Higher Ground – Innovation in Youth Development

higher groundsAs a sponsor of the National Afterschool Association Next Generation Award for Afterschool for 2017, we are recognizing the nominees and winners for their dedication to afterschool.

Jansen  Azarias shares his experience building a successful program that has truly changed the lives of children and families.

Higher Ground started in my living room almost a decade ago with my stepson and his friends who were intrigued by my martial arts background. I began offering free martial arts lessons, and used them to engage these young men in their academics (e.g., “No training until homework is done”). Little did I know that this modest beginning would evolve into what is considered an effective and innovative youth development center in the Tucson community: Higher Ground a Resource Center.

I came from the Philippines when I was 18 in hopes of fulfilling my dreams as a writer and rich young bachelor. I was raised in a country where the United States is considered the promise land. When I came here, I met my wife, Barbara Azarias. She needed help with her son, Timothy and needed some tutoring. She had just gone through a divorce, breast cancer, and the death of her father all happening in a year. I began helping him in my living room and soon, he brought his friends along. Here I was with 5 to 10 boys all of whom were around 10 years of age getting tutoring and learning a little bit of martial arts. They kept coming back despite my strictness and my request for respect and discipline. I would send them home and they would stay. Sometimes, I got upset thinking these kids were simply spoiled brats who had everything. Pretty soon I began listening to their stories and it began to bother me. I was raised in the Philippines being taught that the United States was the promise land and this is where we made our dreams come true. Yet here I was, in front of these young men and they all echo the same things – the lack of hope to even dream. I was in one of the richest countries in the world faced with children facing poverty and a mindset born from poverty mentality. How could I be in the promise land and be with children who feel like they did not have any promises. Eventually, I found my faith in the Lord and found my true calling. I left my dreams of being a rich young bachelor to help the children in our community to dream and know that they have the ability to pursue their dream despite how hard it may get.

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Going completely on faith, my wife and I quit our full time jobs and invested everything we had to Higher Ground. When we began reaching out to schools, I could not believe that the 10 young men in my living room was not the exception but rather the norm. I found myself amidst hundreds of children and families sharing me stories of hopelessness. We began to see the importance of what we did, experiencing it firsthand with our son, my personal story, and living in the neighborhood. If we truly believed that our children are the future, then we must first help them and their families have the hope in that future and believe that they are capable of achieving the future they believe in. Additionally, we realized that it is important for everyone to understand that this is our community, our children, and our schools. If we want our own success, we must first invest in the success of our community.

Never did I figure that what I had started as a way to help my wife and my son would get extensively recognized in our local community.  In the 9 years we have operated, we received awards such as Child Abuse Prevention Award (March for Children), Community Leadership Award (Pima County District 2), FBI Community Service Award (LULAC), Faith-Based Leader of the Year Award (Racial Reconciliation Community Outreach Network), 40 under 40 (Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce), in addition to being featured by the US Department of Education and visited twice as a model site.

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Higher Ground is a no-cost program for underserved students, reaching approximately 400 students per year, while maintaining a waiting list of over 100. There are a host of offerings at Higher Ground including: martial arts, music, dance, art, robotics, basketball, leadership programs, financial literacy, college prep classes, and career development classes. We integrate Social Emotional Learning in every part of the offerings and use it as tools to teach our youth the skills they can use in their daily lives. In addition to the after school programming we offer, we also work with our Juvenile Court as an alternative to detention through our Youth Success Center. We work with our school districts in developing alternative programs as a means to avoid suspending students but rather building new behaviors to avoid recidivism. We are also working with our city and local schools in implementing Community Schools model in our community to bridge the gap that our families have.

The range of supports available to students highlights the holistic approach we take to nurturing student development. We partner closely with La Frontera, Tucson Youth Development, University of Arizona, Pima Vocational High School, and the United Way among many others, so that plans for success can be tailored to individual student needs.  We believe in building a community around each child. We know that to truly reach the child, we cannot do the work alone, that other community members and organizations can do a better job of bridging certain gaps. Higher Ground believes that to succeed, we must remember that these children are not just in our program, they are in our community.

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We believe that our approach of individual relationships and the values we live by as a company is the reason we have had impact in the lives of our youth. We believe that every youth is worthy of love and that every youth need to build character. With this approach, every family gets individualized service regardless of their circumstances. Despite all the work we do, we realize that at the end of the day, it is really about partnering and working with one life at a time.

To learn more about the National Afterschool Association (NAA) visit naaweb.org. We proudly support their mission and dedication to the afterschool community.

S&S Worldwide is also committed to the career development and support of our afterschool professionals. We have partnered with the NAA to bring quality online courses to the industry. You can find them at our S&S Worldwide Online School

About the Author:

higher groundJansen Azarias, Executive Director/Founder of Higher Ground in Tuscon, AZ.

Jansen Azarias has guided the formation and growth of Higher Ground from day one through his passion and intellect. After seeing the need in his own family, he decided to start Higher Ground as a way to help kids in their homework. To this day, his wife and 2 sons, serve alongside with him at Higher Ground.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family as a child, he came from the Philippines when he was 18 and understood the need to break poverty mentality and empower youth to pursue their dreams and build a legacy in their community. His heart is closely tied with the kind of youth Higher Ground serves. He shares his hobby with the youth by coaching them in martial arts and leading their grappling team to tournaments. His faith in God continues to strengthen and motivate him in his calling.

higher groundHe is actively involved in all aspects of Higher Ground, with a main focus on Program Development and Quality, Community Relations and the Fundraising aspect of the organization. He continues to be directly involved in mentoring and coaching the kids as he believe that the only way to truly find out what is effective is to be with the people he serves.

Jansen believes that his calling is to see this community transformed and see the youth become the culture shaping catalysts of the future, a culture focused on legacy and compassion rather than personal achievement. He is the recipient of several awards including his most recent awards: the 2017 National After School Association Next Generation of After School and the 2016 Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 40 under 40.

Visit the Higher Ground website at www.higherground.me

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