Seizing opportunities: Jose Mares

HARLINGEN — You won’t finish high school.

You’ll just be a gang member, like me.

You don’t think so? What, you think you’re better than me?

Actually, yes, said Jose Mares, who just graduated from Harlingen High School. His family is still celebrating his accomplishment as the only one of five children to finish high school. He’s planning to study criminal justice at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley before going into law enforcement.

And it all started while growing up in the humble surroundings of the LeMoyne Gardens Community, where residents have limited means. In the cohesiveness of the community he found solid friends who gave each other support. Sadly, many of these friendships would not last.

“They got into bad things, like drugs,” he said.

That’s why he wants to go into law enforcement.

“I want to keep kids away from bad things,” he said.

He remembers those who tried to convince him to avoid taking a positive direction, people even from his own neighborhood.

“There were not many expectations from us,” he said. “We were just kids from poverty, growing up. We were going to grow up to be like any other kids, dropouts.”

Fortunately, there were interventionists along the way who helped steer him in the right direction.

“Hilda was there,” he said, referring to Hilda Gathright, unit director of the Boys and Girls Clubs in LeMoyne Gardens.

Much of Jose’s life centered around the positive influence of the Boys and Girls Clubs right up the street from where he lived.

That’s where he and the neighbor kids could play basketball, volleyball, kickball and other sports. They could engage in all sorts of activities, and Hilda as well as other staff could provide direction.

“She was our huge help along with my fifth grade teacher Ms. Sandoval, Ms. Sandoval and my fourth grade teacher Mr. Rodriguez,” he said.

“They showed me that there was a lot more to life than just going to school for what we think is no reason.”

The reason, he and his friends learned from their mentors, was to rise above any adverse circumstances and reach toward tomorrow.

They learned their past did not have to define their future, that they could become whatever they chose in life.

Now Jose, 19, has many choices before him after finishing college. He might join the Navy, the U.S. Marshals Service or a police department.

Whatever those choices, they’re honorable ones based on the direction of many, including, besides the others, his family.

“Let me tell you about one thing that happened,” he said.

“In sixth grade, it was Christmas, and my brother hugged me, and he told me, ‘Don’t quit school, because school is what’s going to get you through life, and if you stop now it’s going to be very difficult for you. We have a lot of hope in you that you’ll be the first from our family to graduate.”

And so it is.