Meet Abraham -
Abraham is 18-years-old and a senior at Sunnyside High School. He is achieving high grades, has successfully completed his senior project and is walking a solid path toward graduation this June.
Abraham is also a former gang member. He has struggled with drugs and alcohol, been in and out of rehabilitation centers and even contemplated suicide at one point.
Abraham is a survivor. He survived when it seemed the world was stacked against him; he endured against adversity, peer-pressure and temptation. But Abraham's story is not so uncommon. In fact, he is one of 91 teenagers and children who have found a new, more promising path thanks to Sunnyside's Promise and its Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration.
A crucial aspect of controlling gang activity in the Yakima Valley is cutting off their member supply and Sunnyside's Promise has been hard at work intervening gang-targeted youth and engaging them with their community in a positive manner.
With the aid of two case managers, Raul Abrego with the Choices Program and David Hinojosa at Harrison Middle School, the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration has been hard at work supporting Sunnyside's youth through some rather remarkable and often dangerous hardships.
In January, the program listed 91 participants in their case management load, 86 of whom were aged 12 to 17.
Among those, seven had no gang connection, 44 had gang affiliation and 40 had participated in gang activity.
The case managers assist these youth with everything they need to make major changes in their life. From substance abuse treatment, to positive social activities and job training, the program is focused on providing these students with a new path.
A new path was exactly what Abraham needed last June when he was arrested for domestic violence. Abraham says he was intoxicated at the time and hit a wall. But when he went to court, Abraham's two younger sisters and the Choices case manager, Raul, showed up to speak on his behalf.
While Abraham had gotten to know Raul through one of his younger sisters, he had not been prepared to listen to the case manager until Raul showed up in court to support him.
Abraham was not charged, but the court ordered him to get clean and sober, which he did. Since his arrest last June, Abraham has not touched drugs or alcohol - not an easy accomplishment for this teen, but an important one.
"I got pressured to take my first hit of marijuana," Abraham said. He was only 12 years old at the time and says that about a year later, around New Years, he started to drink. By 14 years old, he'd tried methamphetamine.
"I liked the way it felt," he recalled.
Abraham's drug and alcohol abuse began to get really serious after that. His says his freshman year the principal caught him using methamphetamine in the boys restroom and he was kicked out of school.
His first two years of high school were spent in and out of detox and rehabilitation clinics around Washington and by the time he began his junior year, Abraham says he had just one credit.
But performing well in school had never been something that concerned Abraham too much. He recalls being bullied in school when he was younger. As a way to find protection against this, Abraham began to get involved in gangs. He says that a lot of kids join gangs so they won't feel alone and they can feel strong.
"They don't know the real dangers of it. They think it'll save them but once they're in it's hard to get out."
Abraham didn't know that when he was jumped into a gang at 14 years old.
At home, things were not much better for the teenager. He and his younger sisters live with their mother, who struggled to raise her children alone. Abraham's father had been an abusive alcoholic. He says that when he was just four-months-old, his father put alcohol in his bottle.
This harsh environment led to developmental delays. Abraham says he didn't learn to walk until he was four-years-old.
Poverty was also a major barrier. "Me and my mom lived in a garage," he revealed. "We had to pay $12 a day to live in that garage."
Then, as he grew up and was lured into a life of substance abuse and gangs, Abraham found he was leading one of his little sisters into the same life.
"She was a good girl," Abraham said. "She got good grades and everything until I started to get her into drugs."
Raul says he was introduced to Abraham's sister first. She suffered from substance abuse, too, was affiliated with gangs and often got into fights at school. It was this sister who called Raul when Abraham was arrested for domestic violence last June.
"This position that I have is a unique one," Raul says. "It's different from a counselor. I'm coming in as someone from the outside, but I'm coming in to see them at the school, too. I am able to do things that other counselors can't do."
It's that extra work, that extra help that Abraham says really helped him change his life. Raul works with the whole family and helps them to work together toward change.
Raul also rewards Abraham through an incentive program. He says the teen earns $25 stipends when he reaches a goal, though Abraham admits those stipends sometimes go to his mother to help with the family.
The Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration has also helped Abraham get money so that he can play sports. Last school year, Abraham got to play his first ever season of soccer, his favorite sport. During the off season, Abraham focused some of his energy on practicing so that he can play this year as well.
But much of Abraham's efforts in the last few months have been focused around getting ready for graduation. Raul served as Abraham's senior project mentor. His project focused on case management and helping children get out of gangs.
At school, Abraham says he has one particular friend and a teacher who helped him put his academics first. He credits his friend with helping him stay off drugs and alcohol and says she never gave up on him.
The teacher helped Abraham back on the graduation track. "She's like a mother to us," he said. "She tries her hardest to get us back in school."
As for Abraham's real mother, he says she is very happy with the progress he's made.
"Before, I felt like she couldn't handle us no more," Abraham recalled. "Now she's happy. She's proud of us and tells us all the time."
But there are so many more people who are proud of Abraham and everything he has accomplished. He has defied the odds and proven that drugs, alcohol and gang life is not a black hole - victims of this kind of adversity can be pulled out and given the support, the care and the tools they need to succeed.