When school got to be too much, I knew at the end of the day I would be going home to a safe refuge, with a loving mother and father expressing hourly concerns about my life. Dinner’s ready. Turn that music down. Do your homework. Go to sleep. You have school in the morning.
Unlike Armando Alvarez and thousands of other kids, I had a home.
Armando’s story begins with abuse so profound he wanted to throw himself off the second floor of his elementary school. Tried to OD on pills. Then a new father tortured him. CPS came and went. On one of the coldest days he’ll ever remember, his mother left with his stepfather and never returned. Armando was alone in the world at 14.
Back in the ’80s, Ann Young was a counselor in Amphi High when she started the Pima County Homeless Teen Project with the help of her fellow teachers and her fellow Christians at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Ann’s dream grew to become Youth on Their Own, a scrappy nonprofit with a $3 million annual budget and 21 employees, a dream that, in the past 30-odd years, has saved over 16,000 kids from the hopeless abyss of life on the streets.
Today, Armando is 20, gregarious, handsome and poised. He shows me a video on his phone that sustained him through it all, a digital Desiderata spoken by Disney characters.
He especially likes an admonition from the Lion King:
“You got to put your past behind you.
The past can hurt.
You can run from it.
Or learn from it.”
Armando liked knowing the other YOTO kids. “We encouraged each other to keep our grades up.” He showed me another video excerpt where Dory lectures Nemo’s dad. “When life gets you down, you know what you got to do? Just keep swimming, keep swimming, swimming, swimming, swimming.”
Through it all.
Armando will never forget the day he graduated from Sunnyside High School. “I walked across that stage and Principal Torres said to me, ‘I told you you could do this.’ I cried.”
We are haunted by thousands of these invisible youth, afflicted by absence, misfortune and indifference. Not all are as resilient as the amazing Armando. God have mercy on the next politician who tells us, “Our children are our future.” If we truly loved our children, why would we discard them, leaving them to depend on the kindness of the Ann Youngs of this world?
Bethany Neumann, YOTO’s director of development, welcomed me to the complex of offices at Alvernon and Pima that must make Ann pinch herself. Bethany is a passionate missionary. “Our kids get direct financial aid — $140 a month. They have to show up, keep their grades at a C or better. We give them basic needs. Bus passes. Mattresses and more.”
Bethany shows me the YOTO store. “We have toothpaste, toilet paper, food, school supplies, clothes and all the essentials a homeless teenager needs to survive.”
A “Caring Courier” strolls past. It’s Wednesday morning, when they deliver the stipends and the essentials from the YOTO store. I stare at the too-young-to-be-on-her-own teenager filling her basket with essentials. This kid looks ordinary, her extraordinary status known to only to her YOTO lifelines. And her closest allies.
Bethany notes there will be 300 more homeless kids than they served last year. “Some sleep on a couch. Some in a car. Family Service has 10 beds.”
I think to myself, “Can I adopt them all?” Then I recall Armando’s words, chastising me. “I don’t like pity from anyone.”
Christian Teran is one of YOTO’s five program coordinators who work with the liaisons at the schools. Christian tried teaching, but it didn’t slake his spiritual thirst. So he’s here, shepherding hundreds of kids through life’s maze. Portraits of YOTO grads line the walls of their office. One’s an Ivy leaguer. Another’s a Wildcat. This one got a full-ride scholarship. And this kid? He donates back to YOTO.
Maria Morones, director of student services at Presidio School, is a liaison. Maria stays close to her students. “Ensuring they succeed in life is what we do.” She mentions a stellar student who’ll graduate next year. “No other student demonstrates the same level of excellent personal care; shoes always cleaned, clothes neatly pressed. In his backpack he carries his life neatly packed.” He dreams of attending the UA.
“Dreams and hopes are beautiful words to hear from a student that has worked so hard just to have the basic necessity of shelter,” Maria says.
Five percent of YOTO’s funding comes from Tucson and Pima County. The rest comes from small donations from regular folks and in-kind donations. And a gala.
I saw Armando at Coffee Cartel on a recent Saturday morning. Charming and chatty, he works at Marana Healthcare. “Scheduling. I love it. A real 40-hour job.” Cue the high-fives. “With health care!”
Armando showed me his card. “I want to be a successful business owner.” On the side he plans, produces and choreographs quinceañeras. He likes working with young kids. He likes to reassure them they’ll be OK.
“Are you OK about being a speaker at the Youth On Their Own gala?”
Armando gritted his teeth and smiled.
He’ll be great. So will the other kids.
Back at my keyboard, I look at Armando’s inspirational video one more time. At the end, a soothsayer ox speaks to a despondent cartoon Panda.
“Your story may not have such a happy beginning.
But that doesn’t make you who you are.”
If you’re blessed to have Youth on Their Own on your side.