I met Sally Goin four years ago when she contacted me about a fundraising project for FaithWorks of the Inner City.
Goin, a retired Edmond school teacher, founded FaithWorks in 2003 and was raising money to build a community center across the street from Shidler Elementary. Her eyes lit up as she talked about how she became immersed in the lives of children and their families living in the south Oklahoma City neighborhood surrounding the school. She spoke in particular of one youth, a Hispanic child named Miguel.
She said I needed to tell his story one day.
Goin's words were echoed by others I met over the years as I began to follow FaithWorks' progress.
So I am finally telling the story — a story about what happens when the differences between race and class and culture are bridged through the power of faith and love.
iguel Rayos walks into a Shidler Elementary classroom, and it's clear he has achieved rock star status among the students.
In fact, with his charming demeanor and the easy way he talks with the children, he may have eclipsed some celebrities in the eyes of these youths.
Rayos, 22, said he connects with the students because he was one of them once.
He is a handsome, well-groomed, young man who sees mini versions of himself when he looks at the children clamoring for his attention.
He has come full circle in more ways than one.
About 18 years ago, Sally Goin of Edmond found Rayos rummaging through the garbage outside a local shelter, eating discarded food scraps he discovered.
Miguel Rayos, 22, draws a picture for students at Shidler Elementary while his mentor, Sally Goin, looks on. Goin, a retired Edmond school teacher, helped Rayos learn to read. Photo by Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman
Young Miguel Rayos, shown here in an undated photo, became part of the Saturday Bible Club offered by City Rescue Mission volunteers like Sally Goin. Photo Provided
In this undated photo, young Miguel Rayos holds up several books including the Bible. Photo Provided.
He was 3 years old and he was hungry.
Goin said she learned that he lived about three blocks from City Rescue Mission, 800 W California. She and several volunteers at the mission were part of a pilot outreach program to the community surrounding the faith-based shelter. Although many of the neighborhood residents weren't homeless, Goin said the shelter director at the time, Mickey Kalman, surmised that they faced similar challenges of poverty.
Goin said she remembers meeting Miguel, his mother and his siblings at one of the volunteers' Saturday Bible Clubs for the neighborhood children.
None of the volunteers wanted to be paired with Miguel, she said. He was difficult and often disruptive. Goin said the shelter director always seemed to put her together with the undisciplined little boy. She said she mostly tried to keep him from disrupting the Bible classes so that the other children could learn. Miguel said he remembers being drawn to the Saturday activities. The food offered by the shelter volunteers was one way to fill his empty stomach.
Goin said she and some of the other volunteers eventually felt compelled to visit Shidler, the public school that many of their Bible club participants attended.
She said she found Miguel sitting in the back of the classroom, more often than not. Heedless of the lesson going on around him, the young boy sat at his desk and doodled. Goin said she came to expect to see him there.
Miguel now says that teachers would give him books to read for the lessons. He would open them up, look at the words and fling the books to the side. However, he loved books that featured mostly pictures.
Goin said the boy somehow learned that she was an English teacher. Miguel, then 7, began insisting that she teach him to read, help she hadn't realized he needed.
Once, she saw Miguel stop in front of the entrances to the men's and women's restrooms. She wondered why he waited until a man came out of the men's facilities before he went in. Goin said she later realized that Miguel couldn't read the signs on the restroom doors so he had devised a simple way to get around his disability.
Goin said she told Miguel that she couldn't teach him to read because she didn't have time. She was working as a teacher at Edmond North High School and she was a divorced mom raising a daughter. Goin said she knew the kind of work that would be needed to teach the boy reading basics, and she didn't think she had time nor did she think it was safe for her and her daughter to make the trek to Miguel's neighborhood in the late evenings to school him there.
Miguel was persistent, though.
One day, Goin told Miguel that she could help him, but he would have to come live with her during the week and she would bring him home on weekends. It was a plan she outlined for his mother one night in his family's living room.
Goin said she did not know how the boy's mom would feel about it. However, without hesitation, Miguel's mother told her son to go get his belongings.
He was going with Goin to learn to read.
Students at Shidler Elementary clamor for the attention of Miguel Rayos during his recent visit to his alma mater as a volunteer. Photo by Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman
Up until the time Miguel left his home with Goin, he had taken on the role of caretaker for his family.
Both he and Goin are quick to point out that his mother always had a job, most of the time more than one. That meant, however, that she was away from the house a lot.
Despite the fact that he was sandwiched between two older brothers and a younger brother and sister, Miguel was the one who tried to keep the house clean and who took care of his younger siblings. Often when they were small, he changed their diapers, gave them baths and, later, got them ready for school. He said he remembers being 4 years old, carrying a handful of quarters and big bags of the family laundry several blocks to the local laundromat.
He said, most of all, he remembers that he was always hungry.
He ate food he found from trash bins and he regretfully recalls that he sometimes stole food to quiet his hunger pangs. Miguel said he often would go several days without eating.
