When Virginia Ramirez joined Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in 1981, she was living on San Antonio's West Side, a mother of five - and a high-school dropout.
Now she has the calm assurance of accomplishment.
"I came to COPS because I expected them to solve my problems," Mrs. Ramirez says. But COPS teaches, "if you want a problem solved, do it yourself."
Ramirez was angry because neighbors without air conditioning suffered in the Texas heat, because children walked to school in the mud, because there was no drainage system for the streets.
"I never felt I had any power or ability to do anything. But for women like me, COPS was a whole new world. I found I had an appetite for learning."
Through research, Ramirez and other COPS members found there had been a federal grant allocated for her neighborhood but that it had been diverted elsewhere. An appearance before the San Antonio city council changed that. "We got people organized, we asked for our money back. We made a change."
"I always remember the day we went to city council. I was petrified. Just before I started to speak, I turned around. There were 40 leaders from my parish behind me.
"I'll never forget that. That is the strength we have."
Inspired by her COPS experience, Ramirez completed her high school equivalency exam and then a college degree.
She says COPS allowed her to take a public role without giving up her values. It also meant changes in her family for the better. "My husband, he was used to me being a housewife. For me to take a totally different role, well, like everything else, it took some training."