Hope Comes Home
Two years ago, Joel was a teen with a hot head. Today he thanks Communities In Schools for helping him overcome dispiriting obstacles and achieve academic success.
It’s lunch time at the childcare center next door to Live Oak Academy, and Joel Garcia is playing peek-a-boo with his one-year-old daughter, Hallenna. Between classes and a part-time job, the graduating high school senior is working equally hard to be hands-on for story time and daily meals, and to be a presence in her life.
This joyful snapshot could not have been taken two years ago. Back then, Joel was a teen with a hot head — prone to punching walls, overwhelmed with stress and at risk of becoming a dropout. Today he thanks Communities In Schools of Central Texas for helping him overcome dispiriting obstacles and achieve academic success.
“I was on a bad road before Communities In Schools. I didn’t think I was going to live to 25,” said Joel, who struggled with anger management. “I never thought I was going to graduate, and I actually am. I have a smile on my face all the time now.”
By the time Joel transferred to Live Oak in 2010, the photo album of his life was loaded with undesirable images. Tension between Joel and his stepfather made home feel like a combat zone. He was in a contentious relationship with the mother of his unborn child. Searching to feel like he belonged somewhere, anywhere, Joel felt the pull to become a gang member. Add in poor grades and frequent run-ins with teachers, and life at school was just as unpleasant.
“I think if he had continued on the same track, and continued taking out his aggressions the way that he did, he might have been expelled,” said Erica Gallardo, the Communities In Schools site coordinator at Live Oak.
Bogged down by so many burdens, dropping out and getting a job to support his family seemed the only choice to Joel. Then, in March 2011, Joel was referred to Gallardo, who is also a social worker. Joel started attending one-on-one counseling sessions, though initially he needed coaxing to open up.
“I came in with trust issues,” said Joel, whose father had been in prison and absent for most of his childhood. “Then I realized that someone actually wanted to hear my story and help me out. I never had that before.”
With Gallardo, Joel learned how to identify his anger triggers, and to focus on breathing and listening to music as techniques to cope. He realized dropping out would squash his dream of joining the military. Gallardo helped Joel set new goals, meet with a military recruiter and apply for college. Weekly meetings with the Communities In Schools Chillin’ Group provided more support around his anger management. Within four months, Gallardo began to notice a different Joel, one who today, at 17, feels optimistic, advises other young men he sees struggling with similar issues and is flourishing.
The weight of despair has been lifted, and in its place hope has found a home.
Instead of acting out in class, Joel participated. Instead of confronting his teachers, he asked them for help with assignments. Joel’s grades improved, and with the flexible course system offered at the nontraditional school, he earned credits quickly to make an on-time graduation. He ended the relationship with his girlfriend though he continues to co-parent his daughter with her. And although he was later put out of his home because of his behavior, Joel currently is living with a friend in a stable environment. In January, at Gallardo’s recommendation, Joel was appointed president of a high school chapter of the Hip Hop Congress. The Texas affiliate’s partner program aims to provide youth with opportunities to make change through service projects.
“Joel is a natural leader,” said Jesse Silva, a member of the advisory board
of the Hip Hop Congress at Texas State University. “He avidly looks for input from members and keeps everyone involved. I think this is a young man with a promising future.”
When asked about graduation, Joel barely can contain his pride about graduating on time. He is enrolled in Austin Community College and waiting to hear from Texas State. He plans to major in business — then, with his bachelor’s degree, enlist in the military.
Communities In Schools’ targeted interventions helped remove the barriers that blocked Joel from achieving his potential, and now he is on course to reach his life’s goal.
“I have seen him grow and mature almost overnight,” said Gallardo, who is also proud. “He has made great strides just within the past year. To see him as an involved teen dad who is setting and accomplishing his goals is awesome. He knows what he wants, what it takes to get there and is willing to put in the work. He has so many positives in his life now.”
And that includes a picture of a brighter future for himself and his daughter.
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