Eighteen- year-old Cholla High School senior John Savala was a troubled student. He was used to getting into fights and may have been headed down the wrong path.
Three-and-a-half years ago, he started going to Higher Ground, a non-profit youth group located on the old Wakefield Middle School campus, 101 W. 44th St.
Savala now has a pretty good idea of what his life would be like if he had never found the organization.
“I’d probably be in jail,” he says.
Today with the help of Higher Ground Executive Director and founder Jansen Azarias, Savala has earned a scholarship to Pima Community College for next fall.
Like him, many students in the South Tucson area have seen a significant improvement in both their academic and personal life thanks to Higher Ground. The youth group currently has 141 students and four full-time staff members. Many students are referred by their a teacher or a counselor.
“The majority of our kids exhibit risky behavior in school or they’re academically failing,” Azarias says.
When a student is failing, Azarias says that it has more to do with home life than school life.
“I think we need to stop thinking that the reason why our students are failing is because we need better curriculum,” he says. “That’s not the case. It’s a poverty and family breakdown problem.”
Taking a student from failing to succeeding is not an easy task. But fruitful methods include setting a high standard and teaching the kids a sense of self-respect.
Higher Ground offers homework tutoring to their students and extracurricular activities such as jui-jutsu, boxing, wrestling, football, basketball and dance. Some programs are stopped and others started depending on students’ interest, Azarias says.
“Eighty percent of our kids come in everyday and they don’t miss because they love being here,” he says. “So every program has to be engaging to them.”
Savala said he has been participating in jiu-jitsu during his time at Higher Ground.
“I was so use to fighting when I was younger. I went into jui-jutsu to relieve all my stress,” he says. “It teaches me how to control myself.”
Adult volunteers with the group are called “life changers.” The organization currently has 50 volunteers. They help students with their homework and try to motivate them to succeed in school.
Many of the volunteers are students at the University of Arizona, including Katrina Farrell, who primarily works with the middle school students. She has some strategies when it comes to tutoring the kids.
“I think it’s best to get on a personal level with them,” she says. “I find out what they like, because once they like you, they’re more willing to listen to you.”
While every student is different, according to Farrell, many just need a bit of a push.
“A lot of them just need motivation. Everyone seems pretty capable,” she says. Grades are often low because students just don’t do the work. “As long as they do their work their grades go up a lot.”
And everyone is happy when grades go up, starting with the students.
“A lot get happier when their grades go up, because their parents are happier with them,” Farrell says. “Once they get happier, it’s a good environment for everybody.”
Some of Higher Ground’s students also have responsibilities at the youth group. Several work as junior life changers, meaning they help younger students in addition to attending Higher Ground for themselves. Seventh grader Mark Lester is one of them.
Going to and working at Higher Ground has helped kept him productive.
Mark says as a junior life changer, he helps students with their homework, as well as assisting other life changers.
“It’s a great way to give back to the community.”