Troubled Arizona teens learn leadership, journalism skills from Voices Inc.

Posted By Mike Padgett

Dec. 23, 2008

When Ruwaida’s father and stepmother brought her to the United States from Saudi Arabia in early 2001, she was a wide-eyed 13-year-old. She anticipated a bright future in a nation with freedoms for women as well as for men. She dreamed about becoming a teacher. Or maybe a journalist for The New York Times or National Geographic.

But soon after she started her new life in Arizona, the freedoms sought by this girl from Mecca began vanishing like rain in the sands of her homeland. Social workers took her from her family. She was sent to live in group homes in Tucson where other teenagers were fleeing personal demons or struggling with drugs. Ruwaida felt her inner compass losing its true north.

Today, Ruwaida Alansary is in a new chapter of her life. It has a positive feel to it.

Equally positive is the future of Reyes Suarez, another young adult who – in his own personal darkness – recalls standing at a life-changing crossroads. One path he knew would lead him into Tucson street gangs. He looked down the other road and strained to see where it led. All he could see was that it didn’t include gangs and violence.

From different worlds but for similar reasons, Alansary and Suarez turned to Voices Inc., a Tucson nonprofit organization that helps troubled teenagers from lower-income families. The nonprofit’s programs help the youths develop journalism, leadership and higher education skills by encouraging them to tell their personal, family and neighborhood stories. Alansary and Suarez are now part of the organization that helped them. Both have compelling stories to share.

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Troubled journey begins

Nine months after Ruwaida Alansary and her family arrived in America in January 2001, terrorists using skyjacked airliners as missiles attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, murdering thousands. That Sept. 11, 2001, act of terrorism led to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of soldiers from several nations and untold numbers of civilians.

In Arizona, Alansary stopped wearing her traditional headscarf to avoid angry stares. Misguided onlookers angry over the conflicts and deaths equated terrorism with Alansary’s hijab, a symbol of the 13-year-old girl’s religion of peace. Their obscene gestures and vulgar comments cut like knives.

Two years later, as Alansary started ninth grade in Tucson, workers at Child Protective Services became concerned about her welfare at home. She says they removed her from the care of her family. Alansary, then 15, felt trapped living with strangers in group or foster homes. She became despondent. Her dreams of freedoms morphed into road kill.

Over the next two years, until she was 17, Alansary bounced from one group or foster home to another. Seven in all. One year, she ran away 10 times. She was in emotional freefall, but she clung to her Muslim roots. Alansary is wired that way.

Once, after running from a home and living with a friend, Alansary landed a job as a cashier. CPS workers located her through her Social Security number. Tucson police arrived. An officer put handcuffs on her and led her away. Her coworkers began chanting, “A whatcha gonna do when they come for you, bad boys, bad boys,” lyrics from the song, “Bad Boys.”

Alansary says the chanting during her arrest sparked grins from herself and others, even the officer who cuffed her. Alansary, now 20, and with an easy smile, talks candidly about her traumatic first years in America. She is an assistant writing editor at Voices. Alansary wrote her story for the organization’s annual publication, “110 degrees: Tucson’s Youth Tell Tucson’s Stories.”

Alansary agreed to share her story with me. It was a sunny December day, so we sat a tiny table outside a coffee shop in downtown Tucson. She nursed a Red Eye, an iced coffee with a shot of espresso. In the park across the street, a solitary man danced to music we couldn’t hear.

Alansary says 2006 was the critical year in her life. It was the year she turned 18. In the eyes of the law, she now was an adult. She was free from the state’s social service system. No longer would she be cooped up with strangers.

“It was a good opportunity for me to get down to the nitty gritty, get back into school, discipline myself, yeah,” she says, smiling and hitting her coffee again.

‘Come save me, take me away’

She returned to high school in Tucson, but she was bored. The classes were not challenging, unlike her studies in Saudi Arabia. One day, a guest speaker from Voices visited her high school. It was Kristen Suagee-Beauduy, who then was on staff at Voices. Today, she is a youth member of the board.

“She said, ‘Is there anyone here interested in writing, anyone who’s passionate, anyone interested in taking pictures,’” Alansary says.

“Out of the 200 kids who were there watching Kristen’s presentation, I was the only one who raised my hand,” Alansary says, shooting up her left hand to emphasize her desperation. “‘Come save me, take me away, I want to go,’ is what I thought. So I came down here that same day, filled out an application and got an interview that same day.”

She paused for more coffee. Alansary wrote her personal stories for Voices about her experiences in the group homes. She says her stories helped give her closure to a traumatic part of her life. That’s why she can talk about it openly today. And in sharing her story with other troubled teens, they see that they’re not alone, that other teens have struggles.

Alansary says that while she was in the group homes, she kept personal journals because she wanted to keep a clear connection to her past. Looking back at her experiences with CPS, she defends the agency that, at the time, she felt was not helping her.

In her 2007 story about her journey, Alansary wrote: “I know that CPS put a lot of effort into my case. They pushed me to pursue an education, they found private therapists who could deal with my case. But CPS workers are overworked and underpaid. The result is that children in the care of CPS don’t receive sufficient emotional support – they don’t have enough one-on-one time with responsible, caring adults.”

Alansary’s voice fades in the noise of the city bus pulling from the curb. She sips her Red Eye. She says the staff and programs at Voices have given her a foundation and stability and encouragement. She is taking core classes at Pima Community College for an associate’s degree in liberal arts. Her goal is a four-year journalism degree.

“It’s because of Voices that I continued going to school. I started college. Before Voices, I had plans to go to college, but it wasn’t something that I would jump right on. It was kind of like, ‘I’ll do that later.’ But with Voices, it gave me so much more of a reason to pursue higher education.

