From the Sidelines to One of the Team, Community Partnership Benefits Many, including Islanders Superfan

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – For as long as his family and friends can remember, Luis Garza, 37, has been a fan of Islanders Athletics. When the opportunity presented itself for Garza to work at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, it was one that he couldn’t pass up.

Garza, who has developmental delays, was recently hired by Facilities Services (SSC), the vendor contracted with facilities maintenance of the Island University. Because of his fascination with sports, it was a natural fit for Garza to be assigned to the Dugan Wellness Center, the headquarters for anything and everything Islanders Athletics.

“I like to come to every game,” said Garza. “My favorite sports are basketball and baseball because I used to play baseball when I was a little kid. I like catching the ball and throwing.”

Garza, along with the help of his job coach, Paul Perez, works on the Island campus five days a week, for two hours a day. As a job coach, Perez shadows Garza, ensuring he is working towards increased independence.

“This job gives Luis a sense of pride and helps us all look towards the future,” said Perez, who works for the nonprofit Community Options, Inc. “Luis is excited to have his own money, and he loves all the coaches and players here.”

Each day, the duo completes tasks like vacuuming floor mats, emptying trash cans, and keeping the locker rooms spick-and-span.

“Our days go by really fast because Luis is a busy guy,” Perez said. “At the end of the day, we visit the baseball locker rooms. You know that red dirt from the diamond? Guess who cleans that up? Mr. Luis, right here!”

Garza has access to Islanders season ticket and he and Perez have attended games together. To each game, Garza dons an Islanders T-shirt and giant foam “Shaka,” and players have even signed autographs for the superfan.

“My favorite player is Emma Young,” Garza said. “They all tell me I’m doing a great job and to keep it up.”

Islanders Athletic Director Jon Palumbo noted Garza’s optimism and positive energy.

“One thing we talk about with our student athletes is that there are many people behind the scenes that make things ‘go’ around here, and it’s always good to take notice of that,” Palumbo said.

Community Options is a national nonprofit which operates a “day-hab” facility in Corpus Christi and provides residential and employment support services to individuals with disabilities in 18 South Texas counties.

“Luis and Paul are a great team for our new adaptive work program,” said Samantha Cutler, executive director of Community Options – Corpus Christi. “When Luis got this position on campus, we had the option of hiring a new staff member to assist Luis, but Paul, an existing employee, was a perfect match. Paul is passionate about getting people with disabilities jobs, and the two of them together are a strong duo.”

Kevin Brown, SSC director of facilities, along with Cris Calabria, SSC custodial manager, initially facilitated the partnership between SSC and Community Options and plan to grow the program by hiring additional Community Options clients. Currently, there is one other Community Options client working on campus.

“Everyone loves Luis and he’s an amazing ambassador for the Islanders,” Brown said. “He epitomizes service with a smile.”

It’s an opportunity that’s taken Garza from the sidelines of Islanders Athletics to a member of the team, and more importantly, it teaches him a skill that has improved his overall quality of life.

“It’s an honor to bring someone from the community into our Islanders family,” Palumbo concluded. “This is a great program impacting the lives of our students, our campus, and Luis’ future. It’s a win-win for everyone.”