Adriana Noriega was sitting in her Western civilizations class listening to a guest presenter discuss volunteering when everything changed.
Before that presentation her freshman year of high school, she’d never given much thought to serving her community. Hearing about issues in Pima County, and specifically the county’s Teen Court program, sparked a realization.
“It never snapped in my mind that I have the ability to help someone’s life and contribute to society, so I started volunteering then,” said Adriana, 16.
Now a junior at Cholla High Magnet School, Adriana takes as many opportunities to volunteer as she can. She’s passionate about substance-abuse prevention, education and helping refugees in Tucson.
“When I see people who are giving as much as they can because they want to help, that helps me want to do the same thing, maybe not with all of my money, because I don’t have any, but with my time,” she said. “Time is one of the most valuable things you have, and it’s also one of the most valuable things you can give, so I want to give my time and invest in people’s lives.”
And time is precious to Adriana. In the midst of volunteering, she also juggles student council, the Arabic and National honor societies and all of the rigor that accompanies an International Baccalaureate program. She doesn’t just care about her own education. She’s also part of the Metropolitan Education Commission’s Youth Advisory Council/Tucson Teen Congress, representing her peers in discussions on education policy and quality in Pima County.
She dreams of making policies some day.
“I wasn’t aware of the issues,” she said. “I was so close-minded and didn’t see the bigger picture. I was just focusing on my school and I wanted to get good grades, and I never realized how much of an impact I could have.”
What she does
Adriana started volunteering with Pima County Teen Court, a diversion program for minors, after that freshman year presentation.
The program allows minors who take responsibility for their offenses to let a jury of their peers determine their sentences. This alternative to a criminal conviction focuses on constructive sentences and service learning. Teens volunteer as members of the jury, attorneys, clerks and bailiffs.
Adriana, who volunteers as a teen attorney and vice president of the Teen Court Bar Association, had noticed many of the teens coming through the program had some involvement with substance abuse. “I saw how substance abuse affected them,” she said. “It practically destroys lives.”
That realization drove her to apply to the Governor’s Youth Commission, where she is one of two teens from Pima County. There, and through organizations on campus and in the community, she advocates for greater awareness among teens about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
Her openness to new ways of volunteering also led her to bake sales organized by Syrian refugee women last winter. Her high school Arabic teacher, Nour Jandali, invited her to help translate.
“When I was getting ready to leave (the bake sale), she was in the room where all of the volunteers met, taking the stage to explain how we can do new events better,” Jandali said .
Again, Adriana found her eyes opened.
“When I was speaking with the Syrian refugees, it was very surreal,” Adriana said. “I’ve heard about it before, all the problems they’re going through ... and being able to speak to someone who has been going through this their whole life really made me want to give back more.”
She was already interested in the Middle East because of an older sister who took Arabic in high school. Biblical references in church to Middle Eastern locales also piqued her interest.
Before the bake sales, Adriana had applied for the YALLAH Commit to Action program organized by the Qatar Foundation International, an organization that awarded the Tucson Unified School District grant money to expand Arabic programs to other schools.
As part of the Commit to Action program, she developed a project to support the education of Syrian refugee children. In Tucson, she collected school supplies and more than $300 to purchase education necessities. She donated all of it to the local resettlement agency Refugee Focus.
Because of that project, she was selected to attend the National Youth Leadership Council’s Dare to Dream service-learning conference in California in March and another leadership conference in Qatar .
Why it matters
For Adriana, it’s about taking what she has and sharing it with others.
“Being so privileged, I kind of think of it as ‘Why not?’” she said. “After I started volunteering and looking at the bigger picture, I saw that I can have an impact on someone’s life. I can make a change, and it starts with one person.”
Jandali said Adriana also encourages her peers to volunteer.
“She is one of those kids who will take a risk and be in front and take that job and complete it until it is done well,” Jandali said.
“Just do it,” she said. “There is going to be something eventually that you’re going to be passionate about. ... For me, I didn’t even know I was passionate about substance-abuse prevention until I realized there were people going through bad things. When you see problems like that and are genuinely interested in wanting to help, you should just take the opportunity.
“There is no age to start giving back to the community. You can start doing that at 6 years old if you want. There are always ways to give back to the community.”