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Teens go from bullies to mentors

Adelante students receive awards for community service
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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For Arturo Jimenez, moving to a new city at 13 years old was not an easy transition, as he fell deeper into a life of drugs and gangs. His family relocated from Richmond to Lincoln, but leaving a bad neighborhood doesn’t mean leaving behind the baggage, Jimenez said. Soon after moving, he spent a month in a group home. “I woke up one morning and thought I’m tired of getting in trouble,” Jimenez, now 17, said. He decided to set himself on a path toward success. But he didn’t know how. An answer came when his social worker introduced him to Youth Empowerment and Goals Association (YEAGA), a program formed for Adelante High School students in 2005 that aims to educate juveniles on the poor choices that can lead to incarceration. YEAGA is run by ex-convicts, retired correctional staff, representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces and other community members who share their own stories as a deterrent to a life of crime. “It teaches kids to believe in themselves,” said co-Executive Director Margaret Bravo. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of what you’ve done.” Jimenez along with fellow Adelante student Carlos Gutierrez, 18, are also part of YEAGA for Youngsters, a side project that intervenes with elementary-aged kids. The teenagers meet with at-risk students at Cirby Elementary School for one hour a week for 10 weeks to teach social skills and responsible behavior. “This is a win-win opportunity,” said Cirby Principal Karen Quinlan. “Our elementary-aged students have some older teens to look up to. Arturo and Carlos certainly have been two standouts from the volunteer group.” She said the teens and kids have a lot in common in terms of culture, upbringing, language, family dynamics, socio-economic status and academic challenges. “The (teens) walk onto campus with their heads held high, knowing that they are giving and helping,” Quinlan said. “Because of their age, they remember what school, social pressures and family stressors were like for them in their elementary years. Our kids look forward to their group time with their older buddies and respond very positively to them.” The more positive relationships and connections these children form, the more successful they will be socially and academically, she said. In late July, Jimenez and Gutierrez were recognized for their community service during the National Teen Leadership Program at California State University, Sacramento. They both won the program’s Presidential Volunteer Service Silver Award — selected out of 150 of their peers. “Oh man, my family was there,” Jimenez said, smiling at the memory. “It hit my heart so much. I was about to have a tear running up to the stage.” He and Gutierrez are also co-facilitators of the Parent Project, a program sponsored by the Latino Leadership Council and geared toward the Latino community. Parents learn how to recognize and prevent teen substance abuse and gang involvement, improve their child’s school attendance and more. As for Gutierrez, he was a small kid growing up and the target of bullies. When he got bigger, he started bullying others as payback. “I had a lot of anger, so I started bullying kids,” he said. “I learned that bullying is not the answer or keeping anger inside. I learned how to control the things I say and it’s helping with the anger.” Both he and Jimenez said hearing ex-convicts share their stories and working with the Cirby children has changed their behavior and outlook on life. “I’m making better choices, helping out the youth, helping each other out, getting better grades,” Jimenez said. “I never saw myself doing what I am now.” Both he and Gutierrez have 4.0 grade point averages and plan to attend a technical college to learn mechanics. They recently started their senior year at Adelante High School. “Not a lot of people like coming back (to school),” Jimenez said. “But it’s cool for me. School is like a new beginning. I changed from low to very high (grades). A lot of people are proud of me. I’m proud of me.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.