About six years ago Michelle Arredondo, then 25, and her husband were in “desperate, desperate need” of food. They didn’t have any money, so she reached out to several nonprofit organizations, eventually landing at SA Hope Center — then known as the San Antonio Chrisitan Hope Resource Center.
“The fact that they were able to provide a wide variety of resources really … made me want to go in there,” Arredondo said. “So I drove my car over there and I received food assistance.”
Her encounter with caseworker Ruby Ann Sanchez at the West Side center set Arredondo’s life on an entirely new trajectory.
“She told me: Michelle, when you get your high school diploma or your [college] degrees, nothing can ever take away its value,” she said. “She lit a fire under me … that week, I went to get my high school diploma.”
Growing up with learning disabilities, Arredondo knew it would be difficult, but another chance encounter at a McDonald’s drive-through led her to the right place. The cashier also had disabilities, but had gone to Victory Learning Center and obtained her GED. They got to talking, and Arredondo decided she should do the same.
“If I hadn’t stopped for breakfast, this door wouldn’t have been opened,” Arredondo said.
Now, she’s completing a master’s degree in nonprofit management at Our Lady of the Lake University and plans to get a doctorate degree in 2025.
The San Antonio native juggles that coursework while also leading Steadfast Sparrows Corporation — a faith-based tutoring, grant writing and counseling nonprofit that she founded in 2021. The nonprofit also provides in-person and virtual second-chance guidance for ex-convicts.
The name “steadfast sparrow” is a reflection of her own personality and experience, Arredondo said, who has also spent time in prison. “I think about birds and the freedom they have to go wherever, whenever.”
The Hope Center “planted the seed” and the Victory Center “helped bloom me,” she added.
Thousands of San Antonians have received services from the nonprofit Hope Center, including food, clothing, health and financial literacy programs, childcare, parenting classes, benefit navigation, job preparation and one-on-one case management — all aimed at breaking the city’s cycle of poverty.
Since 2005, most of the center’s operations have taken place in aging and deteriorating portable buildings and a former bar at 321 N. General McMullen Dr. The nonprofit started out as the Oak Hills Church’s food and clothing donation program in the 1980s.
But with an $8.3 million renovation and new construction project underway, the center is preparing to serve thousands more residents with a heightened “sense of dignity,” CEO Megan Legacy said.
“We want everyone that walks in here to feel like they have purpose; that their story matters, that their name matters and their future matters,” Legacy said.
A new home for Hope Center
Construction on the new home for the center broke ground in October last year and, after several material and weather-related delays, is slated for completion in early February 2024.
But the center is still operational during construction — clients and visitors just have to walk through a little construction dust.
Once complete, the center will have a centralized entry point, enhanced security, mental health services, three more classrooms, additional private offices to provide case management services, child programming, meeting and event spaces as well as a renovated food pantry and clothing services building.
The food pantry will look like a grocery store, where clients can pick out what they need. A lot of food pantries or charity events involve going through a line to be handed a pre-packed bag or box of groceries, but “we just really want them to be able to shop with dignity just like anybody else,” Legacy said.
The center served about 6,000 people last year, Legacy said, and the organization anticipates serving 20% more people next year, with more increases in subsequent years.
Next door to the center, a 212-unit apartment complex is also under construction on 6.4 acres that the Hope Center sold to a developer on the condition that its rent would be affordable for low-income families and individuals.
“We had a lot of people coming to us to buy the land,” she said. “We really felt like it needs to be missionally aligned with what we do — and affordable housing was really one of the biggest gaps.”
The center started fundraising for the new campus project in February 2020, one month before the coronavirus pandemic triggered global lockdowns.
But Hope Center remained open throughout and even hired more staff to keep up with the community’s needs.
“We were so so busy with the COVID-19 operation that it was almost impossible to really focus on fundraising,” Legacy said. “But what it did do is it allowed us to have a lot of time to focus on what we really think the community needs.”
The center will start offering mental health counseling once construction is done and clinical staff is hired, she said.
“We can provide workforce development and we provide educational services and all these things — but if there’s a mental health issue … that’s a foundational issue,” she said. “So it became very clear that [mental health] had to be a part of what we are building.”
The center recently hired Leigh Owens to serve as chief development officer and help further expand Hope Center’s impact.
“Part of our strategic plan is thinking of: how do we scale this?” Owens said. “We don’t have to go build $8 million campuses everywhere, but we can build partnerships.”
The Hope Center also has staff that works out of First Presbyterian Church downtown as well as Restore Education, a high school equivalency and college readiness nonprofit.
Legacy said the expansion and Owen’s expertise will allow her to advocate for policies that help families overcome poverty with local, state and federal government agencies, partnering with policymakers to remove barriers.
“The systems have so many barriers,” Legacy said. “This is a community of people that matter and deserve to have the same kind of future as anybody else in the city — and in order to do that, we have to be really bold and be disruptive.”