Ruben and Holly Seguine ’93 Gil live on the east side of Santa Barbara and open their home to at-risk children. This ministry of love stems from their own pain and difficult childhoods. They strive to provide a safe, loving refuge for their four young children and for all those in the neighborhood who need stable and caring parents. The Gils tell their stories below and share the grace that God has bestowed on them.
When I came to Westmont as a freshman, I quickly made friends and knew even during Orientation I’d come to the right place. As the months passed, I made more friends and loved learning in my classes, but I began to realize I didn’t fit in quite as well as I thought. My background differed drastically from most of the students I met. As I got to know them better, heard their stories and met their families, I hesitated to share too much about myself. Before coming to Westmont, I didn’t think my story was so different.
I grew up in what most people would call a dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic and took off when I was 5. I haven’t seen him since. I never learned if he died or just decided to start a new life without us. We just knew he wasn’t coming back. My mom was left to raise three young children alone; I was the oldest. Being the mother of four young children myself, I better understand the difficulty she faced.
My mom decided to go back to school to get a better job. During those years, we left our rural canyon life and moved into government-subsidized housing in the city, receiving welfare so we could eat.
My mom did the best she could with what she had, but we always struggled financially. She finally ended up getting a job as a teacher, and we moved back to the canyon. We were off welfare, but she was gone a lot as the school where she taught was far away. We raised ourselves most of the time. We didn’t receive welfare but still lived in poverty.
When she was home, we drove her to the brink of insanity. She often threatened to have a nervous breakdown because we were such “bad kids,” and she would be put in an insane asylum. She told us no one in our family would ever want us, so we would be separated and placed in foster homes, never to see each other again. I didn’t understand all this, but I knew I didn’t want to be separated from my siblings. So at a young age, I was determined to protect my family no matter what it took.
I became a master at hiding the pain I felt at home. I remember being called into the principal’s office more than once in elementary school and being asked, “Is everything OK at home?” I had shown up at school in the same outfit four days in a row, not brushing my hair or teeth (which kids at that age don’t do if parents don’t tell them to—at least mine don’t!). I quickly learned to cover up. “It’s fine. We’re great. This is just my favorite shirt.” Few people knew what was really going on at home. I remember a teacher asking about a mark on my arm where my mother hit me with a hairbrush. I replied that I had accidentally slept on a hairbrush, and she believed me. We were left alone too much, required to fend for ourselves, and encountered dangers children should never experience or be exposed to.
But God was aware of our situation. During those years, I attended a Good News Club, a weekly Bible club. Roberta, an old woman with a stinky house, opened her door weekly to the kids in the canyon, and we loved it. I went every week. I remember hearing early on that God is our father, he loves us, and if we ask him, he will come live in our heart and stay there forever. I thought, “I want a dad like that.” So I prayed and asked Jesus to come live in my heart. I remember praying every week after that, “Jesus, are you still there?” just to make sure he hadn’t left like my dad did. I learned Bible stories and memorized hundreds of verses. Through some of the difficult and painful things I experienced later on, I closed my eyes and imagined myself sitting on Jesus’ lap. It was a comfort knowing he was there going through it with me. Verses came to my mind. He used the words I had memorized; He still does today. I believed God loved me as a child, and through all the junk I experienced over the years, I knew he was right there with me. I never doubted it.
Then came middle school. My mom lost her job, so we moved to the mountains, where she found another. She met someone and got married three months later. I remember thinking, “This is great. Now we get to have a family, and everything is going to be better.”
It wasn’t. My stepfather was controlling and abusive. I had been the parent for so long that having rules and being controlled didn’t work for me. I rebelled and caused tension in our home. My freshman year of high school, he forced me to stay home the entire year, locked in the house. I wasn’t allowed to go to school, to leave or talk to anyone. Few people knew what was going on as I was supposedly homeschooled that year. But God was with me through those years too. Right after my 16th birthday, things got so bad my stepfather told my mom, “You need to choose between her or me. One of us is leaving.” My mom was pregnant at the time and had a 1-yearold. She knew what it was like to raise children on her own, and she chose him. He kicked me out of the house.
God was with me and allowed me to escape that toxic environment. I moved in with a nearby family. The Palmers had four young children, and Gary was the youth pastor at the church we attended. He heard our family was in trouble and I needed a place to stay. He and his wife, Suzi, thought I’d be there for the weekend or at most a few weeks—I stayed forever. It amazes me that they simply obeyed God and trusted Him, taking me into their home. I was broken and scared and lived with a fear that I might have to return home.
