When the River City Youth Foundation first started its work in the Dove Springs neighborhood of Southeast Austin 33 years ago, kids in the area were faced with high levels of drugs, gang activity and violence.
Mona Gonzalez, the group’s founder and executive director, sought to create a safe place for them to learn and grow.
“This organization was created to counteract the negative influences and engage kids all the time,” Gonzalez said. “I realized there had to be an infrastructure so that everyone who wishes to share their talent, their skills and their love for the community could go.”
Over the next three decades, Gonzalez built a foundation that offers mentoring, substance abuse prevention, technology education for parents and children, health and wellness programs, college and career preparation and community development services. For her efforts, Gonzalez is the final person profiled in an American-Statesman Hispanic Heritage Month series on Latinos in philanthropy.
Her passion for philanthropy, she said, started at a young age with the example set by her grandparents. They weren’t philanthropists in the traditional sense of raising money or volunteering, but they embodied charity in their attitudes in lifestyle, she said, taking to heart the adage of “Mi casa es tu casa” (My home is your home).
When she first started the River City Youth Foundation in 1983, Gonzalez said, she envisioned a place where children in the neighborhood would feel safe and have access to resources other children around the city had. In the mid-90s, the group built its headquarters on South Pleasant Valley Road, which became a home base for many in the community.
The facility acts as a community center, a recreation center and a school for teaching students and parents English and computer skills. Since the group’s founding, Gonzalez estimates it has helped about 250,000 people at the place many neighbors call “La escuelita” (The little school).
Neighborhood families say their toddlers count the days until their fifth birthday when they can begin accessing the programs at the foundation.
Maria Reyes, a neighborhood resident, said all her kids have benefited from the group’s services. Her eldest, 16-year-old Bianca, participated in the group’s coding academy and has developed the confidence to apply to college in a few years, she said. Reyes herself learned how to use computers at the group to keep up with her daughter’s schoolwork through its TechComunidad program which teaches parents the basics of electronics.
“I’ve gained so much through the help of River City,” she said. “Not just in learning how to use computers but in the way my kids think. My oldest is very focused and confident about going to college.”
For Gonzalez, these reactions are what the group is all about. But she realizes her work is not finished. Many kids in the area still struggle with family stability and a need to feel accepted and educated, she said.
“The needs that existed 33 years ago are still here today,” she said. “Children need a place that is safe and accepting. We’ll never stop working toward that objective.”