“It’s just completely changed my life,” Alansary says, finishing her coffee. “It’s given me confidence. A sense of belonging. A sense of identity. Critical thinking skills. Questioning, constantly questioning. Focused.”

Gangs and a mysterious photograph

Another young adult helped by Voices is Reyes Suarez, 19, who today is a student member of the nonprofit’s board. Suarez turned to Voices for help after he found himself drifting toward street gangs. His journey began when he was 8 years old and watched his parents get divorced. After that, he and his mother lived with her parents for about four years.

Suarez recounted his personal journey for me while we sat on sofas in the Voices office. He says that if he hadn’t visited the agency’s downtown Tucson offices and talked with Writing Director Katie Johnson in late 2006, he would not have received the encouragement he needed to complete high school. He lacked skills for employment, he was struggling in high school, and he needed cash. He had heard that Voices pays stipends to students accepted for the program.

“Before Voices, I wasn’t really hanging out with the right people,” Suarez says. “I was mostly with a bad crowd. I didn’t really fit in with them, but it was the only place I could go. This (Voices program) has just opened my world. It’s something I never thought I would be able to achieve.”

Our sofas were on the other side of glass doors from City High School, a charter school that offers classroom space for the Voices programs. As Suarez told me his story after lunch, students next door were coming and going.

“There are so many people who come here,” he says. “We have kids from neighborhoods I would have gotten into fights with just because we were from different neighborhoods.”

Today, Suarez is working in graphic design with his father. Suarez enjoys the creative challenges of his work. He sees it as his future.

As part of his studies with Voices, Suarez wrote a story about his grandfather for the nonprofit’s annual publication. Suarez wrote that his grandfather, Pedro Davis, who recently turned 80, was a major influence on his life. His grandfather came to the United States many years ago from Mexico.

It was while Suarez was writing about his grandfather that Suarez’s perspective on immigration and his own life became clearer. His grandfather is a retired construction worker who today works part-time as a school crossing guard. He buys canned and dried foods from Costco and takes them to relatives in Mexico.

“My grandfather was a really poor immigrant from Mexico,” Suarez says. “He came here because he just wanted to help his family. And in doing so, he not only helped us but he helped so many other people as well.”

Suarez, while he wrote about his grandfather, learned the background of a photograph that had hung for many years in his grandfather’s home. It shows his grandfather standing next to a silver-haired executive at a large dinner event.

When he asked his grandfather about the stranger in the photograph, he learned the man is President Clinton. It was taken while Clinton was visiting Tucson to support Congressman Raul Grijalva, for whom Suarez’s grandfather had worked as a volunteer for many years.

Just as he never knew the stranger in the photo was President Clinton, Suarez was unaware of his grandfather helping a U.S. congressman.

“My grandfather is a really humble man,” Suarez says. “He rarely brags about what he does. I never put two and two together until I did the story and I started asking questions.”

Suarez continues his story about his grandfather and about immigrants. “They’re a vital part of our structure. If we didn’t have immigrants, a lot of things would just fall apart. It’s hard for their stories to be told. Like my grandfather’s. Nobody would have known about my grandfather if I wasn’t there to speak for him.”

In Mexico, Suarez says, there are two economic classes – the very rich and the very poor. “There is no middle ground, hardly. And if you’re really poor, the only way to get out of that is to come here to the United States or to get into drug trafficking. That’s pretty much all there is to it.”

Annual applications, future challenges

Each year, the Voices programs serve up to 100 Pima County youth between the ages of 14 and 21. A maximum of 30 are selected for stipends, making the eight-month program “hugely competitive,” says Executive Director Stephanie Balzer.

Once the students complete the program, they become eligible to work as freelance writers for the Voices publication. They also receive three credits from Pima Community College.

“They can take that and transform themselves into who they want to be,” she says. “That’s our goal – using journalism skills to create a path for a brighter future.”

Balzer says the words of a former student, frustrated by the minimal selection of jobs she found in the workplace, define the challenges faced by lower-income students. The student “says that low-income youth aren’t paid to think,” Balzer says.

“I thought that was a really powerful idea, that the kind of opportunities that she saw available to her didn’t challenge her in an intellectual way (because) the jobs that were available to her were menial jobs,” Balzer says.

Balzer was telling me about Voices, its programs and its students over lunch at Café Poca Cosa, a restaurant a few doors east of the nonprofit’s offices. She says her board of directors is discussing how to expand its Tucson programs and whether they can be launched in metro Phoenix. “We’re in the process of thinking through how we can be broader and bigger as an organization and give more opportunities,” Balzer says.

Like all nonprofit groups in today’s economic climate, Voices’ future will be challenging, despite the opportunities it offers youth from disadvantaged families.

“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” Balzer says. “We’re not any different from other nonprofits right now. We’re really trying to think about how we can cut costs and what we can do and where any sources of revenue can come from and how we can focus ourselves for survival. It’s tough.”

In November, New York University Professor of Public Service Paul Light announced that at least “100,000 nonprofits nationwide will be forced to close their doors in the next two years as a result of the (current) financial crisis,” according to the Nov. 19 issue of Crain’s New York Business.

The economic challenges facing all nonprofit groups in the United States today mark new beginnings. Balzer says she and others at Voices Inc. “are starting now to think about how we can be ready in a couple of years so that when the economy bounces back, we really want to say, ‘This is our vision, this is our dream.’

“We’re hunkering down now, we’re going to be ready then,” Balzer says.

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Dec 23rd, 2008

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