My senior year, as I began thinking about college, they suggested Westmont. I’d never heard of it, but I believe God made it possible for me to come. Before I knew it, I was sitting in classes alongside students who looked a lot like me but were nothing like me.
I held multiple jobs while I went to school, and I quickly found out the DC was the best-paying position on campus. Not many students worked there, but I needed the money and the meal plan they offered. God again was faithful and blessed me unexpectedly in that job. The people who worked in the DC befriended me and invited me into their homes. Most of them spoke Spanish, and I loved the opportunity to practice my Spanish. They introduced me to a different part of Santa Barbara, the lower east side near Milpas Street. Most of my new friends were struggling to make it in Santa Barbara, living in crowded apartments, but they were eager to share what little they had with me. Sometimes I felt more comfortable with them than with my peers at Westmont because I didn’t need to pretend to be someone else.
My junior year I was asked to co-direct Potter’s Clay. At that point in my life, I wanted to save the world, and I saw Mexico as a great place to start. My grades suffered with the time and energy I put into Potter’s Clay. The experience left me with a lot of questions.
I realized that more than 600 students were willing to give up their spring break and spend a week in Mexico loving and serving the poor, but my friends in the DC rarely got a “Hello” or even a smile from these same students, and it broke me inside. I began to wonder what Jesus thought about all this. I loved my Westmont experience and have fond memories, but I also struggled there.
After Westmont, I began teaching at-risk, low-income students first in Los Angeles and then in Carpinteria. Something unexpected happened as I got to know them. I hadn’t realized until then how messed up my own childhood was. I began to see myself in so many of them; I wanted to love them well and help them make better choices so they could have a better future one day. I realized God wanted me to let go of my ideas of saving the world and focus on loving the people around me. I could make a difference by simply knowing and loving my students well. Mother Theresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” This made sense.
I started to focus my attention more on loving my neighbor. I realized I wouldn’t be who I am today had it not been for the people who obeyed Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. The lady who opened her home for Good News Club, the different teachers in my life who saw potential in a dirty, smelly child, the Palmer family who took me into their home without looking back and became my family—they’re Nana and Papa to my kids now. They simply loved.
Shortly after Ruben and I were married, we intentionally moved to Santa Barbara’s lower east side. Ruben had grown up in the neighborhood, and he was teaching students from that area. We wanted to live in the community we were serving. After having our first child, we realized God wanted us to do more with the neighborhood children. We joined with other Westmont graduates, Jason and Nancy Rust, who were tutoring students at Cleveland Elementary School and hanging out with them afterwards. We met weekly with them, opened up our home and started something we call Kids Club. That was 11 years ago! Each Thursday afternoon we play games, sing songs, hear stories from the Bible, learn Scripture and eat pizza. Most importantly, we love these children and get to know them and their families. We enter into their joys and their pain. We share the hope we have because of our faith in God.
There is a myth that poverty doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara. It is a beautiful place, but it also bears the ugliness of poverty. Many who live in Santa Barbara are unaware of the hidden poverty and the struggle of the working poor. Most of the people who hold service jobs are Mexican immigrants. They clean the hotels, make the beds, cut the lawns, clean the homes, cook the food and wash the dishes in the restaurants. Many work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Their children are left at home, often alone, raising themselves, which is why gangs become so attractive. The problems of abuse and alcoholism often come with poverty. These are the children we work with.
We believe God can break the cycle of poverty in our community. We share the hope that only comes from Jesus, but we can also share our lives. We can be an example of a healthy family (most days), love them well, expose them to opportunities they might never have, model making good choices, even planting the idea of going to college someday, thinking about a future. So many kids don’t realize college is a possibility for them. It seems too far out of reach.
Unexpectedly, we have found healing ourselves working with these children and their families. Isaiah 58 says, “If we spend ourselves on behalf of others, our healing comes.” That’s been true for us. God has restored so many of the wasted years of my life through these children.
Let me tell you a story about a student who grew up on the east side of Santa Barbara. As he sits in a chair in the counseling office at Santa Barbara Junior High School, he nervously grips the table, rubbing his hands together while the counselors, teachers and administrators try to figure out what to do with him. He deals with an anxiety nobody can fathom; he’s reached the point where he can’t stay in a classroom. He has to flee. He has to keep running. Everyone assumes the problem is school, but it’s not. This kid needs to be in class or he’s going to fail, and that will become a pattern for his entire life.
