The Faces of Resiliency

by Nan Henderson, M.S.W.

Several years ago I decided to go into my community and find young people whose lives demonstrate “resiliency in action.” I found that resilient kids are everywhere, that secondary teachers, college and university professors, youth agency workers, community and church youth workers, even my friends and neighbors all knew young people whose lives put faces on the concept of resiliency. I plan to include these faces each issue, sharing the specific stories and words of these resilient young people. I hope you will do the same — identify and publicize the many young people in your community who are resilient — as one way to challenge the prevalent but inaccurate stereotypes of kids from “risk” environments.Two such young people are profiled below. In interviewing them, I asked open-ended questions about their lives and their overcoming of adversity and about advice they wanted to share with others. The themes that emerged from the young people themselves were right out of the research on resiliency, as well as the research on drop-out prevention and gang prevention. Leslie Krug’s story documents the critical need for caring and high expectations in schools, as well as the power of one person — in her case, her mother — who will not give up on a child. She also testifies as to the powerful influence of friends who themselves have bounced back and are doing well.

Phil Canamar’s story shows the importance of caring adults outside the family. As he lists all the people who have contributed to his resiliency we see the power of these other “surrogates” in a young person’s community to make a difference, validating the research of Gina O’Connell Higgins (1994) and other resiliency researchers. His message confirms much of what is known about why young people get into gangs and offers inspiration about how they can leave. He also comments on the critical components of effective schools that so many kids — those who drop out and those who don’t — note as missing in traditional high schools. Finally, he demonstrates, as Emmy Werner so beautifully describes in this issue, the importance of spiritual faith for many of those who are resilient.

Leslie Krug: “I’ve Been In So Much Trouble and I’m Still Here”

Leslie Krug went through ninth grade in a traditional high school three times. A lot of her problems, she said, began in sixth grade when her dad died, which “hurt a lot.” Though she was sent to counseling, seventh through ninth grade were years of skipping school, drinking, and using drugs. 

Her message now: “I’ve been in so much trouble and I’m still here.” At age 16, Leslie is back in school and doing well. She was one of two students selected, in fact, by the school staff of the alternative school she now attends to be featured as a “face of resiliency.” She is no longer using drugs, and is contemplating a future as a small business owner.

When asked who helped her bounce back Leslie credited her mom, her friends, her boyfriend’s parents, and the school she now attends. She gave most of the credit to her mom. “She just kept making me go to school. She wouldn’t let me drop out,” Leslie said. She reports that during her years of skipping school and “hanging out” her mom got mad at her for her behavior, but she never gave up on her. No matter what, Leslie said, her mom “was just always there.”

Leslie’s advice to adults trying to help kids succeed is, “Show that they care. They’ve got to care.”

An absence of caring was a main reason Leslie struggled in traditional school. One teacher, she said, told her friends that one day they would be driving Mercedes and BMWs and Leslie would be working the window at McDonald’s.

And, she reported, “there is so many drugs” around traditional schools. If a student is doing drugs, she added, “you’re not going to do them at school.” So that is another reason she skipped.

Leslie stopped doing drugs because of the influence of her friends, especially one, who stopped. Seeing him stop, she said, made her realize that it could be done. And seeing other friends going to school and doing well provided motivation for her to do the same.

She also gives credit to the Albuquerque alternative school she attends, School on Wheels. Leslie said she feels that the teachers at this school really care. “They’re not here because it’s their job. They want to teach.” She added, “They treat you like things aren’t just going to happen for you. You’ve got to work.”

“They make you responsible and the teachers care,” are two main reasons Leslie said she is doing well in school now. She also learns things “useful for my life.” One example is discussions about racism in school curriculum. “All you learn about is George Washington” in traditional classrooms, Leslie said. “Here they teach you more about Hispanic heroes” — information about her culture she didn’t get in school before. She said classrooms work as teams, with cooperation emphasized. And she gets a chance to pursue one of her main interests — art.

Leslie looks forward to finishing her high school credits at the local community college, through an arrangement between her alternative school and the college. “When we are 17 we can go to TVI and get our credits,” she said. Through attending TVI, she hopes to pursue her goal of one day owning a small business. 

Phil Canamar: “I Feel the Pain and Anger in Everybody’s Heart that Joins a Gang”

Phil Canamar, 18, just wrote a grant proposal to Honeywell asking the company for $80,000 to help “ten multicultural youth, to train them in the logistics of making videos.” Besides attending school, he works in a local organization dedicated to getting youth involved in their own businesses, funded by grants from the state of New Mexico. He is looking forward to graduating from high school next year, and pursuing his passion of video production at the college level.

