After a childhood full of violence and poverty, Lizeth is reaching for her dream of college.

Lizeth is a senior in high school. She has a bubbly personality and is always smiling — the type of person who is immediately warm and kind. As she tells the story of her life, it becomes vividly clear just how strong she is. Life has not been easy for Lizeth.

Lizeth grew up in Mexico with her mother, father and siblings. “We were really poor,” says Lizeth. “We didn’t have laundry. My mom would wash by hand.” They often didn’t have food. As a young child she remembers being hungry all of the time. Her parents got into intense fights, and her father’s anger and violence soon became too much for her mother. She took the kids, and without telling her husband, they left for the U.S.

They arrived on the 4th of July. Lizeth and her siblings thought the holiday fireworks and celebration were for their arrival.

Lizeth’s mother worked multiple jobs trying to make ends meet for her family as a single mother. But life in the U.S. was difficult. They bounced around, living with various people and often didn’t have enough food to eat. They got robbed several times while living in California.

After struggling to find a place to live, Lizeth’s mother decided it would be best to have the children move back to Mexico and live with their father for awhile.

Once Lizeth and her siblings were living with their father again, the domestic violence soon returned. They lived in fear.

“I wasn’t motivated to come to school,” Lizeth says. And she began to get into fights. “I would just be getting in fights all the time and I didn’t know why,” says Lizeth. “But I would never fight girls. I would just fight guys. I just hated everyone.”

“I kinda liked fighting. I felt some sort of relief.”

In school she often got bullied. “If I heard people laughing in a group, I felt like I was being criticized and that didn’t feel good.”

Her mother decided to return for the children and take them back to the U.S. by seeking asylum. They moved to Oregon and were finally able to settle into a stable life. No more violence. No more extreme poverty.

During her sophomore year in high school, our Chicas Youth Development Program was expanded to Aloha High School, where Lizeth attended. She enrolled and started attending the weekly after-school sessions with other Latinas. “It made me have more hope,” says Lizeth.

Chicas is a youth development program designed to empower Latina girls to develop leadership skills, adopt healthy lifestyles, develop cultural identity, and achieve academic success with high school graduation and college enrollment.

“When I feel really mad, I just go to Chicas. And when I go back to my house, I’m okay. I’m really happy and think ‘Wow, I really like going to this group.’ It makes me want to go more and more, and it makes me want to come to school.”

“I always had this hate for people and I don’t know how to let go of stuff. I never thought you could forgive someone. And little by little, I started understanding stuff like that,” says Lizeth.

“I’m overthinking that I’m not good enough or stuff like that. And then I think of Chicas. Once I’m there I always feel better. I just learned how to not make things a big deal or take them personally.” She compared Chicas to a mother. “It taught me about boys, sexual health, and stuff that my mom wouldn’t tell me.”

Lucila Gambino is Lizeth’s Chicas Youth Facilitator. She leads the weekly sessions at Aloha High School and becomes an integral part in the girls’ journey towards empowerment.

Lucila Gambino, Chicas Youth Facilitator, leading a Chicas session.

“There is a lot of intention to create an environment that is grounding and safe during sessions”, explains Lucila. “When life at home is difficult, or if there is a past trauma, it is hard and takes a lot of self-love to feel confident and trust others.”

Lizeth says that it was also Chicas that got her thinking about college. Before Chicas, she says she didn’t really think about her future. She simply thought, “Things are going to happen and that’s it. I didn’t have anything planned and I just didn’t care.”

A Chicas session at Aloha High School.

Now, things are changing for Lizeth. “Chicas helped me with wanting to go to college. When they were talking about girls that work in the career fields that men also work in, I was like ‘Wow, that’s really cool! I want to go to college to be a veterinarian.”

Lizeth has always loved animals. When life was tough for her as a young child, she went outside and played with cats to cheer herself up. “Cats have always been my passion. I would always look for cats.”

She’s always been an advocate for animals. “I rescue animals whenever I can. This summer I rescued a baby squirrel before it died. I took it to a squirrel sanctuary.”

Lizeth is a prime example of strength and perseverance in the face of challenges. Despite the struggles she faced as a child, she radiates kindness and excitement for her future.

“Chicas slowly creates that trusting space where girls like Lizeth can feel comfortable to share their past and with the support of the group begin to heal”, says Lucila. “That healing allows for a shift in perspective… a perspective of self-love, of trust, of creating goals, and accomplishing their dreams. I’m so proud of Lizeth. Her resilience is strong and I’ve been lucky to see it grow with time.”

Our Chicas Program exists to provide young women like Lizeth with the support they need to feel empowered, confident, and support them in their journey to college.

Right now, 100% of seniors in our Chicas Program graduate high school and enroll in college. By supporting our Chicas Program, you ensure girls like Lizeth are able to thrive and reach for their dreams.