This kid is me, and today I work as a school counselor at Santa Barbara High School. I build relationships with students who may have stories much like mine. Life became so overwhelming for me when I was in junior high school that thoughts of suicide became an obsession. I didn’t understand my anxiety, and neither did anybody else. It wasn’t about school; it was rooted in what was going on at home. We see the same thing with many kids today.
My story starts more than 70 years ago with my father, whom I love dearly and who has since passed away. He came to the United States as a migrant farm worker through a federally subsidized program and worked in the fields in Texas, Washington, California and Arizona. I can only imagine how the injustices he encountered affected him. My parents were hard workers; my dad had a second-grade education and my mother attended school until fourth grade. When he wasn’t working in the United States, he returned to the small, rural village in Mexico where they grew up. They met there when he opened a store. Eventually, they got married and had two children. In 1958, they moved to Santa Barbara, where my dad worked as a union laborer, and my mom found jobs as a maid, a cook in a Mexican restaurant, and a lemon packer in a factory. My parents had five more children. We grew up on welfare, and I remember the embarrassment of taking food stamps to the grocery store to buy food.
My parents struggled to make ends meet. I noticed my dad’s behavior changing when I was 7 years old. It started with weekend binge drinking with friends while playing cards. It ended in full-blown alcoholism with my dad losing control of his drinking. The anxiety that showed up in junior high started when I was 7 and looked inward for comfort, answers and a place of safety and belonging. Our kids today look for the same thing: solutions to their problems.
I found a solution with friends, shoplifting, stealing bikes and trying marijuana. I ended up in juvenile court, performing community service as part of my probation and trying to keep it from my dad. He never found out because he spent his weekends drinking with friends. I witnessed violence against my mom as a result of alcohol, and it affected me deeply. I could no longer find any answers.
But people invested in my life and built relationships with me. They loved me and cared for me. Byron and Robin Beck brought me to the Lord. They shared Jesus with me. My life has been different ever since. A family accepted me into their home as a high school kid when it was safe or best for me to be apart from my parents.
I learned a lot of things in this time, including 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also, through Christ, our comfort overflows.” This passage reflects my life. God has used relationships to comfort me, fill me with joy and take away sorrow, and my calling is sharing that comfort with those around me and healing the kids we work with. God doesn’t take my successes; he takes my failures and pain for His glory. Praise God.
I survived, and now I have a family of my own. As a family we’re trying to end the cycle of poverty in our community. What better way than through a close relationship with somebody else? What better way than through Jesus made alive through your life? That’s what happened to me. We seek to build an authentic intentional relationship with a child and help that child develop a compelling goal or vision. A lot of times kids in pain think the future doesn’t matter, but we help them create a future to believe in. Teaching a child a skill or helping her develop her own talents means she’ll be able to manage when we’re no longer part of her life. Too often kids on the east side have too much time on their hands. Teaching them skills, whether it be fishing, crocheting or playing football, helps fill that time. Finally, tutoring or mentoring a child provides him with emotional support while he’s learning new skills. Education is key to moving kids out of poverty. We are committed to supporting education and advocating for these children. I’m just one generation removed from growing up in Mexico, and I’m living on the east side doing what I love.
We find our comfort and healing working with children. We encourage you to find your passion and God’s calling in your life and serve others, whether kids or the poor or homeless. Regardless of where you serve, remember your primary calling is to follow Jesus—and you’ll most likely find him with the poor, oppressed and hungry.
After eight years of operating under the sole support of Santa Barbara Community Church, we decided to become a non-profit, Querencia (Querenciasb.org). Querencia means: A place where one feels safe and at home, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn. Under the umbrella of Visions Made Viable, Querencia can pursue its mission of loving and mentoring children in the neighborhood without the work of developing and managing an independent nonprofit. The church still supports us, and we’ve expanded our services. We’ve worked with Westmont for four years, sending children to summer sports camps. Westmont offers scholarships that cover half the cost, and Querencia raises money for the rest. We provide transportation, sack lunches and relationships with kids.
Westmont students have blessed us over the years, volunteering as leaders for our Thursday Kids Club. The eight-minute drive down the hill takes them worlds away from campus, and they make a difference by loving their Santa Barbara neighbors. Westmont interns serve in the summer coordinating rides to Westmont camps and assisting with our week-long Kids Club Day Camp, a highlight for the kids. The depth some of these students bring humbles me.
God is multiplying our love on the east side! Hundreds of children have come through our door, and we have the privilege of seeing our first Kids Club members graduate from high school and return to serve as leaders for the younger children.