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Tucson Weekly Success Stories

Delinquency, Poverty, Oppression--Nothing Can Stop These Kids.

By Tom Danehy

July 14, 1997:  NOT EVERYBODY CAN look back and pinpoint the one moment, the one day, when his life changed forever. That shattering instant where everything took a gut-wrenching 90-degree turn. For better or worse, but never again the same.

Jaime Guerrero remembers it all too well. He remembers it like it was yesterday, but for some reason, he can't remember the date. And he doesn't want to go back and check the newspaper because the memories are ugly and vivid enough. He lives with them every day, and sweats them out on many a sleepless night.

It was in January 1993. Jaime was 14 at the time, full of piss and vinegar, and all wrapped up in the bullshit gang mythology being pushed in B movies and D-minus rap music. Playing life-and-death games, too young and too stupid to know this game has only losers.

Hangin' with the homies had been Jaime's raison d'etre for three or four years by then. He kept getting in deeper and deeper, convinced that each passing day added to his invincibility. He'd been talking the talk since the time his voice was Tucson Boys Chorus high; puberty brought only aggression and no common sense to go with it. He was sure he'd be tough enough to walk the walk when the inevitable time came.

It came that Saturday night. And when it came, he dove for cover.

It was just another Saturday night. Where most 14-year-olds in other parts of Tucson would be home watching TV or talking to friends on the phone, Jaime was going out. There was nothing to do really, and so much time to do it in.

He was at his friend's house. Johnny Valenzuela was a unique part of Jaime's life. Not only was Johnny not a gang member, he was a straight-A student. One of the good guys heading for the good life.

Johnny decided to tag along that night. He and Jaime went down to South Sixth Avenue, the southside's equivalent of Speedway, with cruising, loud music, girls with too much makeup, and guys with too much testosterone.

There was never really much to do down there. You'd see the same people, engage in the same fantasies, talk the same shit. And, in the back of your head, hope to God nobody took the macho nonsense too far.

They were cruising South Sixth, well past midnight, long after the time most 14-year-olds were safely in bed, dreaming about their first kiss, their first car, or that first giant pimple. Jaime and his buddies decided to pull into the Checker Auto Parts parking lot, to hang out and maybe check out the last few chicks cruising by, the ones they'd either never get or never want.

Just then a '64 Impala--the dream car of every Dr. Dre wannabe--drove by. There were four black guys in the car, late teens to early 20s. Jaime recognized them as members of a northside gang. They drove by again and then again, each time slower and more menacingly.

On the third pass, Jaime's friend "Joker" stepped up. It was "Yo, whassup?" time. Whatcha y'all doin' down here? You want some?

Apparently, they did want some. The guys in the car produced weapons and opened fire. At least 30 rounds went off in a matter of seconds.

Instinctively, Jaime dove for cover, hugging the ground and praying to God that one of the bullets wouldn't take his life. He was scared, he remembers, scared to death, but he hoped it wouldn't show. As soon as the shooting stopped, he and his friends scrambled to their feet. The other guys were shouting that they had to take off after the Impala.

He ran around the side of the car and was about to get in when he saw him. Johnny was lying slumped against the car, two bullet holes in his chest. His breathing was shallow and his eyes were rolling back in his head.

Jaime ran to his friend and cradled Johnny's head in his lap.

"I was crying," Jaime recalls. "Tears were rolling down my face and I was yelling, 'No Johnny, don't leave me.' He looked up at me and I could feel him slipping away. He said, 'I'll be okay,' and then he died."

IT'S BEEN A long four years since that night, and were the memories not so horrifying, the loss so intense, it might be hard for Jaime even to see back there from where he now stands. For, this Saturday night, Jaime will be recognized as Tucson Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year at the sixth-annual Sean Elliott Steak & Burger Dinner.

The dinner is one of the high points in Tucson each year. Sean Elliott, the Old Pueblo's favorite son--and clearly the most successful local Boys & Girls Club alumnus--hosts a dinner for dozens of Club members. Business leaders, sports figures, and even a few normal people will gather at the UA Marriott to devour some beef, listen to a guest speaker or two, and honor those young people chosen as Youth of the Year by the various clubhouses around town.

That Jaime Guerrero is alive to attend the dinner probably defies the odds. That he's being honored at the dinner defies the wildest imagination.

