It’s a typical high desert summer morning in Albuquerque.  The sun has finished its playful watercolor experiment as it rises over the East Mountains, and is now higher in the sky, already beaming its ultraviolet burn on the city as the day starts.

I’m leaning against my car at the “Petroglyph Headquarters,” the administrative offices for the rangers who oversee the Petroglyph national monument, a US National Park that hosts 5 dormant volcanoes, the largest 3 affectionately referred to by locals as the “Three Sisters.”   This rugged desert mesa is called the Petroglyphs because of the symbols and designs that are abundant all over the volcanic rock everywhere- left there by Native American tribes and early Spanish settlers about 700 years ago.  As a normal every day sight for Albuquerque residents, its majesty is easily taken for granted.  Where else do they have ancient volcanoes with pre-Columbian symbology scrawled all over it, right next to the scribblings of our first European visitors?  In essence, the petroglyphs are grand and miraculous, but to the everyday city commuter, they simply mean you are headed west.

Camera in hand, my awakening mind is trying to take in the fresh air as I wait for my guide, Lawrence Chavez.  Lawrence oversees a great deal of YDI’s  Education, Employment, and Training division under Vice President Concha Cordova.  Both Lawrence and Concha are regarded as two of the most innovative and visionary social service workers by their peers, although they remain low key. 

I knew Lawrence by reputation before I met him in person.  When I visited an event by YDI YouthBuild, a program that gets young people their High School Equivalency Diploma (formerly GED), I heard many people attest to his effectiveness as a direct service worker.  Although highly regarded by his peers, Lawrence is humble, modest, and genuine.  He is always quiet and deep in thought although he moves quickly.  When you speak to him, it’s almost as if you can see formulas and equations being written out and solved in the air around his head. 

Lawrence pulls up in his Honda SUV and immediately after we shake hands, we go directly to David Leyba’s office.  As Lead Facility Management Systems Specialist (that’s a mouthful) at Petroglyph park, David oversees the activities that will help improve or prolong the life of the park.  Animated and charismatic, David’s green eyes shine as he says “yup I was a YDI kid back in the day.  “Look at what this dude gets me to admit!” Lawrence and David share a laugh as I take a few photos; you can tell these two have formed a friendly bond.  David was involved in an after school program at YDI that helped him graduate and find a job about 16 years ago.  “There wasn’t a lot to do after school back then, so I took a chance and got involved with YDI.  I loved where it took me in life; when you’re a high school kid you’re not really thinking of the steps you need to take to have a career later. YDI helped me get a vision of where I wanted to go in life.”

David flicks his wrist at looks at his watch.  “I have Habitat for Humanity coming in now, so I’m going to have to split.”  During our conversation, David mentioned that he works with many groups who are interested in conservation and social services.  He reinforces his earlier point of the value of having young people active in their community. 

David Leyba, Lead Facility Management Systems Specialist, Petroglyph National Monument

After a couple of handshakes and smiles, we are off to see YDI’s young people who are working at the petroglyph site.  Lawrence has notes and reminders inside the front seat of his SUV, indicative of my earlier theory that he is always highly functioning and thinking.  In here, equations are literally floating around his head.

As we cruise through the hot desert mesa, which has an elevation of over 5,800 feet above sea level, we see small airplanes whirring and circling in the distance.  This is the Desert Eagle II airport, where small planes and hobby pilots can be seen making their daily trek or playful escape from gravity.  The road suddenly turns bumpy as we take a dirt road with natural speed bumps made of volcanic rock towards two giant work trucks.  There we see another park ranger and about six teenagers fully equipped in jeans, shin guards, boots, hats, makeshift turbans, and grey t-shirts with the YDI logo on the back.  I jump right towards them and start taking pictures, surprisingly getting no reaction from them.  They are focused on clearing dead tumbleweeds out of the area with pitchforks.  While many times the presence of the camera changes the tone of the room, these young people are indifferent to it, instead totally immersed in their job here. 

Lucia Armendariz, 16, clears dry tumbleweeds from the park

The Petroglyph project pays young people above minimum wage to spend the summer season preserving this national park.  I am told it has been operating for about 15 years, each year employing upwards of 10 young people.  Their work ethic is relentless and I have a hard time navigating the rocky desert terrain to get photos of them.  They are all referred to this program through all of YDI’s programs.  It is then that I am greeted by a familiar smiling face: Richard Mirabal, a YDI veteran not only oversees this project but participates side by side with the young people.

Richard and I see one another intermittedly; our different roles in the YDI organization don’t get us in the same space at the same time often.   Nonetheless Richard has always been kind to me.  He is quiet and unassuming himself, a prominent characteristic of the employees in the Education, Employment, and Training division.  Here it is work before words, actions that do all the speaking.  Richard’s nose and knuckles are indicative features of a fighter.  A former boxer, he trains and coaches the art of boxing to young people in his off hours.  He is a respected legend in the local boxing world, and held in high esteem by many.  His dedication to engaging young people in positive activities isn’t just his job: it’s his life’s mission.  His days and nights consist of him passing down his wisdom and knowledge to young people. 

Richard Mirabal, Program Manager of the Petroglyph Project

“I pick up the kids from the office at 7:30am; we stay out here until about 2:30PM working.  Then I bring them back, and do all my paperwork.”  His tone is mellow and optimistic, his very character a great example to the hundreds of young people he works with.  While we talk a little bit, Richard and his young charges never stop moving.  During the course of time that Lawrence and I are there, they have cleared about 40 yards of brush from the area.   As we walk among them, Lawrence points out each one and says a little about them.  Standing out from the group is Joshua Sanchez, 17, whose bare arms are in stark contrast to his fully covered colleagues.  Muscular and athletic, he is at the front of the line of young people as they move through a pile of dead tumbleweeds.  “Hey Josh, how’s practice?” Lawrence asks him.  “Good, good,” Josh answers him, focused at his task at hand.  Lawrence turns to me.  “This kid is up every day ay 5:30am to go to football practice before he comes here to work,” he tells me.  “He’s a beast.  Going to be on his Varsity team at St. Pius High School this next year.”  Lawrence knows each young person’s story, interests, and situations.  It’s telling of his immense talent as a direct service social worker.  He knows each young person by their hopes and dreams, and not as another numbered client.

We say our goodbyes and head off in Lawrence’s SUV.  As we glide back into the zooming suburban pace of Albuquerque’s West Side, I think extensively on how I am going to articulate this experience.  My background in video and marketing tells me to keep it simple; to keep it under 500 words; to streamline my message. 

YDI is so much more vast, with a much deeper soul than what I even imagined.  I can only hope to do the agency justice by accurately capturing the spirit I feel when I encounter one of our programs in action.

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