Pictured (L-R) Sohpia Suarez, co-founder of Centro Para La Semilla, and Dr. Neeta Singh, professor of nutrition.

By Rebecca Esparza ’99 BBA & ’03 MBA

Sophia Suarez, ’12 BS, and Jacque Salame, ’11 BS, never dreamed a UIW class project for Dr. Neeta Singh’s Food Systems Management course would not only become a reality, but also make a tremendous difference in the lives of San Antonio’s underserved children.

“Jacque and I were responsible for writing an in-depth business plan for a group project. While mostly everyone in our class chose for-profit business models, we decided to explore the concept of a not-for-profit,” said Suarez, who graduated with a degree in nutrition and dietetics.

“I love to cook and have a family background in gardening,” explained Suarez. “When I proposed the idea of forming a nonprofit that teaches families how to grow and cultivate their own produce, while also teaching how to properly store and prepare the items, Jacque didn’t need much convincing.”

But Suarez credits Salame with getting the ball rolling.

“We want to help prevent diabetes and teach people how to live healthy with diabetes. Our business plan was so detailed, it seemed like it was actually doable. Plus, of course there is a great need. We’re both very proud of this project,” said Salame.

The professor whose class sparked the idea for the nonprofit said she couldn’t be more proud of her former students.

“Jacque and Sophia were mindfully engaged students. I’m excited about them using classroom knowledge to develop a nonprofit organization for an underserved population – their efforts synchronize with the UIW Mission,” said Associate Professor Dr. Neeta Singh, chair of the nutrition program.

Born in Oklahoma, but raised in San Antonio, Suarez graduated from Alamo Heights High School in 2004. Ultimately, it was UIW’s nutrition program that attracted her to the university.

Salame was born and raised in San Antonio. She began dancing ballet with the Incarnate Word College Ballet School in 1984 at six years of age. She also earned a degree in nutrition.

“I feel like I grew up with Incarnate Word,” Salame added.

The dynamic duo’s new nonprofit, Centro Para la Semilla, (Center for the Seed) is focused on broadening a child’s concepts of food and how they treat and respect their bodies and minds.

“We also build self-confidence through the arts. The battle to fight the epidemic of obesity and diabetes along with other nutrition related health conditions is a daunting fight but it is essential,” noted Suarez. “So often issues of this matter are cyclical with poverty and low education. We intend to bridge the gap of knowledge between the lower socio-economic demographic giving them the proper tools to make educated decisions concerning their life, health and happiness.”

The organization’s mission statement is to “address the consequences of poverty by creating accessible education programs in the arts and nutrition for children living in the Southside of San Antonio empowering them to live sustainable lives and reach their full potential.”

Centro Para la Semilla came to Salame one day and was inspired by her boyfriend at the time (now her husband, Eli Rios) and his passion for working with children. “I decided I would teach myself about what it takes to create a nonprofit organization the summer after I graduated,” Salame said. “When we tried to put the organization on paper, Sophia and I realized there were many similarities with Centro Para la Semilla to the business we created in Dr. Singh’s class.”

With a few tweaks, their business plan was created, in addition to some help from Salame’s husband and Donald Ewers, a retired UIW professor of photography.

Suarez says the two remained good friends even though Salame graduated from UIW one full year before she did.

“I always had the feeling we were going to work together some- how,” said Suarez.

Salame believed that adding visual and performance art to the project were essential to accomplishing their overall goals.

“The arts component is necessary in making change. Children need confidence, high self-esteem and image. They need to feel proud of themselves. With an increase of visual and performance art in the community, the community image will also be better,” Salame added.

“Having a positive image of oneself will give a student the determination to make healthier choices which will hopefully spill over into the community ultimately, reducing obesity rates and all the diseases associated with it.”

Although they are now closer than ever to seeing their dream be- come a reality, challenges remain.

“Developing a nonprofit organization takes time and planning,” Salame said. “It’s a group effort. The beginning of our organization’s creation happened at UIW and a few years later, we’re still in the creation process. But looking back at the evolution of this project from the beginning to now, it’s amazing to see the direction it is going.” Suarez and Salame have brought together an impassioned Board of Directors, all fully committed to seeing this project through to its fruition.

Board President Peter Pfifer said his passion for the cause started as a child, with both parents encouraging his talents in the garden, arts, music and kitchen.

Pfifer added that changes in food shortages also played a role in inspiring him to help the young organization.

“It’s important for individuals to recall older methods of self-sufficiency, including gardening and food preparation. On my family farm now, I see this more clearly then when I was an urbanite,” he said.

Although the two are still presenting the idea behind Centro Para la Semilla to the broader community, they are looking forward to the continued support of local residents and are currently in the process of contacting local school districts and other youth organizations to form long-term partnerships.

“It will take time, but we intend on doing it right,” remarked Suarez. “It thrills me to see the leaps and bounds we have already accomplished but know that there is still so much more to do.”