"I don't want to sound bad, but some people say that everything happens for a reason. I hate to think that Johnny had to die so that I would be able to live, but it would be so much worse if he had just died for nothing."

The week after Valenzuela's death, Jaime started hanging out at the Holmes Tuttle Boys & Girls Club. He'd been a member on and off for a few years, but had never taken it seriously. It was a place in the neighborhood where you could hang out on a hot day.

He didn't want to go back to the gang, but he really didn't want to try to make it on his own. At the Club, there were lots of other people, and he could be with them or be alone among them.

For the first few weeks, he cried a lot. But the people at the Club were cool about it. They neither pressed him on the issue nor thought less of him for showing his emotions. For several months, he did little more than blame himself for Johnny's death. But slowly he came around and used the tragedy as a base on which to build a new life.

"At the time," Jaime wrote in an essay, "I felt mad, as well as sad and empty. From that point on, it seems that Johnny began to live inside me, his good mind and heart, his power and his will to succeed, and even his passion for life."

After that, the Boys & Girls Club became a big part of his life, sometimes bigger than school, and always bigger than the thug life he'd left behind.

The Holmes Tuttle Boys & Girls Club is tucked away on a tree-lined stretch of East 36th Street, between Kino and Palo Verde, not real far from a notorious place locals used to refer to as "Crack Park." It's an unimposing building on the outside, but it has a nice big gym inside, a game room, and several other rooms for meetings, arts and crafts, and other pursuits.

The building itself is named for the long-time car dealer and member of Ronald Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet. In fact, Reagan himself dedicated the building in one of his last public appearances before being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

To Jaime Guerrero, it became a home. "The people just accepted me. They gave me friendly advice, but they didn't push. They made me feel wanted and important, and that made me want to come to the Club more often."

Going to the Club kept him off the streets, but it didn't turn everything around immediately. With too many absences and nasty grades, he was a spotty student at Rincon High. If you were using some of his early report cards to play Scrabble, about all you'd be able to do is spell "Fudd," over and over again.

His life didn't turn around completely that night, but he did get set off in the right direction. His grades came up, and he got involved. He volunteers at Our Town Family Center, the Jewish Youth Center, Full Court Press (an anti-tobacco program), and Pima Health System. He's also a member of the Citizen's Police Academy, and was recently voted onto the Board of Directors of the Pueblo Gardens Neighborhood Association, becoming the youngest member ever of that body.

Oh yeah, and he donates blood to the Red Cross.

In his spare time, he founded Vision Youth, an organization whose purpose is to keep kids out of gangs and away from drugs.

The Club is still the focal point of his life. He not only works there, he just about lives there. In his essay he wrote: "To me everything in this world revolves around community, school, family, religion, and the Boys & Girls Club. Every time I'm there I feel so energized to help and talk to the kids. I feel young and happy. I feel a part of the life of every kid at the Club."

JAIME'S STORY IS certainly sad, but sadder still is the fact that it's not all that unique around the Clubs. There are three Boys & Girls Club branches in Tucson: Holmes Tuttle, on 36th; the Steve Daru Branch near Speedway and Silverbell; and Roy Drachman, near South 12th and Valencia.

The three branches serve as many as 3,000 young people each year, providing a place to go after school, gym space for sports, a game room, a library for study time, and even computer training. The entire operation is funded almost exclusively by private donations and fundraisers, of which, interestingly, Saturday's dinner is not one. The Steak & Burger Dinner is strictly to honor the kids.

The big fundraiser is the annual auction night, which, according to reports, is an absolute orgy of kindheartedness and eye-popping generosity. The charitable one-upmanship displayed on those nights is the stuff of legend.

The money goes to operate the buildings, buy sports equipment and learning supplies, and pay the salaries of the staff. It's a year-round operation, with the branches open weeknights and Saturdays during the school year, and weekdays (and a couple nights) during the summer.

It should be noted that this isn't completely a Norman Rockwell painting. Indeed, some of the kids are more like Norman Bates, and it takes a Norman Schwartzkopf to deal with them.

(Let us all pause here and give thanks that more parents didn't name their kids "Norman," lest this word exercise drag on forever.)

