“What has attracted me to children is their innocence and being able to prepare them, to get them ready for school, to do well in school and to stay in school so that, like all of us, they can give back to their community and make it a better place. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to nonprofits…. It’s giving back to our communities.” – Lupita Castrejón
For many of the young people who live in San Antonio’s Prospect Hill— a struggling, once-vibrant neighborhood—the world beyond their small community is an undiscovered country. Some have never even seen the city’s historic Alamo, just a few miles away. In 2003, though, Lupita Castrejón MA ’01 and her uncle, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, developed a project that helped expand horizons for the children of Prospect Hill.
In 2001, Cisneros started American Sunrise, a not-for-profit to revive his childhood neighborhood. Two years later, deciding to do something about an abandoned house next door to his own, Cisneros asked his niece to work with American Sunrise to find a use for the dilapidated property that would benefit neighborhood children. Castrejón, who’d earned a master’s degree in child development from Sarah Lawrence, leapt at the chance.
Castrejón had once taught inner-city third-graders in San Antonio, and decided that Prospect Hill needed an after-school tutoring program and learning center. She got together with a local elementary school, and six months after the first conversation with her Uncle Henry, the American Sunrise Learning Center opened its temporary doors in the classrooms of a neighborhood church. In April 2004, thanks to the financial efforts of a local grocery store chain, the renovation of the abandoned house was complete and the learning center found a permanent home.
Castrejón’s experience with the center is wrapped up in the wide eyes of the children and the vivid memory of a summer field trip. She traveled with the kids to Austin for a tour of historical sites—for most of them, it was the farthest they’d ever been from Prospect Hill. “When we came into Austin, their eyes were like saucers,” Castrejón recalls. “They had not realized that seventy miles away from them was the state’s capitol. Now, when they open their history books, these children will remember that trip.” They also dared to dream while there: One fifth-grade girl told Castrejón she had decided to become a judge; a fourth-grader said he was going to be lieutenant governor.
The American Sunrise Learning Center is still thriving, but Castrejón has moved on to a position where she has an impact on the learning experiences of even more young people. As the education director of the San Antonio Children’s Museum, she integrates learning components into exhibits. “Everything that is done is done not for my growth, but for the next generation,” she says of her work and career. “Whom are we leaving behind? As I move up the ladder, I always have one hand up to go to the next step and one hand reaching below me to bring the next generation up.”