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Youth On Their Own helps local kids reach their goals through community support

Thursday is the deadline for Dorchester County School District 2 parents to notify the district...
Thursday is the deadline for Dorchester County School District 2 parents to notify the district whether they want to enroll or withdraw their children from the DD2 Virtual Academy.(Live 5/File)
Published: Apr. 1, 2021 at 6:26 PM MST|Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 5:41 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - For the better part of a decade, Rashel Olalde dreamed of going to college. But when high school came around, she found herself at a roadblock.

Grades weren’t a problem, Olalde was doing well, but with her immediate family living in Mexico, money was tight. Then a teenager at the beginning of her sophomore year, Olalde had moved away from Mexico and in with her aunt and uncle. She enrolled at Tucson High but without the help of her parents, so affording things like clothes and day-to-day items teenagers need became more difficult.

Toward the end of that school year, her AP Spanish teacher introduced her to a school social worker, who told her about a community program called Youth On Their Own, or YOTO for short.

Founded in 1986 by Ann Young, a guidance counselor in the Amphi School District, YOTO is a dropout prevention program that helps young students who are unsheltered or don’t have strong support systems to stay in school. For more than three decades, the county-wide nonprofit has served 16,000 students through their studies and has helped them gain independence, according to the program’s website.

Daniel Armenta, special projects lead for YOTO, said the program encourages students to stay in class by providing them with monthly stipends for getting decent grades. Students also get help with necessities like food and hygiene supplies.

But, Armenta said, it’s more than basic care. YOTO helps students learn more about how to reach their goals at school and beyond.

“We’re always available to help them with guidance, to help them navigate the system within school or get ready to apply for college or to trade school,” he said. “Or just prepare for life after high school, whatever that may be.”

After Olalde applied and was accepted into the program, she was able to get stipends to help pay for things like her AP exam, clothes and even get job experience at the program’s retail-style shop before she applied at local restaurants.

“The thing that is important and the thing that sets apart our students is that they still, despite all these challenges, still what to graduate from high school. They understand that that’s an important goal,” Armenta said. “... They all have that drive to finish and we hope we are providing services that help make that path a little easier.”

Five years later, 20-year-old Olalde is a high school graduate and a junior majoring in family studies at the University of Arizona. Though she’s no longer a minor, YOTO’s alumni program gives grads like Olalde resources to help cover things like dorm necessities and monthly expenses.

“Honestly, that was my proudest moment, just graduating and proving people wrong, like yeah I can do it,” Olalde said. “Look at me, I don’t have parents [with her in the U.S.], I don’t have money but I’m still striving.”

However, during the COVID-19 crisis, connecting with students in need has been a big challenge, Armenta said. During any given school year, YOTO usually helps around 1,500 students in need.

Over the last year, that’s plummeted to about 600 to 700.

“Obviously, the pandemic has disproportionately affected people who are already struggling, I think across the board,” Armenta said. “For youth, the biggest thing is that school typically is a safe place, right? So a young person who doesn’t have a stable home and maybe doesn’t always know where they are going to sleep at night, at least they know is those hours that they are at school, they are in a safe place.”

To combat the impacts of the pandemic, Armenta said YOTO started publishing its own public service announcements through local schools to keep in contact with kids who need help. The program also started offering online services, where students can pre-order products they need from YOTO’s mini-market.

“We’re hoping other people out in the community who might know some youth that need help will take the initiative to talk to that student let them know about us or contact us and have us contact them,” Armenta said.

For Olalde, joining YOTO while in high school helped her gain the independence she needed to graduate. And support from advisors like YOTO Alumni Program Coordinator Kim Flores and social worker Bonnie Neller, as well as other students, made her realize she isn’t alone in her struggles.

With just a few semesters left in her undergraduate degree, Olalde said she hopes to get her master’s in policy administration and one day help other students reach their goals.

“I want to become the CEO of Youth On Their Own,” she said. “I want to make the mission broader to not only strive for high school graduation but for college graduation.”

For more information about YOTO, click here. Students who are interested in applying, click here.

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.