Angela Urquiaga goes to work at 5:30am so she can open the doors to homeless students who sleep by Rancho High School’s steps. She doesn’t have to be there so early, but she knows for some the school is their only haven.
Urquiaga says when she first starting helping homeless students in 2001, there were only seven or eight in Las Vegas, NV. Today, there are more than 5,000. In the last 11 years, she says she’s helped more than 3,000 homeless students with the aid of everyday people willing to give a few dollars, or donate clothes and toiletries.
Urquiaga knows every nook at the school since she started out as a custodian, and now she knows every student as an administrator in the registrar’s office. It is there, where she introduces herself to the students as the school’s volunteer homeless advocate when they register. She’s the “go-to” person if anyone is having trouble in their living situation.
“Everyday, I go out and I plead for non-perishable food, gift cards, and grocery cards,” she says. “If they don’t have a place to stay, I right away start calling shelters, or people that have offered a garage or a room. I go out to hotels, and I beg, and I go on the news. Usually they help the small children, but they always forget about the teenagers.”
It was one of her pleads on TV that garnered the attention of Don Purdue and Pat Spargur who were unaware of the severity of the homelessness epidemic which plagues so many students in Las Vegas. She says she received a phone call from them the next day saying they wanted to help.
In December 2011, thanks to Urquiaga’s inspiration, volunteer-run Project 150 was founded in an effort to help the 150 homeless students in Rancho High School. That Christmas, Project 150 spearheaded a drive which donated six trucks of food, gifts and clothing to Rancho High School and also raised almost $10,000 in gift cards to help the students eat while school was closed for the holiday.
“Even with school out for the summer, she continues to work with needy children and their families,” says Don Purdue, president of Project 150, about Urquiaga. “She gets to work every morning at 5:30am, because she knows there will be a child sleeping on the steps of the school.”
Urquiaga remembers struggling herself when she came with her grandmother at 12-years-old from Cuba. She says it hurts here to see all the families that lost their jobs, and their homes.
“People that have been working hard their whole lives, and all of a sudden, they have nothing,” says Urquiaga. “When I first started, there was maybe a family in need, but now, Oh my gosh! What really hurts me is that I wish I had money. You see all these boarded up apartments. You see mothers with children and no place to stay.”
Andrea Castillo, 19, says she met Urquiaga her freshman year at Rancho, but it was not until her junior year that she went to her for help.
“My mom kicked me out, because she wanted me to work instead of go to college,” says Castillo, who says it was her mission to study ever since she moved from a small village in Colombia to the U.S.
“I got a $40,000 scholarship to St. John’s University, because she helped me fill out my FAFSA forms,” says Castillo, who is now studying civil engineering in New York. “While I am here, I got a job that allowed me to stay on campus for free during summer and winter vacations.”
She says that although she’s in college now, Urquiaga still checks in and plays the role of her mom.
“I still need to get her consent for my financial aid,” says Castillo. “She’s in charge for stating my situation. Without her, I couldn’t get all the financial aid that I did.”
She also remembers fondly how Urquiaga helped her and the other homeless teens at Rancho during her senior year. Castillo says Urquiaga got a local doctor to provide free yearbooks and prom tickets for about 20 of them.
“It’s very sad that in a country this big that is always helping other countries, we have homeless children in our own backyard,” says Urquiaga, breaking down in tears. “I usually tell them on the last day of school, ‘If you are hungry, if you need anything, if the school is not open, I’m here. You can knock on my window.’”
Project 150 is looking to expand its presence from 14 to 17 high schools next year. If successful, it will assist more than 1,000 high school students with no permanent place to live. Click here to find out more information about volunteering, donating items, or giving financially.