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Gabe’s Story: Empowering Opportunity Youth in Southern Arizona

Gabe Mendoza, a young Tucson resident, experienced a transformative journey of growth with the support of United Way of Tucson and the Cradle to Career initiative. Initially struggling through high school during the pandemic and feeling lost post-graduation, Gabe found direction through United Way’s programs, which focus on opportunity youth aged 16-24 who are not in school or working. By participating in community service, workforce skills training, and scholarship applications, Gabe gained valuable experience and mentorship. This support emphasized equity by providing resources and opportunities to those traditionally marginalized, enabling Gabe to build a stable foundation, develop leadership skills, and envision a promising future. His involvement with United Way and Cradle to Career highlights the importance of equitable access to education and professional development for all youth in the community.

Southern Arizona is a diverse community full of young people looking for meaningful work and purpose. Due to systemic barriers, many can find themselves abruptly disconnected from school or work at a critical time in their lives. The Cradle to Career Partnership (C2C) anchored at United Way of Tucson works directly with Opportunity Youth, 16 – 24 year olds who are disconnected from school or work. Currently there are 16,783 Opportunity Youth in Pima County. As part of the work with Opportunity Youth, United Way of Tucson helps to fund reengagement services in partnership with Goodwill Industries. This past year 1,685 opportunity Youth were enrolled in re-engagement services. This year, United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona is investing $200,000 in partnership with Goodwill to open two new REC centers over the next two years. These new locations will serve an additional 2,000 youths.

Gabe Mendoza, once an opportunity youth himself has been working over the past year with C2C and the new REC Centers to set up special programming for opportunity youth in Pima County including running workforce skills workshops and building up The Youth Leadership Council, a group of young people receiving professional development, doing community volunteer work, and working to support other opportunity youth in Pima County.

“If another youth asked for my advice, I would say to define the fundamental skills that you need in life to succeed and try your hardest to master them. You can move straight, you can move left, you can move right, you can move horizontally, you can move diagonally. But as long as you get closer to your destination, that’s all that matters. Don’t give up and don’t give in.”

Providing equitable opportunities for all in High School and Post-Secondary Education is crucial to the Tucson community because it ensures all students, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to succeed academically and professionally, thereby reducing socio-economic disparities. This inclusivity fosters a more skilled, diverse, and resilient workforce, driving overall community growth and cohesion. Gabe’s story illustrates the importance of providing equitable opportunities for all in Southern Arizona. His work is essential to the economic health of the Tucson community at large.