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Yanira Vigil

Like many teenagers, Yanira went through a rough period, trying to find her voice, seeking help, guidance, and support wherever she could find it. A combination of difficult circumstances and a string of bad choices left her spiraling out of control by age 15. When she discovered SER’s 8 Million Stories program, everything changed.  

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Prior to enrolling at Sharpstown High School, then-14-year old Yanira was a model student – good grades, great friends, and on a path to college. But during the first week of her freshman year, she succumbed to significant peer pressure, got mixed up in the wrong crowd, and was charged with her first felony offense. Yanira spent nearly the entire fall semester that year incarcerated at a youth facility.

By the time Yanira was released, the second semester of school had already begun, which made it difficult for her to catch up on the coursework. Yanira did everything in her power to get back in to the groove of being a student – she went to tutorials, asked questions, and even wanted to explore night and/or weekend school options. She also reached out to her family.

“I tried speaking with my mom,” said Yanira. “I wanted her to understand me. But she just said I was being lazy and I couldn’t do things by myself. She just misunderstood me.”

With stress at home and at school mounting, Yanira eventually sought out the school’s counselor for help. During their meeting, the school counselor expressed concern about the teen’s behavior and advised Yanira’s mother to seek professional help.

“One day after school, my mom took me to this place – I thought that I was going to see a [doctor] for [help],” said Yanira. “But the next thing know, I was being admitted into [an in-patient mental health facility].”

At the facility, Yanira learned she was there because the counselor thought Yanira was depressed and possibly suicidal. What Yanira believes was a major misunderstanding, snowballed into bigger problems.

“I simply wanted help with school,” said Yanira. “I went to the counselor for advice on my options; I was still trying to catch up from the first semester.”

Yanira remained in the facility for a week, where she was heavily medicated.

“The drugs they gave me, especially ‘the zombie drug,’ made feel crazy,” said Yanira “But I continued to take the pills once I was released to take the pain away.”

Yanira started to abuse her prescription, dropped out of school, and by the age of 15, began to spiral out of control.

“I couldn’t proceed with school,” said Yanira. “I was going to repeat the same grade - I was too embarrassed to go back.”

Yanira became more and more disconnected from her family, school, and the model student she once was.  

“I ended up rebelling against [my parents],” said Yanira. “I started looking for comfort in the streets. I ended up making ‘friends’ in the streets and they made me feel better. A lot of them went through a lot of the same stuff that I did so I thought that they would understand me.”

“They would give me weed, they would give me drugs, and the whole time I thought that it was good for me, I thought it was making me forget, making me numb to my feelings, from all the hatred that I had for my parents because my dad wasn’t there for me and my mom was always working and always busy.”

The streets became her support system. Whenever things were going bad at home, her friends offered her a “safe haven.” Before long, Yanira was charged with her second felony and went back to doing the same things that got her in trouble in the first place.

“My mother didn’t recognize who I was anymore, she looked at me like I was a stranger,” said Yanira. “My sister barely spoke to me. The friends I thought I had felt obligated to reach out to me; it wasn’t sincere like family, like my mom.”

After a technical violation, Yanira was incarcerated again.  

“My mother would visit, she would try to help me the best way she knew how, but she was out of options,” said Yanira. “I knew that I had to make a change. I was anxious to leave the [facility] to start my new life. I didn’t want to disappoint [my Mom] anymore.”

During Yanira’s incarceration, SER visited the campus and spoke to the youth about the 8 Million Stories program. SER’s newest initiative offers opportunity youth the chance to earn their GED while gaining paid occupational skills training with the goal of disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.  

“8 Million Stories allowed me to grow up, learn responsibility, and opened my eyes to new ideas,” said Yanira. “[They] held me accountable – I would always give up on myself, I never completed anything in my life, their support was what I needed.”

Since enrolling in 8 Million Stories, Yanira has been drug free, obtained her GED, gained the support of her family, and become a voice for similar disconnected youth.

“My family sees that I am changing for the better,” said Yanira. “They are acknowledging my hard work.”

Yanira was recently the keynote speaker at a forum at the University of Houston–Downtown, where she shared her story with UHD representatives and Harris County officials to provide insight on what the community can do to help re-engage disconnected youth.

“One of the probation officers who was in attendance asked a very [striking] question that really touched me,” said Yanira. “The question asked was, ‘what can we [probation officers] do differently to help the [youth]?’ Honestly, the problem is not of the probation officers – most [opportunity youth] come from a broken home, seeking family support, or just need guidance and direction, and that’s what [probation officers] do every day. It’s up to [us] to do the right thing.”

Now 16, Yanira wants to focus her energy in a peer-to-peer mentoring role, offering guidance and support to additional cohorts of 8 Million Stories students. With the help of her mentor, Vanessa Ramirez, SER Chief Operating Officer (and 8 Million Stories founder), Yanira would like to continue on her path to college and obtain a degree in architecture or construction so she can become a famous architect.

“Vanessa is a visionary, ambitious, and an overall good person,” said Yanira. “She [Vanessa] is me! I have all those qualities and I am thankful for [my mentor] and SER. I want to be who she is to me for others… I want to be inspirational. ”