doubled, to 16 million. By 2035 they will account for one third of all American children. Many of these kids are members of first- or second-generation immigrant families, and they are raised in low-income neighborhoods. Because of language barriers and cultural differences, they struggle to get through school. Today, only 55 percent of Latino youths who get to the ninth grade finish high school with a regular diploma, compared with about 76 percent of Anglo students. Those who do graduate often have significantly lower reading and math skills.

For decades, there has been intense debate over how to help more of these kids flourish in school and ultimately succeed in society. The debate is especially intense in Texas, where Latinos are poised to become the state’s biggest ethnic group by 2020 and where Latino children currently number about three million. Many of them are raised by parents who speak only Spanish and attend schools without the resources to help them. The odds are high that they’ll remain in socially and economically isolated neighborhoods, working dead-end jobs. The American dream almost certainly will elude them.

Now let’s meet Bea Salazar, a small, young-looking 65-year-old with tinted red hair. Because of an accident she suffered in 1983 while working nights on the assembly line at a semiconductor plant—she fractured her pelvis, requiring two surgeries—she is in constant pain. She often grimaces when she walks. Sometimes the pain is so intense she cannot take a bath, and she rarely sleeps through the night.

In the spring of 1990, Bea was living on a small disability stipend in Metrocrest Village, a run-down apartment complex in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton. A native of Eagle Pass, in South Texas, Bea had dropped out of high school at age sixteen and married young, but after moving to Carrollton—where her husband worked as a forklift operator—and having five children, she and her husband divorced. Bea had managed to support herself and the children with her job at the semiconductor plant, leaving for work after putting them to bed and arriving back home in time to get them to school. But after her accident, she’d been forced to quit, and with little else but her disability checks to depend on, she and her two youngest children had ended up at Metrocrest. Depressed, Bea spent days crying in her bedroom with the lights off. She contemplated suicide—it’d be as simple, she told herself, as swallowing all the Vicodin tablets on her bedside table—and her children worried about leaving their mother on her own when they went to school.

At the apartment complex, almost all of Bea’s neighbors were immigrant families from Mexico or Central America. The typical family living there had an income of between $7,000 and $9,000, and that was with both parents working as housekeepers, janitors, yard workers, or dishwashers. The kids went to a neighborhood school, but they had little idea what their teachers were saying. Most afternoons when they got home, they sat alone, in their dimly lit apartments, watching television shows they didn’t understand, not opening their textbooks, which made no sense to them. The parents, of course, couldn’t provide much help: Some of them were not just unable to speak English, they were also illiterate in Spanish.

One afternoon in the summer, Bea made the rare decision to leave her apartment to take out a bag of trash. Inside the dumpster she saw a small, barefoot boy, maybe five years old. He had found a moldy piece of bread and was about to eat it. When Bea grabbed the bread out of the boy’s hand, he began to cry. She led him back to her apartment, where she fixed him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The boy stared at her, saying nothing while he ate, then left. Ten minutes later, there was a knock on Bea’s door. The boy and at least five other children were standing there. “Is it true you’re giving away food?” one of them asked.

Bea had just bought a loaf of bread, and she invited them all inside. The next day, they came back—this time with more friends. “Don’t do it, Mom,” said Bea’s youngest daughter, Bel, who was then a high school student. “You feed them once, they’ll never leave.”

But Bea kept making sandwiches. Within a week, there were thirteen kids, none of them older than ten, sitting in her living room every day, many crammed on her sagging green sofa, the rest sprawled on her floor. To give them something to do, she played the one movie she owned, The Little Mermaid, over and over. She showed them how to play Monopoly, using an old game board with half the pieces missing. She stuck a drawing of the United States flag on the wall, had the kids stand up, and taught them to say the Pledge of Allegiance. “Here we kneel for God and stand for our country,” Bea told them.

“Mom, what are you doing?” asked Bel. “These children are practically living here.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Bea said. “But they make me feel better.”

