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.