Miguel doesn't blame his mother or any adults in his life for his childhood.
It was what it was.
So he said the chance to live with Goin seemed like a golden ticket for more than learning to read. Miguel said he saw it as an opportunity to make things easier on his mother.
"I moved in with Sally so my mom wouldn't have to feed me," he said.
At Goin's Edmond home, Miguel tried to settle in so he could finally learn to read with the help of his mentor.
Goin said things were a little rough at first. Although he had known her for several years by then, he was unaccustomed to living in the kind of a structured environment that she provided.
"He growled. He had no social skills whatsoever. He ate off the floor," she said.
Goin said she also found out that Miguel had developed a dysfunctional attachment to television. She said she would often find him sitting in front of the TV, way too close, with his cheek pressed to it.
"All of his emotional attachment was to the TV. He had no emotional connection with anyone else," she said. Miguel nodded his head in agreement, saying that he was 10 when he and his mother shared their first hug.
For two and a half years, Goin took Miguel to a friend who homeschooled him during the weekdays while she was at work. At night, the schoolteacher and her live-in pupil pored over books. Goin said the boy had somehow missed out on the reading fundamentals, and that had kept him behind in the classroom. It stunted him terribly and he knew it. He wanted to change that.
Goin said she was faithful to take him home each weekend, and he looked forward to his time with his family. He was very loyal to his family then and remains so today.
Goin said she kept up with Miguel after she took him home for good. He was not reading at grade level yet, but he could read and he was making much progress.
But Miguel wasn't home for too long before a crisis threatened all that he had achieved.
Miguel said his older brothers had been immersed in the gang culture in south Oklahoma City and he was assaulted as a result. Goin said she found out about the beating and feared for his safety.
"There were gang problems in the family and I could just see he would be the fall guy," she said.
Goin said she immediately thought of sending Miguel to a local Christian boys' home that took in youths who needed a change of environment and caring adult role models. She had met the founders of Willow Springs Boys Ranch in Chandler and had once sent Miguel's older brother there.
Things didn't work out for his brother and he returned home, but Goin said she was desperate to get Miguel into a safe, positive living situation.
Miguel was at first reluctant to leave his family, but he told Goin that he would try living at the home for a weekend. However, his mother had to give her consent.
Goin and Miguel approached her about letting him go to live temporarily at Willow Springs.
Goin despaired as Miguel and his mother argued about the matter.
Miguel's mother balked.
She did not want him to go.
Miguel said his mother felt betrayed in some ways because he seemed to be siding against her with someone from outside the family's Hispanic culture.
When his mom asked why he would even consider leaving his familia to live somewhere else, he said he passionately explained the reality of his circumstances.
"I told her I would get food. I won't have to stay up all night making sure no one breaks in the house. I won't have to sleep on the floor with rats crawling around," he said.
In the end, the harried mother relented. Miguel agreed to let Goin take him to Willow Springs for the weekend. If he liked it, he would stay.
Goin said she recalls feeling that so much rested on Miguel's perceptions of the home.
"I remember taking him there for the weekend and leaving him there and praying that he would last through the weekend," she said. "I admired his mother very much for letting him go."
At the end of the weekend, Goin was ecstatic when Miguel called to say he wanted stay at the home.
Todd Vinson, who founded Willow Springs, said Miguel was one of the first boys to live at the home and each youth was asked to make a commitment to live there for at least one year.
Miguel, then a fourth-grader, quickly made an impression on those around him.
"He was in survival mode. They (the other young residents) had kind of joked that he was the ‘jungle boy,'" Vinson said. "We didn't know what to expect. We had our work cut out for us."
"What really tugged on our hearts was that he wouldn't put on his pajamas. He wouldn't take his street clothes off because he was afraid someone would steal them."
Vinson said Miguel seemed to expect them to lock the kitchen cabinets at night, leaving him no access to food.
"He would hoard food. We told him, ‘You can get food if you are hungry.'"
Vinson said youths sometimes adopt such behaviors as a way to cope with an unstable living environment. Derin Carr, Vinson's college classmate who helps run the home, said coping for these youths could mean they are prone to fighting, hoarding food or they may keep people at a distance because they are afraid they will leave.
Gradually, over that first year, Miguel came to thrive at the boys' home.
Vinson and Carr said they don't know why the young boy did better at Willow Springs than his relative did. The quiet rolling hills of the Chandler property and the warm, inviting charm of the cottages where the boys are housed provide a sharp contrast to the urban streets from which the youths' came.
"That's the mystery — it's always a mystery why some guys buy in and some guys don't," Carr said.
"It's kind of like the movie ‘The Blind Side' — it worked."
Miguel Rayos, shown her at Shidler Elementary, continues to live at Willow Springs Boys Ranch in a residence for youths who have graduated from high school and are entering into the adult phase of their lives. Photo by Paul Hellstern
How long did Miguel stay at Willow Springs?
