Saint Matthew Vance: Oakridge Born and Bred
Saint Matthew Vance exudes pride that he grew up at Oakridge Neighborhood, living in the community most of his life from birth until he was 35 years old.
“When you say you are from Oakridge it sounds like bragging, but it’s a sense of pride,” he says. “It’s pride that this is where we’re from. It’s a sense of family. Not everyone can claim that.”
When you meet Matt Vance, you get a sense that here’s a guy that has some stories to tell.
He’s a large presence in a room — with a tall frame and strong athletic build — yet soft spoken with manners that frequently incorporate phrases like “yes, ma’am.”
He readily shares his Oakridge story, then takes his leave. But a few minutes later, he returns. He has something he wants to show.
It’s a tattoo. This isn’t just any tattoo though. It is a huge tattoo runing across the broad length of Matt’s shoulders and partway down his back. It says OAKRIDGE. The word is set on a red brick wall, and the lettering is ornate, forest green. The I, represented by a person in a black religious gown, like a nun with a halo of rays circling her head.
This is a tattoo that speaks pride. A deep-felt appreciation. It’s something to behold.
Oakridge Born and Bred
“My mom had me when she was 14,” Matt shares. “I stayed at Oakridge with my grandmother. Grandma’s home was always home to me. A majority of my family lived at Oakridge. Both grandmas, aunts, uncles. Some people grow up on a street. I grew up in a housing project.”
As Matt grew up and began to have his own children, tapping in to his family network at Oakridge for support mattered. He’d move out of Oakridge, but then back in. “It seemed like I could never get away from there. It was always home,” he says. “I got my own apartment and was employed by Oakridge. It was great for my kids. There was someone to take care of them, someone to play with. Four of my kids graduated from Oakridge’s daycare. It was family.”
“Growing up, I took advantage of all of it,” Matt says. “It was a beautiful thing because when I was there we had our own sports leagues. Football, softball…we played among each other. We all really bonded. When I got in organized sports in junior high and high school it was just natural. Time playing outside and at Play City really paid off. The participation in sports physically fit me for the man that I became.”
“The community was a beautiful thing,” he remembers. “So many things to bring us together. We’d go to quarter movies on Fridays, Y Camp in the summer. We all lived together and it united us. Unity was strong growing up…one stood for all and all stood for one.”
Crack Era Invades Community
Matt’s idyllic childhood was cut short when the crack era hit Oakridge in the late 1980s.
“Around ninth grade everything was still childlike” in Matt’s life, he remembers. “But then, things started turning. The crack era brought something to the neighborhood we weren’t ready for. Crack took over. I lived in the middle of Oakridge and I saw so much drug traffic. It was like a McDonald’s drive-thru.”
“A teacher drove me home from school one day,” he shares. “I asked her to drop me off before we pulled in to Oakridge. She said no, but the second we pulled in people were running up to her car window offering drugs, saying ‘You lookin’? You lookin’?” It overran our community, and came with a lot of violence.”
Matt and other kids in Oakridge ultimately got involved in gangs and the drug trade. “We had always had access to money,” Matt says. “Not big money, but we were accustomed to working. I’d been working since I was six years old. But now, we’re making hundreds of dollars in short periods of time. You give all that access to kids to hustle and make all that money right in their own home…think what our parents had to go through.”
“The police would come through in a van, jump on you, try to run you down,” he remembers. “It was a free for all.”
And there were gang altercations. Still, Matt says, “I could never go against someone who I grew up with. Nothing could tear us apart.”
“They sent me to prison on my 31st birthday,” Matt says. He was there for one year. “Prison was a humbling experience… time away, me just growing up. When I came home I felt better about life.”
Matt says those he grew up with that made it through those challenging times “are all productive members” of the community now. He credits the solid foundation they had as children growing up at Oakridge Neighborhood. Not unlike the brick foundation tattooed on his shoulders on which the word Oakridge rests.
As for Matt, he’s a family man who works for the Dallas Center-Grimes School District as a custodian, coaches at a local Y and lives in West Des Moines. He’s a born again Christian.
“I’d put my childhood up against anyone,” Matt says. “Even though I grew up in an affordable housing complex, the love I had up there, the fun I had up there, you couldn’t have experienced that anywhere else. So much was given to us to grow from. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”