Hi! My name is Risa Mondragon, I am a program coordinator for FRIENDS FIRST serving the Pueblo community.
It is a joy and privilege to share my heart with you. The truth is, when I think about my life as an adolescent and my story, there are some painful memories that surface. I grew up in a neighborhood that is classified as a high-risk neighborhood. I myself was constantly labeled as a high-risk student. I grew up in a single parent household with my mom and 3 siblings. My mom struggled terribly with multiple mental illnesses which left her unable to work and to care for us in the way that we needed to be cared for. If anyone in this room is, knows or has loved someone struggling with mental illness, you know it can be an overwhelming, emotional and terrifying thing for everyone. As I share this part of my story, I want to honor my mother for doing the best she could and for loving us in the way she knew how.
As an adult, I now understand the weight she was carrying around on a daily basis. However, as a teen, it was something I did not understand or have words for, and it was something we definitely did not talk about to anyone.
As a result of my mother’s illnesses, we found ourselves in multiple foster homes or sleeping on friend’s couches – more times than I can count. I knew that I was looking for an escape from what was happening around me and at home, but at that time, I didn’t understand how to even begin to ask for resources to give me a way out of the cycle I was in.
I specifically remember walking home from school one day telling myself over and over that life wasn’t meant to be this way. I was stressed, angry, confused and tired. I made a vow to myself on that walk, that I would be somebody someone could look up to someday. I would make something of myself that would change my community in some way. Fast forward to some years down the road and I found myself working in youth ministry. I fell in love with the students. Their drive, their courage and resilience. I knew I had stepped into my calling and the vow that I had made to myself was still alive in my heart. As I grew into my role as a youth leader, I was given so many amazing opportunities to learn and grow from teachers, coaches and friends who saw potential in me. One mentor of mine would ask me the same question over and over until I was finally able to give him the answer.
“Who were the role models or mentors in your life growing up?” I’ll admit, I struggled with it. As a teenager it’s sometimes difficult to truly see who is in you r corner when life feels so heavy. It wasn’t until I had the courage to really look back on my life, that I realized I was not doing it alone.
My high school guidance counselor Mrs. Salas, my boxing coach Danny and my high school Chicano Studies teacher Mrs. Aragon Blanton. Each one taught me countless things. How to listen, how to be mentally and physically strong, ignite my passion for learning and history and to have pride in being a Mexican American, Indigenous young woman.
These people were mentors to me before I even understood what that word meant. I know they were each a lifeline to me. The person I am today was built from the unconditional love they extended to me every time we engaged with each other. They believed in me more than I believed in myself and that is something I can never repay but I know now that I can pay it forward.
I feel absolutely honored to work for FRIENDS FIRST and to be able to call myself a mentor, a role model and an educator. To be able to teach young people and to see the potential in them is humbling to say the least. The relationships built with our student mentors and their mentees has had a huge impact on my life and I know it has done the same for them in return.