Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
Ruben Hernandez said he was a C and D student in high school.
The graffiti artist would rather be clutching a can of spray paint and swooshing and splaying colorful streams of paint on brick walls than be in class.
He eventually dropped out of school, became a drug addict and got in trouble with the law. Forced to do community service hours at a church, he soon found Christ — and one person who noticed him.
A teacher saw his artistic talents. He soon found himself with a full-ride scholarship to Scottsdale Art School.
Now he’s just a week away from graduating from Grand Canyon University with his bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurial studies, a place he might not find himself in if not for that one someone who first noticed his talents and the many someones after that who would do the same: the church, the law, the schools and the organization he works for as a program coordinator, the Maryvale Revitalization Corporation.
For Hernandez, it took a village to bring him from “graffiti to grace.”
It’s something the Maryvale Revitalization Corporation believes in — that it takes a village — and imparted that mindset Thursday on the 3,000 students from 10 Maryvale Village schools, including the Cartwright School District and Maryvale and Trevor Browne high schools, who attended the HERO U Convention at Grand Canyon University Arena. It was the first part of a three-part youth development program for Maryvale eighth- and ninth-graders.
Hero U was where those young students got to go onstage for a dance-off; be introduced to HEROs of all forms, including visual artist Ruben Hernandez; watch performing artists in the form of choreographers, disc jockeys and mariachi and ballet folklorico groups; and hear from inspiring speakers, community leaders and the HEROs at the Opportunity Zone in the Quad, where a number of organizations, community programs and businesses were set up to showcase the opportunities they offer to youth.
They also learned about MRC and its HERO U initiative.
“It (the HERO U Convention) was organized by Maryvale Revitalization Corporation as a way to bring kids together and motivate them to do well in school,” said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, Director of Academic Alliances for Grand Canyon Education.
The University has a partnership with MRC — the organization supports GCU’s new Learning Lounge at the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training facility in Maryvale — and so it seemed as if GCU would be the perfect venue for the convention.
Both organizations share the same vision — to transform the community.
“It’s yet another example of all of us wrapping our arms around all of the kids in the community to make sure they know about their opportunities and that people really care about them,” Johnson said.
Jeff Armor, MRC executive director, helmed the convention’s main program, in which he told students about the HERO initiative — it stands for Helping Everyone Realize Opportunity.
“Did you know that every single day of your life in Maryvale Village, there is more opportunity than you could even possibly imagine?” he said. “… And we can actually help others realize those opportunities.”
He also told students about five qualities of HEROs:
- To be purposeful, to be distinct in one’s thinking to make things happen
- To be opportunistic
- To remember “we” and that a person can only go so far by themselves. Like Hernandez, they need the help of others. “No matter how skilled we are, no matter how smart we are, no matter how talented we are … people grow better together,” Armor said.
- To engage, meaning to really invest oneself in those opportunities
- And to recognize and be aware
“You and I have the power within us to be all you were created to be,” Armor told the students. “… In order for you to be successful in your life, you have to know the power is in your hands to be the best version of you.”
But Armor added, it can’t all be about you. “In order to serve yourself, you must be willing to serve others,” he said.
Students also took the HERO pledge: “I accept the call to be a HERO. I will commit to helping all people. I will strive to be the best version of myself. I believe my opportunities are limitless. Even when it’s difficult, I will find the power within me. Today I become a HERO for myself and my community.”
After the program, Armor talked about his passion for Maryvale — the largest village of Phoenix by far (80,000 residents more than any village, he said) with affordable housing and a huge, bilingual, family-oriented community. What’s also interesting about Maryvale, he added, is that it touts the youngest population of any community in Phoenix, with a median age of 26 and where 40 percent of the population is younger than 18.
MRC wanted to develop a program to help youth in Maryvale realize their potential and came up with the HERO initiative.
“This (the convention) is just the kickoff to what we’re doing,” Armor said.
The second part of the three-part youth development program is HERO Academy, a four-week, small group after-school program facilitated by volunteer community leaders and powered by Boys and Girls Club, Leadership West and Youth Entrepreneurs.
Last in the series is the HERO Force, made up of students who have completed the first two steps in the program and will be part of the League of HEROs. The group fans out into Maryvale through summer internships and community service projects.
Armor said he was grateful to GCU President Brian Mueller for his support of MRC: “He believes in our mission,” he said.
And he isn’t the only one. About 750 Canyon Christian Schools Consortium Scholars at GCU volunteered to greet the convention attendees and assure that the event went smoothly.
Dr. LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor, superintendent of the Cartwright School District, one of the HEROs at Thursday’s convention, knows the importance of programs like HERO U in helping eighth- and ninth-graders realize their potential — including making college part of their plan, as those 750 CCSC Scholars have. It’s so important to reach kids before they start high school, she said, in conveying the importance of a college education.
“Our kids need to believe in themselves,” she said.
Mom and dad might tell their children they believe in them, she added, “but when you have other people out there sharing that message … it does take a village to make our kids understand they can make a difference.”
Maryvale High School ninth-grader Katherine Arreaga, one of the students at the convention, said the big message she’s taking home with her is that “all the opportunities are out there,” she said, and that it’s time for the community to get together and for students like her to “see what we can do with our lives.”
Maryvale High School ceramics teacher Ressa Mazzocoli said the HERO U convention was an opportunity for the Maryvale community to come together.
“It’s good for everybody to get together and see each other and feel pride,” Mazzocoli said. “It’s building a relationship between me and my students. … building their success. The relationships we’re creating are the most important thing.”
Ruben Hernandez, who revealed his graffiti artwork at the end of Armor’s talk — a hand grasping the word “POWER” — hopes the HERO initiative will do what the community did for him: rally around him, support him, hold him up, help him realize his potential and then inspire him to pour back into his community.
“It’s going to inspire youth to use their talents to benefit the community,” he said.
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.