The graffiti on the wall of SER, a job assistance agency in South Tucson, was hardly noticeable. Even SER director Ernie Urias didn't realize the 15-year-old mural at the corner of South Seventh Avenue and West 28th Street had been tagged.

But the defacement was huge for Gloria Hamelitz, director of the nearby John A. Valenzuela Youth Center.

The tagging was an affront to the neighborhood's residents. The 1993 mural was painted by neighborhood children under the guidance of Tucson muralist David Tineo.

She offered Urias a solution. Hamelitz called in a troop of kids.

Armed with tubes of paint, brushes and enthusiasm for service, about 20 youths last week painted over the graffiti, as well as repainting the Tucson- and Mexican-themed mural, reviving its colors and vibrancy.

"It's good to help the artists and keep the mural alive," said 18-year-old Sarah Flores, who recently graduated from Aztec Middle College and lives in the Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood near East 36th Street and South Campbell Avenue.

The youths are doing more than reviving Tineo's mural. They are mentoring younger kids from the Ochoa Elementary School neighborhood, conducting anti-drug and alcohol workshops, and being role models for other youths, regardless of their ages.

"We get to work with all kinds of people," said Gloria Otero, a 15-year-old Tucson High Magnet School sophomore and South Tucson resident.

The kids are part of the year-round Youth-to-Youth program and are also employed during the summer by Pima County.

Hamelitz said the program and summer internships spur the youths to become active and visible neighborhood leaders.

On summer mornings the youths, through the Youth-to-Youth component, hold planning meetings and work on projects. In the afternoons they work with younger kids who go to the Valenzuela center for games and other activities.

For Alexandra Saucedo, a 16-year-old sophomore at PPEP TEC, a charter high school, working with the younger ones has a bonus.

"They put a smile on your face. They distract me from the problems I might have," Saucedo said.

One project the students recently completed was writing and recording an anti-drug public-service radio spot. Another activity is role-playing with younger kids about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

The message is personal for some of the youths.

"I'm really scared of drugs. I want a better future for me," said Juan Quevedo, 14, a freshman at Tucson High.

Oreana Guerrero, a 15-year-old Tucson High sophomore, brought the message home.

"Most of my family has been involved in drugs," she said. "They don't do well. I want to be successful."

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Likewise, Jesús Mejía, a Tucson High sophomore who lives in South Tucson, said his message is clear to the youngsters.

"No drugs are better for me," said Mejía, 15.

Hamelitz said the Youth-to-Youth program is self-supporting, paid for by the students' fundraising activities.

The biggest expense, $6,000, is a youth leadership conference in Claremont, Calif. Twelve youths will attend this month.

The trip is nearly paid for with money raised through raffles and car washes, Hamelitz said. The group is still trying to collect more gas money.

It's all worth the effort, she added.

"For most of them, it's the first time they will be out of town," she said.

How you can help

If you want to help the Youth-to-Youth teens fund their trip to the California leadership conference, call the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center, 792-9251.

● Ernesto Portillo Jr. can be contacted at 807-8414 or at eportillo@azstarnet.com.