You know things are not going well when your grandmother calls the cops on you.  During her teenage years, Zaria ping-ponged between multiple households, struggled in school, and eventually dropped out. Through it all, Zaria’s charismatic personality and resilient spirit helped her navigate a turbulent childhood.  She does not sensationalize her upbringing, but she does not hide it either – “it is what it is” she says.

Over the years the Stewart Center has had many memorable students, but few have had Zaria’s lasting impact since she joined the youth group in 2016.  Although she struggled in other settings, Zaria quickly became one of the unofficial leaders of the Stewart Center group.  Her authentic nature and sense of humor helped set the tone for the group and created an atmosphere that attracted other students.

Zaria is one of 17 children including step and half siblings. As one of the older children of separated parents, Zaria spent much of her childhood raising younger brothers and sisters. As a young teen, Zaria stole from the grocery store to provide food for the family. Things were so challenging at her mother’s house that Zaria dropped out of school in 11th grade to help support the family.

Zaria’s path to the Stewart Center was circuitous. After an altercation with a 7th grade teacher got her expelled from school, Zaria moved in with her grandmother.  Things did not go well at her grandmother’s house and Zaria transitioned to her dad’s place.  While living with her father, Zaria began attending the Stewart Center’s youth program with her older step brother.  Before long, Zaria became a consistent member of the group and attended even when she was not enrolled in school.

Zaria was required to attend an alternative high school in order to graduate.  When her parents refused to enroll her in school, Stewart Center staff completed Zaria’s registration. Staffers also met with teachers and school administrators to ensure Zaria was attending class and was on track to graduate. Despite obstacles, Zaria remained faithful to the youth group – “it was my get-away-place” she said. “I didn’t have to take care of siblings, do housework, or deal with family drama.”

As a high school student, Zaria worked as an assistant counselor in the Stewart Center’s summer camp and after school programs. “Working with the Stewart Center, I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I just want kids to understand that it is ok to have a messed-up childhood and overcome it.”  After graduation, Zaria was hired as a paraprofessional at Gideons Elementary School.  Zaria’s life experiences fuel her work as an educator and her dream to someday become a middle school counselor.

Zaria continues to work a few afternoons each week with the Center’s after school program at Gideons and, in May, she and her girlfriend, Brandy, moved into a Stewart Center apartment six blocks from the school. Zaria is quick to talk about how the Stewart Center kept her in school when she wanted to quit, and how the Stewart Center youth group became her family through unconditional love and acceptance. While Zaria is right to acknowledge the Center’s influence, what she may not realize is that her presence and perseverance have inspired us all to live lives in pursuit of our full potential.

“When things get tough, just never give up.”  – ZK