One staffer, who asked not to be identified, laid it out thusly: "You've got mostly good kids who come in here. Nice kids, a lot of them with tough-luck stories, but good deep down. Then you've got some who want attention, who need to feel special now and then. That's cool.

"But every now and then you get a knucklehead." (That's a clinical term.) "I had a kid the other day, couldn't have been more than eight or nine. Challenged me. Stood up and got in my stuff. Said, 'What's up, Old Dude?' 'Old Dude?!' I'm not even 21 years old yet.

"You get kids like that occasionally, but mostly they're great kids. I and the others couldn't stay here if the kids weren't cool. Plus, every now and then, you get an extra-special one."

THE EXTRA-SPECIAL ones, more often than not, get honored as Youth of the Year. Last year's winner from the Steve Daru Branch was Yvonne Rodriguez. An all-around athlete, honor student and homecoming queen at Tucson High, Yvonne also found time to work at the University Medical Center to help support her family. She now works at the Steve Daru Branch.

Branch Director Wynton Barnett, when asked about Rodriguez, smiled and said, "What can I say? If I had a daughter, I would want her to be exactly like Yvonne. She's just the best.

Currently attending Pima Community College with an eye toward moving on to the UA next year, Rodriguez wants a career in medicine.

She also spends a lot of time with her 4-year-old sister, Prenda, to whom she's not only big sister but also godmother. "My mother, when she found out that my father was sick with diabetes, wanted me to baptize Prenda, because she knew I would take care of her all of her life. It's a great responsibility."

Her work and school load forced her to give up sports. She'd played varsity basketball and volleyball at Tucson and had played on the boys' basketball team at Steve Daru. She once dreamed of playing college ball, but it just wasn't possible.

"It would have been nice," she says with a winning smile, "but there's no time. Plus, I sort of stopped growing. Not all of your dreams have to come true for you to be happy. It's nice to have dreams, though. It's even nicer when one or two of them come true."

CONSIDER THEN THE tale of Laotian-born Vila Sisamout, the 1995 Youth of the Year from Holmes Tuttle. What dreams might she have had as she lay on her back in a canoe, floating down the Mekong River in a desperate attempt to escape her communist homeland?

She was seven at the time, the youngest child of parents separated by politics. She had only met her father one year earlier. He'd been held captive by the communists in a prison camp. While he'd been away, Vila's mother had supported the family by working in the rice fields.

When the decision was made to try to escape to America, the plan was to go in small groups, so that some might get through; if they were all together and got caught, they would all die.

Vila remembers that night. Her mother woke her at 4 a.m. They had a canoe hidden near the river. Vila, her mother, and one brother crossed the Mekong River into Thailand that night. They stayed in a refugee camp for awhile, then somehow made their way to the United States.

Later, her father and another brother got out, but Vila's sister, who had to stay behind to care for an ailing grandmother, remains in Laos to this day. It's been nearly 15 years since Vila has seen her.

"I remember that night so vividly," Vila recalls in almost-British English. "I remember looking up at the stars and the moon. I wanted to cry, but my mother told me to keep down and stay quiet so the communist coast guard wouldn't spot us. It seemed like it lasted forever."

To this day, Vila won't go near any body of water.

When she arrived in the U.S., no one in the family spoke English. But they persevered, earned American citizenship, and are basically the model for immigrant success.

At first, Vila was terrified to go out of the house. But slowly she began to explore her strange new surroundings and eventually found her way to the Boys & Girls Club.

"I felt right at home there, right from the beginning. It was amazing. I couldn't speak great English and I looked different from the other kids, but everyone was so nice. It was perfect for me."

She went on to become an honor student at Sunnyside High School, and is now attending Pima College. She plans on moving over to the UA to pursue a degree in engineering. She also wants to go back to Laos to see her sister.

"It's not totally horrible for her over there," she says. "My sister runs a restaurant. I'd like to go see her someday. Since I'm an American citizen now, I could go to Laos and they (the government) wouldn't bother me. That's one of my goals."

Vila will be at the dinner also, along with lots of other winners from over the years. The place will be full of success stories, perhaps not as dramatic as Jaime's or Vila's, but no less satisfying.

Success stories are important to a community. They provide hope and pride and a sense of accomplishment. Just like the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Photos by Desiree A. Rios







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