Growing up in the sparsely populated San Elizario just outside of El Paso, Patricia Cantu spent practically every waking moment of her childhood outdoors because of her innate love of nature and fondness of the earth.
So it was not too surprising that after Cantu graduated from San Elizario High School in 1996, she set her sights on attending Texas A&M University in College Station to major in wildlife and fisheries science.
“I chose it because I wanted to teach others to become good stewards of our natural resources,” she said. “It involves working with private landowners or government lands and figuring out how to maintain those lands responsibly and sustainably.
“For instance, you can work with a private landowner, who has cattle on his land, and work with him to figure out how many cattle to have on his land and what type of vegetation and plants to have to make sure you’re not exploiting your land.”
This month marks eight years that Cantu has been putting her degree to good use. As a program director for SA Youth, Cantu directs programs and services for high school credit recovery and workforce training programs for older youth who have quit school. She has been assisting young adults plant and maintain community gardens, among other responsibilities, as part of their program requirements.
The community gardens, which sprout a variety of colorful vegetables and herbs, are available for San Antonio residents in low-income neighborhoods to come pick, so that they have access to free healthy foods. The idea is that people in these communities will increase their intake of vegetables and thus decrease their risk for obesity and diabetes.
In addition to overseeing the planting of these gardens, Cantu has a full plate. As one of SA Youth’s program directors, she is responsible for managing the progress of the participants as they work toward their educational goals and AmeriCorps scholarships, to assisting in the recruitment of new members and getting them orientated to the program, to community service opportunities and special classes.
“I like working with the students, meeting them when the first come in and helping them achieve their goals,” Cantu said. “SA Youth offers so many opportunities – free educational job training, support services and a family environment. There are understanding people here who do not judge you, but who will support you. Moving from a job to a career that can provide for you and your family takes some effort and training. This is a good place to start.”
Away from work, Cantu keeps busy as a certified “green thumb.” She is a master gardener and earned that title after completing 50 hours of training in horticulture through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. In turn, she is required to volunteer 40 hours per year to teaching others about gardening through workshops, fairs and school programs.