Phil has come a long way since he began using drugs in middle school, robbed houses with his friends in ninth grade, joined a gang at age 16, dropped out of school, and ran away from home.

Phil said he has never known his father, whom his mother divorced when he was three. He lived until he was seven with his mother and grandfather. Then, his grandfather died. His mother had two other children, too, and had to work full-time. He remembers a childhood of being “treated like an adult… cooking for myself, cleaning for myself… and trying to be the father” for his brother and sister.

Eventually, about the time he was in middle school, “I started hanging out with the wrong friends and got into trouble.” At first, Phil reported, it was telling teachers off and smoking. Then he began using drugs and drinking a lot, partially because he was hanging out with his older sister’s friends. Then he began the house robberies with his friends. Getting caught, Phil said, taught him a lesson — “never do that again.”

Phil dropped out of school in tenth grade. He said lot of teachers had the attitude when he left of, “Well…see you later, bye.” “Some of them did care,” Phil said. But “many of them didn’t want to help.” They thought, “Well, he deserved it.”  
After he dropped out, he hung around the house for about a year, “a bum, just doing nothing. I was looking for a job but no one would hire me. I was only 16 and I had dropped out of school.”

He and his mom eventually got into an argument, during which she said, ” “Go ahead. Go on. Go out on your own.’ So I packed my stuff. I left.” At age 16, Phil walked 40 miles into Albuquerque.

Phil moved in with a friend he had met years before whose mom told him he could always come there if he ever had problems. For awhile he and his friend hung around, “smoking weed, drinking beer.” Then his friend’s mom started pressuring the boys to get jobs, but “no one would hire us because we weren’t in school.

“Finally, I said, “I’m gong to go try School on Wheels,” Phil said. He had heard about the alternative school from his sister years before. He and his friend both decided to give it a try. From his first encounter with the school principal, Phil said his life began to change. “He said, “Hey I remember you. You used to go to my church. We’ll see what we can do about getting you in here because I know you are a good kid.'” The principal told Phil to call every day until there was an opening at the school. “I called for three or four weeks before I got in,” Phil remembered.

Phil began attending the school and moved in with a man who had been a friend for years. “My mom met him when I was nine at the State Fair. She was always looking for a father image for me and my brother. She said to him, “Can you help me with my kids…take them here or there or something?’ and he said sure, “I love kids, especially boys. I always wished I had a boy.'” This man, whom Phil calls Joe, has been an important part of Phil’s life since that time.

He joined a gang, in fact, during a time when his mom wouldn’t let him see Joe anymore, due to a misunderstanding. “It was at that point in time when I said, “No one is here for me, you know. I’m sick of it.’ And I turned toward the gang to find support.

“That’s the pain and anger I feel in everybody’s heart that joins a gang. They want to feel accepted, you know, because they don’t have that going on in their home life. The mother or father isn’t there.”

Phil left the gang when he moved to Albuquerque. It was helpful, he said, that “that gang isn’t here” though “everyone here in Albuquerque says “Oh, you’re Chicano, you must be in a gang.” Now, Phil said, “I just look at them. I have a lot of love.” And, he tells them, “I’m here in peace.”

In addition to Joe and Joe’s parents, whom Phil calls “his elders” that give him care and support, he credits School on Wheels for his resiliency. “It was the structure here, then the environment, then third, but not least, Kathryn, my teacher. She always gave me encouragement to take it one day at a time.”

Phil likes the team work, cooperation, the fact he has just one teacher, the experiential activities, and the caring he feels at School on Wheels. His advice to traditional schools: “Interview teachers to see if they do care about the students. And hire one principal. Most schools have four principals and they all have their own opinion of how to run the school. All they’re doing is making chaos.”

Finally, Phil credits his Christian faith with helping him through his difficulties. He said that while many people have helped him along the way, “God told me, “Take something of them. Don’t take the bad part. Take the good part you like in them…take them with you.” Phil added, “They’ve all given me a little piece, something that makes me grow. The major one is Joe, then my teacher, Kathy, my other teacher, Ron, my teacher now, Ed. The school has helped a lot. And where I’m working now. We’re trying to get at-risk youth involved in their own businesses.”

Phil said he wrote the grant to Honeywell so he can offer something to other kids like himself. His goal is his own video production staff. He wants to give other kids this invitation: “Hey are you guys bored? Are you guys tired of gangs? Come over here. I’ll teach you about video, let’s make a video or a movie… let’s make a music video.” The purpose of the organization, Phil said, is “to give them meaningful stuff to do.”

Phil’s advice to other kids like himself is, “Don’t drop out of school. Find an alternative.” And his advice to adults trying to help kids is, “Take time out to see what they need. Try to provide what they need. I’m not sure if there is anything else to do.” 

