Tahoe resident fights odds to help others
Nevada Appeal News Service
KINGS BEACH – The laughing. He’ll never forget it. The judge sitting atop the stand, her black robe jostling, gray hair shaking, face contorted, laughing into his penitentiary report like it was an off-color joke. He was afraid. At just 18, he was back before the judge, facing a potential sentence of two to five years in San Quentin State Penitentiary.
Adrian Garcia said he remembers looking across the courtroom. Everyone was staring. His lawyer, the district attorney, the court reporter, his sister, the police officers.
And the old judge still was laughing. Had she cracked?
“You’re all probably wondering why I’m laughing,” he remembers her saying, then saw her smile.
The judge told him that in 30 years as a superior court judge, she had offered only one other person the opportunity she was about to give Garcia – to waive a sentence after 120 days of good behavior at San Quentin. She said Garcia was the only one who completed the task. She was ecstatic.
Now 22, Garcia said the offer changed his life.
“Thank God I didn’t go back to doing what I did,” he said. “Now, I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and Carson City, Garcia had been involved in gangs, living day-to-day, working small jobs, construction mostly. On his own at a young age, Garcia said the bills had begun to mount, his phone bill, rent, utilities, car insurance, credit cards and food.
It made him desperate, and he turned toward a friend’s offer of easy money. Garcia remembers selling dope for the first time: $500 in an hour. His second time selling sent him to prison. He had just turned 18, no longer a minor.
Garcia paid his 120 days in San Quentin, made good on the judge’s offer.
Once paroled, Garcia said he was determined to make an honest living, to overcome the weight of a felony pulling hard against him.
“All I wanted was a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance,” Garcia said. “I didn’t want people looking at me like I was a criminal anymore.”
Garcia began hunting construction jobs, temporary work, jobs with family. He worked where he could, struggled and kept struggling until one day a job emerged in the most unlikely of ways.
Garcia moved to the Tahoe basin in July 2008, living in an apartment on the west shore. He began searching for jobs, and worked when he could find it – doing construction, landscaping, rock work, body work, hauling debris with his uncle. And it was here when a social worker he knew told him about the North Tahoe Family Resource Center in Kings Beach.
Garcia said he didn’t know how he wanted to do it, but he wanted to give back, and in some way, make a change.
Emilio Vaca, the family resource center’s executive director, said he remembers their first conversations well.
“He came to our office at first to volunteer, and just seeing his passion and what he wants with life, we let him begin volunteering,” said Vaca.
Not easy, not made lightly, Vaca admitted it was a decision that was weighed and re-weighed in his mind – liabilities, risks, outcomes, community reaction. In the end, Vaca said it came down to living up to the family resource center’s purpose, walking the walk and reaching out.
“I think I looked past his background and saw him as an individual who at a young age made mistakes but deserved something more,” Vaca said.
And so in December of 2009 out Garcia went, filing paperwork, handing out pamphlets, answering phone calls, e-mails, volunteer driving, cooking, cleaning. He did it all. Three months went by, hundreds of service hours tallied – none of it required. Garcia expected no job, and no prospects were given. He served while the recession rampaged, state unemployment nine, 10, 11, 12 percent – rising.
Then in the winter, a blizzard. And Garcia out with a clipboard, walking up Coon Street, Deer, Beaver and Fox. All for signatures, support for Kings Beach’s first affordable housing project, the Kings Beach Affordable Housing Now campaign.
Vaca recalls it. Garcia dressed in a parka, beanie and boots. His beard and ponytail tucked into a hood, cold and freezing, knocking on doors, taking names.
“He’s pretty much a community guy. His heart’s in the right place and I could never take that away from him,” Vaca said.
And so in the month of February Vaca made an offer. Garcia accepted. He would be the family resource center’s first promoter, a representative for the center to act as an outreach specialist for the community. Despite a recession, hard luck and hard times, Garcia had gotten a job.
Sitting across a wooden table at the family resource center, Garcia is wearing a T-shirt and ball cap, leaning his elbows onto the table and talking about second chances. Garcia said he wonders if his past will forever overshadow his present.
He said there are many who see him only for the marks on his record. He says he doesn’t know if or when he’ll ever be able to escape it.
And if he can’t, he’s not worried about it. Garcia said it’s not about himself anymore. He’s about helping others – the youth he works with, kids doing required community service – teaching them to avoid some of the pitfalls, to instead think of themselves, their family, a future.
“Just because you’ve gone through this situation in your life doesn’t mean you have to live it everyday,” Vaca said. “Did he mess up? Yeah, he did. Did he do his time? Yeah, he did. Now he’s giving back.”
Thinking about the road ahead, Garcia said he hopes to continue working in the community.
“I’m doing what I like and like being who I am now,” Garcia said.
Someday, he said he hopes he’ll be seen for what he does, and not what he’s done, to show a life of work and service, to be seen as someone of worth, greeting all with a smile, laughing.