As we enter our 25th year, it seems like an impossible task to choose just one story that embodies FRIENDS FIRST and speaks to all the lives we have touched.
Since 1993, FRIENDS FIRST has served teens in Colorado, encouraging them to develop healthy relationships and make positive life choices. While we’ve grown, experienced setbacks, and evolved as a company, our mission remains the same.
As a nonprofit, serving a large, diverse population, we work tirelessly each year to find new, innovative ways to do what we do. Relentless, creative thinking is the only way we support our mission and keep the doors open. A story that materialized for us this year expresses that process. A process which we manage in order to provide so many connections to students at FRIENDS FIRST.
In 2014 we received a Youth Empowerment Grant from the Office of Minority Health, which focused on boys. The grant required us to maintain 50 boys in a program for three consecutive years, which we found difficult when working in a higher-risk, transient population. As that funding ended, creating a gap in programming, four of the original YEP students from Westminster High School really stood out as they continued to serve as mentors in their own time due to what they learned in our STARS Peer Mentoring Program.
One of the students is Alex. Put simply, Alex has been through more in his life than many of us will go through in a lifetime. You’ll see a theme in Alex’s story - a string of miracles that keep a teenager going even through impossible circumstances.
His program coordinator, Renzo Minaya, describes Alex as a very positive, friendly and respectful kid with great focus on what he wants to do with his life. Alex wants to be a professional pianist. Renzo explains that Alex understands his values and he sticks to them with a great attitude and is a great asset to the mentoring program.
As you read Alex’s story, consider whether the big miracle might be Alex himself.
Alex was born with a disease that caused him to slowly lose his vision, and his sight began deteriorating in fifth grade requiring brain surgery. Alex was left with just 25 percent of his vision. Doctors told him that his sight would never return in his right eye. After that surgery malfunctioned, he was forced to have two more in the seventh grade.
“Most students who would go through something like that might give up, when I think about it now,” Alex says. “I actually had a friend who was a mentor, who went completely blind in eighth grade. He just went off the deep end and kind of forgot about life. That encouraged me to help kids and people who go through hard times.”
One of five kids raised by grandparents after family struggles with drugs and alcohol, in the seventh grade Alex lost an uncle who struggled with alcoholism.
“Since we were raised by my grandparents, my uncle was kind of like my brother,” Alex explains. “That was hard.”
So in the eighth grade Alex joined STARS when FRIENDS FIRST brought the program to Westminster High School, or as the kids call it, Westy.
He served as a mentor even as STARS moved through different funding sources, and new FRIENDS FIRST staff came in to run the program. He stayed in contact with mentees, texting them and mentoring on his own. He said he felt like what he went through with losing his uncle gave him more experience he could use as a mentor.
Now in his senior year, things have turned around for Alex. His vision is much better. He says doctors told him it was a miracle. “They don’t know how it happened,” he explains. “My right eye was at 20/100. My left eye still doesn’t have great vision, but my right eye they said shouldn’t have come back and it came back all the way. It’s 20/20 now.”
On track with good grades and a plan for after high school, he attended his first STARS National Conference (SNC) this past summer. FRIENDS FIRST’s premier annual event, SNC brings around 300 student together on a college campus to build mentoring skills, attend workshops with speakers from around the country and experience college life. The conference supports FRIENDS FIRST’s three core elements: Self-Awareness, MentorLife and Future Focus. Most kids call SNC their most memorable time as a mentor, and Alex agrees.
Despite Alex’s positive attitude, joy and peace he found in STARS, Alex and his family experienced yet another tragedy. Earlier this year they lost their house in a fire.
When Renzo learned of this tragedy, he called Jimmy Chism, Westminster High School Assistant Principal. Jimmy also serves on the FRIENDS FIRST Board of Directors. Jimmy helped Alex’s family find a home and get back to school, providing another miracle in Alex’s life.
It seems like the story should end here. But apparently life’s challenges weren’t done with Alex. He lost another uncle to alcoholism this fall. Another person who was like a brother to him.
Renzo explains that was the only time he can remember Alex missing a STARS session, after his uncle passed this year when Alex had to be home helping his grandma with the funeral. “He’s like the white sheep in the family,” Renzo smiles. “He’s a light among all the darkness going on.”
When asked about their favorite kind of music, not many teenagers would answer classical. Alex loves piano. He plays at his church and stays very involved in that community. Going into his final semester of high school, he plans to attend Colorado Christian University next fall to study music and evangelism. He also wants to study music therapy.
“I want to help on the psychological side of things,” Alex says. “With what I’ve been through, it just makes sense. I’ve always been around people drinking and those people drinking and stealing stuff to buy more. I see other people in school who’ve been through the same things or different things that are hard. I want to help them with that stuff.”
Connections Renzo and Jimmy make up one part of the extensive network that helps the wheels turn here at FRIENDS FIRST. Our STARS Program has a unique approach. Peer-to-peer mentoring helps provide more students with mentors than the traditional one-to-one mentoring model, but the process requires relationships to work. FRIENDS FIRST works to find schools who will give time in their busy school day, setting aside a class period in a week to run our programs.
“We are the glue,” Renzo explains. “STARS is the glue. We connect the students with the proper supported resources that are able to help them overcome difficult situations or put them in a better situation to help them succeed.”
Despite Westy’s ever-changing schedules and challenges, Jimmy knew this program was exactly what students needed. The fact that Jimmy can go out of his way to connect kids like Alex with those resources is amazing,” Renzo says. Alex is one of about 500 Colorado students in our STARS programs this year. They all show up each week for a reason. “STARS helps you,” Alex explains. “You can always look back on it and say ‘I came from here and now I’m here.’ It helps you say ‘if I made it then I know I can continue on, no matter how hard that may seem.’”
We thank Alex, Renzo and Jimmy for sharing this story with us. We are excited to see the great things Alex does as he enters life after high school. If you are able, we invite you to consider making a tax-deductible donation to FRIENDS FIRST this holiday season and help more students like Alex find their way.
Thank you to everyone who has supported FRIENDS FIRST this past year, and we also want to say thank you for the support over all the years that got us to our 25th anniversary! We look forward to your continued support and connecting with you during our milestone year in 2018. See you at the 25th anniversary Gala!
You can donate online by visiting www.friendsfirst.org;
By mailing a check to; 7100 E. Belleview Ave., Suite 303 Greenwood Village, CO 80111
Or, by giving us a call at 720.981.9193
You can also ask to see if your company has a matching gift program. If not, please let us know, and we’d be happy to help set that up! Making a donation of $100, $500, or $1,000 is a great way to close out the year and support the future of our community by investing in our teens. Gifts in any amount are needed and much appreciated. Thank you!
Elycia R. Cook