Ray Zacarias on right in gradudation cap and gown from USC
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 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 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 drinking problem.”

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.

ray zacarias at ACLU of Southern California officesSix 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.”

by Julie Farren