Felix Moran strolled through his old west Phoenix neighborhood on a recent sweltering Saturday, stopping again and again to visit with people who wanted to talk. His quick smile and outgoing personality were a magnet.
Moran’s charisma wasn’t always such an asset. At 17, he persuaded neighborhood friends to follow his lead robbing a convenience store, which landed him in prison.
But now the 25-year-old Moran is using his leadership skills to identify kids facing challenges and rally them to achieve their goals.
“My strategy is just going off of my own experience,” he said, standing in the side yard of a mobile home near 67th Avenue and Van Buren Street. Nearby, a childhood buddy fixed a bicycle. “I know what they’re going through.”
Moran’s new job as youth outreach coordinator through Maricopa Education Service Agency is to work with young people ages 16 to 24 who are sitting at home without direction and connect them with jobs, school or non-profits.
His mission comes at a critical time.
“Phoenix has one of the highest rates of disconnected youth. That means youth that are not working, not going to school or not doing anything to contribute to society,” Moran said. “We’re trying to … find these youth so we can bring them into our society, find them a job, find them a good program they can learn from.”
Connecting with youth in need
In 2010, the Greater Phoenix area ranked worst for disconnected youth among the largest U.S. metropolises.
Nearly 100,000 disconnected youth lived in Maricopa County that year, a national study using U.S. Census data showed. That’s nearly the size of the city of Surprise.
It was an alarm call to local leaders, who formed a coalition to combat the problem and called it Opportunities For Youth.
Their aggressive efforts are working. Metro Phoenix decreased its population of disconnected youth more than any urban area in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015, according to a new report.
The 26 percent drop, shrinking the number of disconnected youth to about 74,000, is too dramatic to be explained simply by improvements in the economy, said Kristen Lewis, co-director of Measure of America, the national organization that produces the youth-disconnection reports.
“I’m giving them a big thumbs up,” Lewis said. “We’ve been watching Phoenix closely. They really brought together all of the key players. They took it on in such a serious way, saying, ‘We can’t be last.'”
Moran is key to reaching teenagers who have dropped out of high school or are struggling to find work, especially if a criminal record is hampering them, she said.
“That kind of person who’s had the experience himself can be such a motivational person for young people,” Lewis said. Moran demonstrates “it’s not too late. I can totally turn my life around.”
Dozens of organizations around the Valley serve young people, said Tamela Franks, executive director of Opportunities for Youth, which united the organizations to work together.
Reaching kids is the problem.
Lower than expected attendance at a recent job fair for disconnected youth shows why Moran and teams of young people he will lead are important to creating strategy, she said. Text messages about the job fair went to about 12,000 youth. Of those, 500 registered, but fewer than 200 showed up, she said.
“It’s not going to come from all of us big wigs around the table,” Franks said. “It’s going to come from Felix, who knows how they feel.”
One of Moran’s strategies is to change the locations where recruiters try to connect with kids. He wants to drop flyers at smoke shops and liquor stores, to hold neighborhood barbecues, to visit barbershops. The places Moran used to hang out.
“It was rare for me to even go to a library,” he said. “It was rare for me to even go to a community center.”
Finding a way to change
As Moran described his vision back in his old neighborhood, where chihuahuas barked and residents chatted on porches, a few of his friends marveled at the transformation he has made.
“As soon as he came out of prison, he went from street Felix…” Danny Lucero, 20, who had been fixing the bicycle, started to say.
“…to angel Felix,” Sam Lucero, 18, finished. “It’s crazy because we wouldn’t imagine him like that.”
The brothers remembered when Moran joined a gang and was arrested for leading local kids on a late-night raid at a corner market.
In prison, Moran earned a GED. But when he got out, the felony made finding work difficult. He picked up low-wage jobs in construction and fast food. It was hardly enough to care for his son and daughter.
His life took a major turn two years ago. Moran connected with a series of government agencies and non-profits that work with disconnected young people: Arizona@Work, YouthBuild, Public Allies and finally, Opportunities for Youth.
The programs gave him specialized construction training, mentors and the confidence that his voice should be heard to help others.
“I thought I was the only one going through this struggle. I didn’t even think a whole city was going through it,” Moran said. “I want everybody to be impacted by what I’m doing. I tell everybody I know: ‘If you’re successful, I’m successful.'”
Before Moran left the neighborhood, the first recruit for the outreach team appeared: Danny Lucero.
“If you need any help with that,” Lucero called after him, “let me know.”
How you can help
To get involved with disconnected youth, contact Opportunities for Youth at 602-506-2294 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How they did it
Greater Phoenix made more progress engaging disconnected youth than any metro area. Besides hiring Moran, here are a few things advocates are doing:
- Get everyone on board: Nearly 100 businesses, schools, non-profits, government agencies, politicians and private donors joined to form Opportunities For Youth in 2013. They were called together by Don Covey, then-head of the Maricopa County Education Service Agency, a branch of county government.
- Coordinate services: They created a map that shows every organization in Maricopa County where youth can get help. The locations, dubbed re-engagement centers, now coordinate with each other to serve kids’ needs.
- Engage employers: Starbucks committed to youth job training in Phoenix. Local businesses have offered jobs on the spot to disconnected youth at Opportunities for Youth job fairs. Also in the works: an apprenticeship program for 320 youth using federal funding to fill hundreds of vacant manufacturing positions.
- Revamp school curriculum: In addition to connecting youth to GED programs, Opportunities for Youth is partnering with the Maricopa County Community College District to create curriculum to fit the needs of manufacturers. Charter schools like Ombudsman Charter Metro and Hope College and Career Readiness Academy have opened to focus on disconnected youth.
- Lobby the Legislature: Arizona Superintendent of Instruction Diane Douglas requested $350,000 in this year’s budget for disconnected youth. State Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, introduced legislation that could ease some barriers for young parents who use state-funded child care to attend school, but it is stalled over funding.