For Alex Carrizales, Camp Good Sam has been a lot more than just place to kill time over the hot summer days — it’s become a life-changing experience.
This fall, Carrizales heads off to Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and he credits his summers at Camp Good Sam, run by Good Samaritan Community Services and funded by the Rackspace Foundation, as the reason.
“I believe the camp played a big part in me going to college,” he said in a recent phone interview. “My friends and the other counselors definitely pushed me to do the best I can in life, get good grades and apply to different schools.”
These influences weren’t always available to him outside of camp, Carrizales said, and without his friends and mentors at Camp Good Sam, college wouldn’t have been on his mind.
Carrizales grew up in an economically depressed neighborhood in the city of Windcrest, TX, where Rackspace chose the long-shuttered Windsor Park Mall for the location of its new headquarters in 2007.
As Rackspace worked to redevelop the mall, supporting the surrounding community became a major priority. The Rackspace Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization created in 2009 and run entirely by donations from Rackers, as employees are known, chooses projects that benefit families and educators in the Windcrest area.
“Our work with Good Sam Camp reflects the values we hope to support with the Rackspace Foundation,” said Cara Nichols, director of community affairs for Rackspace.
“By focusing on low-income families and children who need a leg-up with regards to education, we can elevate the entire community, which is really what the foundation set out to do.”
The Foundation worked with Good Samaritan Community Services to fund the six-week-long summer camp. While Good Samaritan has been hosting summer camps in San Antonio since the 1950s, they worked with the Rackspace Foundation to expand the camp to Windcrest and San Antonio’s northeast side.
“Before we brought the camp to Windcrest, we had never been this strategic with regards to literacy and STEM initiatives,” said Good Samaritan CEO Jill Oettinger.
One, Oettinger said, has been the camp’s use of the Geekbus, which provides mobile STEM educational experiences via Geekdom, a working space for start ups co-founded by Rackspace founder and board chairman Graham Weston.
Reading is another cornerstone of the program. Campers read one novel each summer, with staff often choosing a series or trilogies, so the campers will continue reading throughout the school year.
The camp is tuition-free and includes meals and snacks. While field trips and summer fun are a big part of the camp’s success, the main focus is on education and preventing the “summer slide,” of learning loss.
“We see a 30 to 40 percent learning gap in children who are in poverty compared to those who are not, and what happens over the summer is really important,” Oettinger said.
“We’ve been trying to address dropout rates and teen pregnancies and criminal justice issues, and the research we’ve seen is telling us if we can keep the kids on grade level, they can do just as well as kids who aren’t in poverty. But summer is where that happens, it’s where we can close that gap.”
The camp also focuses on healthy living and a transition to college and career, all of which resonated with Carrizales. He began attending the camp in sixth grade and quickly fell in love with the new friends and experiences it afforded him.
“I got to meet new kids from different schools and we went on a lot of different field trips — the San Antonio Zoo, Natural Bridge Caverns — places I didn’t have the opportunity to visit outside of camp,” he said. “It just immediately clicked for me.”
After his first summer, Carrizales returned every year through eighth grade. Then, he said, “as soon as I could, I came back as a volunteer. And I did so every summer throughout high school.”
Even with the various part-time jobs he took each summer, Carrizales kept volunteering, where he assisted counselors with whatever they needed, from filling up water bottles to helping keep an eye on younger campers.
This year, after graduating from Roosevelt High School (just one block from Rackspace HQ), Carrizales spent his first summer as a full-fledged member of the counselor staff at Camp Good Sam.
“I was lucky enough to get to turn my experience into a job,” he said of the promotion.
Carrizales’ story is not uncommon for kids who get involved with the camp. A survey the camp conducts at the end of each session revealed that for summer 2016, 89 percent of campers said they learned things they could use at home or at school, 80 percent indicated an increased desire to read and 74 percent said their time at camp helped them feel better about themselves.
Parents are also pleased. According to the same survey, fully 100 percent of parents said they were satisfied with the program overall, with 94 percent planning to bring their kids back the following year.
Family involvement is encouraged, and every summer includes a family field day with parents invited to the camp to see a gallery of student work, a slideshow reflecting the summer’s activities and a barbecue lunch.
Carrizales said he’s glad others are getting the same positive experience out of camp he did.
“If it hadn’t been for Camp Good Sam, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “It truly gave me a pathway and an opportunity to get more out of life.”