Ray's adventurous journey from simply trying to survive his childhood and life's other
roadblocks to earning a Master's degree reveals the transformational power of education.
by Julie Farren
Ray Zacarias didn’t think about attending college when he was growing up in San Bernardino.
Ray, now 41 and living in Covina, was just trying to survive his childhood. He witnessed
domestic violence between his parents that led him to taking drugs and alcohol as
a teen and culminated in a prison sentence as an adult for armed robbery.
The challenges he faced as a child began taking a toll on Ray when he started middle
school in San Bernardino. One of five children, Ray said his three older siblings
were out of the house when he and younger brother, Daniel, saw the physical abuse
of their mother, Julia, by their father Edmundo. That fear led Ray to start using
marijuana and alcohol as a teen.
“In the beginning, it was just like once in a while,” said Ray. “But when I got to
high school, it was pretty regular.’’
|Ray Zacarias (at right) at Commencement 2011 on the campus of the University of Southern
California where he received his Master's degree in Social Work.
Ray dropped out of San Bernardino High School his senior year and became a father
to his only child, Anthony, 24. Two years later, he had joint custody of Anthony and
was working as a meat cutter at Stater Bros. He tried to stay clean and sober for
a year but entered rehab at Pine Ridge Outpatient Center in San Bernardino.
“I learned that I wasn’t alone,” said Ray. “I’m not the only one who has a drug or
Ray said he quit his job at Stater Bros. because he was afraid the company might fire
him. He also got involved in gangs and did a variety of jobs to maintain his drug
habit. One of the worst days of his life, he said, was in 1997. He was high on drugs
and was arrested for armed robbery in front of his childhood home in San Bernardino.
Ray spent more than four years in prison. He was released in May 2001 and placed on
three years of high control parole. His brother Richard offered him a place to live
in Moreno Valley and he worked in a warehouse for Monster Energy drinks.
Six months after being released from prison, Ray started drinking again. This time,
he faced an ultimatum from his parole officer - go back to prison or attend a meeting
of Narcotics Anonymous. Ray chose the latter. In October 2002, he also was introduced
to the Salvation Army in Moreno Valley.
“I took a look at everything going on in my life and I had nothing to lose because
I had lost everything,” he said.
He literally had to re-learn how to live, thanks to tools from the Salvation Army.
Then he moved into transitional housing for 18 months at a Salvation Army facility
in San Bernardino.
Ray discovered SBVC through friends and started taking classes so he could earn a
degree in alcohol/drug counseling. He became an ambassador for Clyde Williams, outreach
technician for the SBVC Outreach and Recruitment Office, which provides information
about SBVC to prospective students.
Clean and sober the past eight years, Ray has earned two associates degrees from SBVC,
including one in Alcohol/Drug Studies, a bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from California
State University, San Bernardino and his master’s degree in Social Work from USC.
Eight years after enrolling at SBVC, Ray has seen his life transform as a college
graduate with four degrees. He was recently promoted from a case manager for 14-to-25-year
olds to Associate Vice-President of Programs at Communities In Schools, a nationwide
program aimed at keeping kids in school. He will be a site coordinator at a charter
school in Pacoima.
“Every opportunity I get, I talk to people on how education can really transform your
life,” said Ray. “There’s nothing in life that I take for granted.”