Advancing Hope

For Gloria Rodriguez and her nonprofit group, Avance, preservation is a critical tool in the fight against poverty.

By Christopher Swope

Avance's new San Antonio headquarters

Credit: Courtesy of Avance

In 1973, when Gloria G. Rodriguez was in her 20s, she began knocking on doors in San Antonio's Mirasol housing project, not far from the small wood-frame house where she grew up. Mirasol was then a notoriously violent corner of the West Side barrio, ruled by Mexican gangs. Rodriguez, a former teacher concerned about school dropout rates, was searching for mothers with infants. She'd ask any madre who opened the door the same question: "Do you love your child?"

Rodriguez wooed dozens of moms, most of them high school dropouts, into her weekly parenting classes. They learned the basics of brain development and early-childhood learning. They found out about community lifelines such as free health clinics. When she staged graduation ceremonies for the mothers and their kids, complete with tiny caps and gowns, Rodriguez knew that she had equipped these families for success.

Only years later could she prove it with statistics: Although 91 percent of the women in her first class had never finished high school, 94 percent of their children graduated, and more than half went on to college. In three decades of running the nonprofit Avance (the word rhymes with "fianc?" and means "to advance" in Spanish), Rodriguez has learned that it takes patience to turn around lives shadowed by poverty.

An interior building of Avance

Credit: Courtesy of Avance

That's why Rodriguez, who has curly black hair and a permanent smile, doesn't get too upset about the homeless people clustered under the bridge near Avance's new San Antonio headquarters?except when the stench of urine wafts upwind. Nor does she much mind the crowds of day laborers, Mexican men wearing baseball caps who hang around on the sidewalk waiting for jobs. She figures that what is going on inside Avance's building, a lovingly restored former hotel, will eventually change what goes on outside it.