One day, she counted sixty or so children coming through her apartment. She played “beauty shop” and “barbershop” with some of them to teach them how to wash and comb their hair. Hobbling on a cane, she led them outside to the courtyard and had them run relay races. She took them back inside and read them books her own children had read as toddlers, first using English and then translating. She would read them the books again and again. Then she’d make them peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

She assured her own children that her little babysitting project would be over by the end of the summer. The kids would be returning to school, she said, where they’d be part of the free-lunch program. But at the end of the first day of school, she heard the familiar knocking at her door. There they all were again, now with schoolbooks, asking if she could help them decipher their homework. Bea went to see the manager of the Metrocrest complex and persuaded him to let her use an empty apartment as a place for the children. A priest from a neighborhood Catholic church provided tables, chairs, and a blackboard for the new space.

“Mom, you’re running an after-school program, and you don’t even have a high school degree,” exclaimed Bel. “You could get in trouble.”

“It’s just for a little while,” Bea told her daughter. “I promise.”

Let’s now look at another set of facts and figures. It is estimated that 26 percent of Texas’s children are left alone in the afternoon. That’s more than a million kids, some as young as five, who have no supervised place to go when the school bell rings. One study has found that eighth graders who receive no adult oversight for eleven or more hours a week are twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse than those who do. Another study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, has found that one in five violent crimes committed by juveniles occur between three o’clock and seven o’clock on school days. There is a far better chance, these numbers seem to say, that idle young minds in at-risk neighborhoods will stay out of trouble if you give them something constructive to do when classes let out.

Which brings us back to Bea Salazar. After getting the Metrocrest apartment furnished in the spring of 1991, she received books and school supplies from several community organizations, along with plenty of bread and peanut butter. She visited the principal of nearby R. L. Turner High School and asked if a few honor students could be sent over to help the kids with their schoolwork. And despite the pain she was suffering, she showed up at the apartment every day, exhorting the kids to keep studying, telling them that they could be just as successful as the kids in Dallas’s wealthy neighborhoods. “You can do it, m’ijos,” she’d exclaim. “Never, ever give up!”

As many as 125 children began coming in a single day, some of them sneaking over from neighboring apartment complexes. Because they had nothing else to do, many would stay until nine o’clock. Later that school year, Bea asked the kids to show her their report cards. Dozens of them were on the A/B honor roll. “All because we gave them a safe place to do their homework,” Bea said to Bel. “That’s all it took.”

She arranged for the kids to go on a field trip to the Dallas—Fort Worth airport and to the Dallas Zoo. She had a dentist do free dental work and an eye doctor perform exams and provide corrective glasses. She got underwear and socks donated for the children who had none. She even had a few policemen talk to the kids about staying out of trouble. (When an officer showed them how to call 911, the kids started laughing. “None of us have phones in our apartments,” one said.) And year after year, as new immigrant children showed up on her doorstep, Bea kept up with all of them, meeting their parents, helping them get assimilated, sometimes going so far as finding a church to donate mattresses for those families who didn’t have beds.

She was hardly a miracle worker. As they got older, some of the children who passed through Bea’s apartment succumbed to the temptations of the street. One of the boys, trying to protect his little brother during a confrontation, was shot to death. A few of the girls got pregnant. And then there were several kids who, upon reaching adolescence, were required by their parents to leave their studies and go to work at minimum-wage jobs. Others disappeared almost overnight, headed off to another apartment complex because their parents had been evicted for not paying the rent.

But others hung on. They even kept coming around in their teenage years, collaborating on homework or helping the new children who were arriving. Soon those kids who had received Bea’s first peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches were graduating from high school—the first members in their family to do so. There was Sonia Regino, who put on her cap and gown early in the morning on the day she was to graduate from Newman Smith High School and refused to take them off until late that night. And Carmen Puentes, raised by a single mother who worked double shifts at a window company, who went to see Bea after receiving her diploma and said, her eyes glistening, “How did this happen, Bea? How did this happen?” And Omar Cabrera, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was four or five years old and who told Bea that he was going to college and maybe someday to medical school. Bea just nodded at him and said, “You can do it, m’ijo.”

