En español │Sylvia Abrego-Araiza spends her days involved in some pretty intense conversations: She hears about gang violence, drug addiction, assault charges and probation violations — all involving teens.
Abrego-Araiza, 52, is a drug and alcohol youth counselor in McAllen, Texas. Situated in the state's poorest county and influenced by ruthless drug cartels just over the border in Mexico, McAllen is a troubled town. The situation for teens is particularly bleak: drugs are easily accessible and gang culture is everywhere — sometimes even at home.
By the time many of Abrego-Araiza's young clients come through her facility, they've already committed crimes, spent time in juvenile detention centers and perhaps even been incarcerated.
"I aim to reach them with understanding and compassion, which are things that maybe they've never had before," she says. "It's a challenge, but I let them know that I don't give up."
Social work is an appealing career for many people who were dissatisfied in their prior jobs: Though it's emotionally demanding, the ability to impact other people's lives each day is profoundly rewarding. It's what Abrego-Araiza always wanted to do, but it took her a long time to get there. "I realized that I needed to help others," she recalls, "But only after I had started to heal myself."
Abrego-Araiza grew up in a family of Mexican-American migrant farm workers. She was young when her parents moved their 10 children from Texas to Idaho to pick potatoes. She has fond memories of joining her brothers and sisters in the field, picking crops together. Later on, she applied that same tireless work ethic in school; she was an ardent representative in her student council, and at age 15 was voted the school's Cinco de Mayo Queen. As she embarked on nursing school her family had high hopes, all of which came tumbling down when she was in her twenties.
Abrego-Araiza got married young, but the relationship was troubled from the start. She and her husband split up when she was five months pregnant with their second child. Suddenly, at age 23, she found herself disowned by her family, who had been opposed to her marriage in the first place.
It was a bleak time, but she was motivated to provide a stable, positive upbringing for her two young sons. Over the years, she dabbled in various jobs around Idaho, and in 1997 after the end of a second marriage, she moved back to Texas hoping to reconnect with her family.
At first, it seemed like the fresh start that she was after. Then after several years at a job she enjoyed at an employment agency, she was let go. "I was devastated," she says. "I didn't know which way I was going to turn."
But in a moment of stillness, she heard a voice — "and I do believe it was the voice of God," she says — relaying a simple message: "go to school." It seemed to come out of the blue ("I was like, ‘what?'" she laughs), but something about the idea clicked.
It would give her an opportunity to finish what she abandoned long ago and to get back in touch with her own desires after decades of pushing them aside. And her passion, she now realized, was to help people in need.
Abrego-Araiza enrolled in an Associate of Applied Science program in social work. It was an invigorating time in her life. "I had the opportunity to be youthful again," she recalls, tearing up. "I had lost so much of that before."
The coursework was intense — as were the emotions her studies stirred up. "It was like therapy for me," she says. "I was starting to unravel some things in my life that I had kept inside for so long, and there was a big part of me that needed to heal."
Abrego-Araiza now works as a counselor at SCAN (Serving Children and Adolescents in Need), a nonprofit organization that provides social services for at-risk youth in southwest Texas. Though some of her clients have been convicted of violent crimes, she says she's never fearful of them (if you're easily rattled, she says, "you're in the wrong field").
Instead, she treats the teens with respect and compassion: "I'm sensitive to their thoughts, their feelings, their views, their opinions. I validate what it is that they feel or think."
Of course, she wishes she could heal everyone who comes through her door, the reality is that many addicts relapse after treatment — and given how abundant drugs are in the poorer areas of Hidalgo Country, temptation is all around. "It can definitely be emotional and challenging," Abrego-Araiza says.
"I've worked with some kids that I'm discharging after the program and I know — because they tell me — that they're still using. But with each case, I have peace because I know I've done the very best I could do for them."
Still, after decades of moving from job to job without a sense of what she wanted for herself, Abrego-Araiza has found a career that's been a lifetime in the making.
And so have her own children. Her two sons are now grown, and they've found their own ways to give back: one is a youth pastor, and the other teaches guitar to high school students. "We're all helping kids," she says with pride. Giving them a chance to excel, and in turn, giving other families an opportunity to be whole.
Lindsay Zoladz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
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