L.W. Schmick: Overcoming and Challenging the Label “At Risk Youth”

When L.W. Schmick was in middle school, he realized he was in a class that “was different” from other kids. By his freshman year in high school, he knew that his classes were for “at risk” students. Though he says he “wasn’t ever mad at teachers for seeing that and being aware of that,” he thinks the label was detrimental to himself and his peers.

“Putting an ‘at risk’ student in a separate class just separates them more. And I think that’s what a lot of at risk students are trying not to do [–be more separate]. I think they should be blended in more so they are not put in their own little group, ” L.W. explained.

One of the results of being labeled, he said, is that students feel since they’ve already been labeled, why even try. He used to say to himself, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll be at risk. No big deal.” He added, “It just seemed like everyone was waiting, watching for us to fail.” He and his peers felt that all their behaviors were “under a magnifying glass.”

L.W. was labeled “at risk” after he got into “a lot” of trouble in fifth and sixth grade. He and his mother had just moved to Maine from New York State, and for him the move “was a big deal.” He had to leave his entire family behind, including his father who had been divorced from his mother when L.W. was only six months old, but who was still an important person in his life. His reaction to the move: “I was big for my age, so I had older friends around. I got in a lot of fights. I got in trouble at school, and I didn’t get along with teachers very well.” L.W. got suspended from school in sixth grade.

He says that in looking back at that time, he realized one of the major reasons he got into so much trouble was “I just wanted to fit in…and it is pretty hard to fit in when you’re a six foot red head. Blending into a crowd isn’t the easiest thing to do.” This is one reason he feels that being separated in middle school into a class for tough kids only made things worse.

He was thrown off the middle school basketball team “for being mean,” he received a lot of detention, and he started drinking.

L.W. credits his parents with providing him with some of what helped turn his life around. He said he always felt unconditional love and support from both of them. His mom stopped working two jobs so she could be home when he got home from school. His dad encouraged him to find a vocation in life, which meant staying in school. And L.W. himself said he never seriously considered dropping out of school because he realized that would “be quitting and I don’t like to quit.”

His life began to change his freshman year in high school when he was forced to find new friends (who were more connected to school) because “all my other friends dropped out.” In fact, only 2 of the 15 students in his “at risk” middle school class–the class “no one really wanted to mess with, the class for ‘the bad kids'”–graduated from high school. L.W. was one of the two. And he graduated with the respect of his teachers, his peers, and his community thanks to a KIDS Consortium trained teacher (see articles on KIDS Consortium in this issue) to whom L.W. gives most of the credit. L.W. said it is because of this teacher and the opportunity this teacher offered to become involved in a KIDS Consortium Project that he is headed this fall to college to become a teacher himself.

“In my sophomore year, I had an English class with Brian Flynn,”who started the ELF Woods Project at L.W.’s school (see article on page ). “A lot of teachers when they see an ‘at risk’ student, they automatically distrust and they don’t give them some of the responsibilities they would give other students…because they’re ‘at risk’ supposedly,” L.W. said. But Brian Flynn “showed me respect and trust. He gave me a lot of power to take responsibility. He said, “‘If you want an inch, take an inch. If you want a mile, take a mile.'” And, he added, in Brian’s’s class, “I wasn’t set apart as different. I was able to mix in. He saw me as just another person, not as an ‘at risk student.'”

When asked what else about Brian Flynn was so different than other teachers he had previously had, L.W. added: “[Most] teachers see students as students and they’re above you when they’re teaching you and you listen to what they say because that’s what is right. But Brian took a lot of what the students had to say, and that’s how we did a lot of the things in the class. Someone would say ‘it would be better like this,’ so we’d try it like that. He shared his power with us.”

After his experience in Brian’s class, and working on the ELF Woods Project, L.W. said he became more involved with his community. And he gained more respect for community, “for all the hard work that it takes to do some things.” The experience of having some of his work in the ELF Woods Project vandalized also taught L.W. “how people hurt when you destroy their things.”

After his sophomore year L.W. stayed involved. He worked with the local National Guard to put lights along a trail behind his school. He worked with General Electric to get all the equipment and with the city of Auburn to get the permits.

And after his work with the Elfwoods Project, and his continuing service in his junior and senior years, L.W. said, “That ‘at risk’ label had been erased. I liked school more.” Other people saw him differently, he said, and when this happened, “then I changed.”

His advice to teachers dealing with difficult students: “I can see how teachers would be a little weary of an ‘at risk student.’ But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re dumb or that ‘at risk’ [students] are less able to do things, it just means that sometimes for circumstances beyond their control they’re ‘at risk.’ Which was my case, I think. So try to treat us like you treat everyone else.”