A while back, she heard again from Omar—he had attended Baylor University—and he was enrolled at the Medical College of Wisconsin. When he was back in Dallas on vacation, she had him come talk to the latest group of children studying at the apartment. “You don’t have to end up like other kids around here and run with the wrong crowd,” he told them. “This is your chance to do anything you want.”

Let’s end with a question: What if after-school tutoring programs, like the one Bea Salazar created, existed at other low-income apartment complexes around the state where at-risk children live? Would it make a difference in terms of educational success? Would there be more Omar Cabreras?

Beth M. Miller, an education researcher at the Nellie May Education Foundation who conducted a lengthy study in 2003 on after-school programs, admits that the difference between children’s educational achievements is a result of “complex individual, family, and social circumstances.” But, she concludes, “research suggests that many of [those] circumstances . . . may be ameliorated, at least in part, through participation in out-of-school time programs.”

In fact, other research appears to indicate that after-school programs help kids achieve higher scores on standardized tests, improve their school attendance, and lead to higher graduation rates. One study conducted in California found that children raised in Spanish-speaking or bilingual homes exhibit greater English proficiency when they are involved in after-school tutoring. “And a lot of these kids bloom like never before,” says Shirlene Justice, who supervises the Afterschool Centers on Education program for the Austin Independent School District. (The program serves 25 of the 110 schools with predominantly low-income students.) “They get a chance to assimilate into the culture. Their social skills increase. They’re given a chance to develop a sense of self-esteem they don’t always get at school.” At the least, they have a better chance of keeping up with what is being taught in their classes, which means they are less likely to get discouraged and drop out.

The problem, predictably, is that there is no money for such programs. Public school districts barely have enough funds to get their students through a regular day of classes, and the Obama administration has diverted funding from after-school programs in this year’s federal budget, effectively eliminating some 13,000 after-school spots for children who need them. There are, of course, a handful of nonprofit organizations that offer after-school activities, but they are also struggling to make ends meet. In Dallas, for example, the local chapter of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, one of the city’s most well-known programs, was forced to shut down in February (they have since reopened with help from the Dallas community).

As for Bea, she has done her best to expand what she started, purely by chance, twenty years ago. Today Bea’s Kids is a small nonprofit that offers after-school tutoring in three other low-income apartment complexes besides Metrocrest. Every year, about two hundred kids spend about an hour a day at one of the four centers. But the organization is desperately trying to raise money to keep all the centers operating, and there have been continual conflicts between Bea and some of her board members about the program’s future. “It’s not like the old days, when we didn’t have rules or regulations and I could just let the kids stay around as long as they wanted,” says Bea.

Though Bea moved out of Metrocrest a few years ago to be closer to her children, she continues to live modestly in a one-bedroom apartment, where lately she has been spending mornings at her kitchen table, studying high school textbooks. After all these years, she has decided to take a series of GED tests so she can get her high school diploma. “I’m tired of being embarrassed when I tell children that they should get their degree and I don’t even have one,” she says.

A few times a week, after she finishes studying, Bea still drops in on one of the centers. Recently, when she visited the Bea’s Kids location in the suburb of Farmers Branch, she stared at the forty or so elementary-school kids who were seated at tables, writing down vocabulary words while teenage volunteer tutors hovered nearby. She pointed out two sisters who were bent over their papers, slowly pronouncing their vocabulary words. “Their mother was one of the first Bea’s Kids. But she had to drop out. Now she works at a factory, sewing labels on clothes. She came to me and said, ‘Miss Bea, please watch over my girls. Please don’t let them make the same mistake I did. Please push them to succeed.’ ”

Suddenly, one of the girls turned and smiled at Bea, holding up her page of words. “Look, Miss Bea, look!” she exclaimed.

Her sister, beaming, held up her paper too.

“You can do it, m’ijas,” Bea said. “Don’t ever, ever give up.”

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