"His one year turned into 11 years," Carr said, smiling.
Actually, Miguel still lives at the Chandler home. He graduated from Chandler High School in 2008 and has spent two years taking welding classes at a local vocational-technical school. He moved into a residence at Willow Springs that was specifically built for youths who have graduated from high school and are entering into the adult phase of their lives.
"He's very conscientious and disciplined. I can't say enough about him," Vinson said.
Miguel works at the local Wal-Mart and, since graduation, joins Goin on Thursdays in Oklahoma City to work with the youths who flock to the FaithWorks' programs.
Goin said she recently had him go to lunch with a benefactor who donated some of the money used to build the FaithWorks community center, 1300 S Byers Ave. She said the benefactor was so impressed with Miguel that he wanted to help him continue his classes at the vo-tech. Goin said Miguel surprised everyone when he told the man he really wanted to go to college — and he also wanted to continue working with his mentor, Goin.
Surprising Miguel and Goin, the benefactor said he wanted to pay the young man's college tuition and for an apartment near the school. And, he wanted to pay Miguel a salary to continue what had been his volunteer efforts with Goin at FaithWorks.
Goin, Vinson and Carr said they had no idea Miguel wanted to attend college. Goin said the young man will graduate from the welding program this month and she surmised that he may have kept his dream of college from others because of his early reading limitations.
"He never felt he could go to college," she said.
Now, with college plans for the fall, Miguel continues to work, and Thursdays, he can be found at Shidler Elementary, 1415 S Byers, and FaithWorks.
Cathy Eyherabide, principal of the predominantly Hispanic school since 2006, said the students look forward to his visits because he is much like many of them.
"He's their role model. He's gone through an awful lot and I don't think he wants anyone to go through what he he's experienced," Eyherabide said.
"These kids are where he was. I think he says, ‘One person gave me a chance. I need to fill that role.' "
Goin said Miguel's success is a testimony to the power of having a dream — hoping for a future that one can hardly imagine.
And dreams are hard to come by in the lives of many of the children growing up in Miguel's old neighborhood.
"High school might as well be going to the moon because nobody around here goes on to high school. But Miguel tells our kids that you have to learn," Goin said.
"There are just so many gaps when you can't dream, when you can't imagine.
"Miguel got past all that."
Boys & Girls Clubs of America was begun in 1860 by several women in Hartford, Conn. The women believed that boys who roamed the streets should have a positive and alternative place other than the streets to spend their time.
In 1906, several Boys Clubs decided to affiliate with other organizations, including the Federated Boys Clubs in Boston. Afterwards, the organization began a nationwide movement.
In 1931, the Boys Club Federation of America became known as the Boys Clubs of America. Twenty-five years later, the Boys Clubs of America celebrated its 50th anniversary and received a U.S. congressional charter.
In 1990, the organization allowed girls to participate. It's now recognized as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
In 2006, it celebrated 100 years of providing a safe and educational place to grow and enhance children's lives.
With more than 4,000 clubs throughout the United States, Boys & Girls Clubs of America continues to provide programs, including character and leadership building, education and career opportunities, health and art activities, and sports and recreation centers.
There are three Boys & Girls Clubs in the Oklahoma City metro area.
The Brotherhood Boys Club was founded in 1993 by Dwayne Williams in Oklahoma City. Its headquarters is in the Oklahoma City area on NE 4 Street in the Foster Community Center.
Now, there is a branch in Lawton, and additional branches in Enid, Ardmore, Tulsa and Muskogee are planned in the near future.
The club provides young black youth educational, leadership, entrepreneurial and physical development and skills.
The gang-prevention program includes swimming, tutoring, dancing and educational resources.
The program extended itself to establish the Sisterhood Girls Club this year. Twenty-five young black girls are enrolled.
Now, there are 400 boys in the Oklahoma City metro enrolled in the Brotherhood Boys Club.
The YMCA was founded in London on June 6, 1944, by George Williams in response to the unhealthy social conditions of big cities at the end of the Industrial Revolution. The growth of industrial jobs, including railroad and factory work, brought many young men from rural communities to the big cities.
Away from their families, the young men slept in crowded rooms owned by the company after working up to 12-hour shifts. Outside their crowded rooms, the streets were filled with beggars, drunks, prostitutes and abandoned children.
Williams first organized the YMCA as a Bible Study and prayer group for young men. In 1851, there were 24 YMCAs in Great Britain with 2,700 members. In the same year, the YMCA arrived in North America and established itself in Montreal and Boston.
Two years later, the first YMCA for blacks was established in Washington, D.C., by Anthony Bowen.
The next year, the first international convention was held in Paris. In that time the number of YMCAs grew from 24 to 397 in seven nations, with more than 30,000 members.
In the early 1940s, YMCA allowed women to join.
The YMCA now brings communities a place of recreational, educational and support opportunities through centers throughout the nation.