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Emilio Zamarripa


Honoring Our Youth (HOY)

671 Davis Ave. NW
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504
As a young man, Emilio Zamarripa helplessly watched two close friends drop out of high school. Good kids. Not the failures or ‘losers’ that society branded them afterward. Quite simply, they had no support systems. Zamarripa, a youth advocate for the Honoring our Youth program at Steepletown Neighborhood Services in Grand Rapids, is occasionally haunted by that memory, but it’s part of what pushed him to realize that no child is lost, ever.
Michigan Nightlight: What is your dream for kids?
Honoring Our Youth (HOY) Youth Advocate Emilio Zamarripa: My dream is that no young person believes that there is a limit to what they are capable of achieving. Although we all have to overcome various obstacles in our lives, some much more challenging than others, we cannot let our youth believe there is a ceiling to what they can accomplish.
That being said, I feel that we sometimes worry about setting a standard too high for our young people. We don't want to discourage them through failure. Yet failure is a key component in the process of becoming successful. Accepting failure at face value, that's failing. But to fail, then review and identify mistakes, make needed corrections, and then try again? That's perseverance. That is demonstrating strength. That is success.
Accepting failure at face value, that's failing. But to fail, then review and identify mistakes, make needed corrections, and then try again? That's perseverance. That is demonstrating strength.

For those familiar with weightlifting and strength training, there's a quote in some gyms that reads: "The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow." I relate this to the conversations I have with my youth when they feel tired mentally, physically, or emotionally. Limitations are what we make them to be.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
We need to continue partnerships with other nonprofits across the board. There quite a few agencies offering youth services in Grand Rapids and some of them do the same type of work that we do. The number of nonprofits is growing, and I am concerned about that because when there are too many in the same area, people begin to view it as a battle for dollars. It takes so much work to secure this funding that it can cut into our programming.
We’re addressing this issue, though – In a citywide initiative last summer, about a dozen nonprofits came together to reduce the duplication of summer learning loss services. That is, kids who are already struggling in school tend to lose a great deal of what they learn during summer months. We were able to identify a significant number of youth who needed help with retention and coordinate our services. We need more of that.
How do you know you are making progress in your leadership role?
I recognize progress it when I see the relationships between our staff and our students. The bonds they form are very strong, and many of them continue after students have exited the program. A lot of kids want to remain a part of Steepletown in some way, after they get their GED and reach their own goals. They contact us to see how they can help – and they really do help us.
These volunteers put a lot of things into place for our GED graduation ceremonies. They set up and tear down for the ceremonies, and they organize and get invitations printed and mailed beforehand. They are the ones who use the RSVP notices to plan the dinner, too, so we know how many people want beef or chicken or vegetarian meals.
One of our newest graduates made friends with a young man who is still in the program, and he has become a natural mentor to him. He is in contact with him, asks him about his work, and encourages him. So many kids leave here wanting to help the people who helped them and to reach out to kids still working toward their goals. I love watching this kind of progress take place.
What are you most proud of?
Perseverance. I am proud when I see the actual sweat and tears that I put into my work come to life with great results.
About a month ago, a young man came into my office and said, “I’m finished.” He was quitting the program because he couldn’t do the work, wasn’t reaching the goals he had set for himself, and would not be back. I did not watch him walk out the door. I couldn’t let him go, so I went after him. Literally. I caught up to him and walked with him for about five blocks. He did not want to talk to me.
But as we walked, he opened up. He had already missed the GED date he’d set for himself by about two weeks, and as those two weeks passed, he had become utterly defeated. “If I can’t do it in that time, I can’t do it at all.” That’s what he said.
And I told him what I tell a lot of students. I quote [poet] Maya Angelo when I say, “You will face many defeats in your life, but never let yourself be defeated.”  That’s a quote hanging on my office door for everyone to see.
He started to listen then, and he found out that this kind of thing happens. It happens to many students and they don’t quit.
So many kids leave here wanting to help the people who helped them and to reach out to kids still working toward their goals.
They are not ‘losers’ because of it. They adjust their goals and keep going. I’m proud to tell you that he turned around with me and walked those five blocks back. He’s still in the in the program. I think it meant a lot to him to see someone who cared enough to follow him. Really follow him. Ten blocks is a long walk.
What does being a leader mean to you?
I’m a perfectionist, and I used to have a hard time accepting my shortcomings. I am learning from my failures now and moving forward, because every leader has to demonstrate that there will be bumps in the road. Tomorrow is another day, so I can reflect on what happened today and do it better tomorrow.
Good leaders, have to live this way and teach other to do it, too. Some of the best advice I ever got was from a family friend and mentor while I was in graduate school:
“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” I never forgot it.
What factors led you to choose your current profession?
I went into college studying physical therapy, wanting to go into sports medicine. At least I thought I did. But my roommate took me aside one day and asked me to really self-reflect on this career decision before I took it any further.
He is the most honest person I know and he knew me very well, so he had no trouble holding back. He suggested social work as a profession. That’s when I realized that I did not see myself making an impact as a physical therapist. It has its purpose, don’t get me wrong, and I really did want to help people recover from wounds. It just wasn’t their physical wounds.
Instead, I decided to make an impact on youth, to address the injuries that are emotional and sometimes long-term. I wanted to help them with family problems, homelessness, educational struggles, employment-related issues – all of the things that are barriers to success for at-risk youth. That’s what I do and my roommate was right. It’s very rewarding work.
Reflecting on your career, what would you say was your greatest professional learning experience?
During my time at Steepletown, I have discovered that vulnerable kids tend to self-identify themselves with the labels that people have branded them. After they drop out of school, they become juvenile delinquents, bad kids and failures in the eyes of some.
That is so wrong. I have never met a kid who walked in our doors who was too far gone. No one forced them to come here – and I know what that means now. Some come to us in disbelief, loaded with self-doubt. As a youth advocate, it’s my job to reassure them of their worth, their value and their potential. These kids want more. No matter what, they are people who have the ability to accomplish goals. Like I said, they come to us on their own. And that makes every one of them a scholar.
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