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Editor's note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Phil Ortega, founder of LIFE Art.

Q: Describe the work you do for Eagle Point School District.

Phil: I manage attendance and student services for the Eagle Point School District. What kind of work do I do? I think I’m a passionate youth advocate. I do my best to give kids an opportunity. I feel like I am a cheerleader, rooting for kids, at times a surrogate parent and sometimes I feel like I’m a life coach. All that points hopefully to a brighter future for kids in our district. I feel privileged to serve our youth and feel honored to work with dedicated educators.

Q: What were the dropout statistics when you arrived at the district compared to where you are now?

Phil: We are designing systems to encourage and support students who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out. Eagle Point district leadership is committed to improving systems. Ten years ago, we had more than 120 kids dropping out each year, last year only 17 dropped out. And of those 17 kids, we know them by name, we know who they are, and we are not giving up. I’m just not giving up. My boss says I’m relentless. I know where they live and will visit as often as possible to encourage re-enrollment.

Q: Your latest endeavor is expanding those systems to all schools in the region. How are you doing this?

Phil: A marketing campaign that we are starting will help provide awareness for our community on the importance of daily school attendance. There has not been a consistent campaign directed at the importance of “showing up.” Maybe consistent in a district or two, but not countywide. I am now working with our ESD (Southern Oregon Educational Service District) and DHS (Department of Human Services) so that if young people do not attend school, an adult in the system will intervene. The courts can determine that state support like food stamps, Oregon Health Plan and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can be denied if children do not attend school regularly.

We are working to impact second- and third-generational lines of poverty. How can we break that poverty if those kids don’t take advantage of the education afforded them? We have not had a mechanism, really aligned, to communicate between for state agencies (DHS, Department of Motor Vehicles, Juvenile Justice) and the school districts. Now I think we are building something that will benefit not just the kids at Eagle Point District but all of Southern Oregon.

Q: Tell us about LIFE Art and how it helps young people to complete their education.

Phil: LIFE stands for Live Inspire Freedom of Expression. I love to paint cars. I paint hot rods. So I was at my shop one day, it was early in the morning, and some kids were tagging the back of my shop. So I walked out back and introduced myself: “Good morning, gentleman.” They were kind of startled. They looked at me, they looked at their paint, they looked at their graffiti. I picked up these backpacks, they were there on the ground, “Why don’t you come into the shop for a conversation with me?”

They didn’t know whether to run or to talk to me. They asked if I was going to call the cops? “No, I‘m not going to call the cops. Come in and talk with me.” They were the brother and cousin of this Medford boy who had taken his life. They were leaving a mural in his honor. I got them to tell their story on canvas rather than on the back of my shop. This was the start of LIFE Art.

Fast forward seven years, and we have 200 kids in the program. I enjoy working with kids. When it first started, we met with kids at my house. On Sundays we would have 4, 5, 6 kids coming, and they would tell their friends. Before you knew it, we had 30-40 kids at my house. It grew to the point that it took $300 each Sunday for art supplies and food and pizza. It has grown into creating a surrogate community with kids dealing with adversity. And it’s also working on how to deal with grief through art.

I understand the value in it. It’s the way some people communicate. LIFE teaches young people how to cope with their personal anxiety, because the root cause of suicidal ideation is kids in depression who don’t know how to deal with stress. Art gives them a chance to develop coping skills, and those mechanisms translate into finished pieces of art where they could tell the stories behind them. And that is really what we are after. I love the art and the process. But I love the idea of helping young people go through and finally tell their story through their art.

Q: What was life like for you growing up?

Phil: I grew up in La Habra. La Habra is a small community outside of Orange County. There were gangs everywhere. I grew up fighting, protecting my sisters and myself from the barrio where I grew up. I grew up with drive-bys; four of my friends passed away in my neighborhood, actually two in front of my house, from stabbings or drive-bys.

I grew up in an environment that wasn’t the best for kids, but I had a warm home. My mom was a hard working woman, she worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. So it was rough. I didn’t ask for much, like if I needed a new pair of shoes I knew it was just not possible. So I started working very young just trying to get ahead. I left my house when I was 16 years old. I had my own apartment. I applied to USC and got accepted, but back then it was like $24,000 a year. I couldn’t afford USC. So I joined the Marine Corps instead. The Marine Corps gave me an outlet, and I fit right in with the Marines. I studied accounting and enjoyed the camaraderie while I traveled around the world serving my county.

Q: Who were the people in your life that inspired you?

Phil: There three people who really inspired me. My mom worked day and night to support her children. I really think that my mom knew the challenges. She didn’t make many parent-teacher conferences, she didn’t do those things, but she provided on the table, gave me an outlet, gave me lots of love and encouragement. She and my grandfather really gave that encouragement growing up.

There were two teachers who took me under their wings, Joyce Lester Walsh and Judy Mazerrela. These ladies at Imperial Middle School would take me to student leadership conferences. Back then it was called PALS, Peer Assistant Leaders; we would work on creating culture in our schools. They encouraged me to run for student government and got me involved in school. I was a good student, I was an athlete and they knew if I didn’t stay busy, the streets would consume me. Student government conferences were expensive, and I couldn’t afford to go, but somehow they always made it work.

Q: What are some of the obstacles that get in the way of young people finishing school and preparing for their education after high school?

Phil: The barriers I see are sometimes dysfunctional home situations, sometimes it’s lack of motivation, sometimes lack of relevance. It’s painful from my position looking at some of the situations and knowing kind of where students are walking that walk. Cause I’ve kind of been there before. I firmly believe that dysfunctional people don’t become dysfunctional overnight. They have practiced being there for such a long time. To break that means you have to offer something different and then put in time before you can expect a change.

I can call a parent and say, “Hey, your kid is not in school.” “Thank you Mr. Ortega, we know that.”

But when I show up at their house I’m here because I care about their kid and I care about their future. And it sparks a change. A personal one-on-one is THE most, hands-down best thing educators can do. Seek face-to-face with kids and parents outside of school hours. So when I show up on Sunday morning, they know I mean business. It’s not just part of my job, they know I care.

Another barrier is mobility. I don’t know if parents really understand the loss of learning that happens when they move so much. Sometimes it is out of their control. They need to move because they are behind on rent or eviction. And we are losing kids. But no parent … I’ve never met an educator or a parent who didn’t want better for their students or kids. If we use that philosophy moving forward when we have conversations, it always breaks the ice really well.

Q: How could the Rogue Valley be a better place to live?

Phil: If all adults … imagine if all adults took the time to listen to one kid each week. Turn off the cellphone, turn off technology and have a meaningful conversation about life, once a week. That would be it. Because if kids knew that adults cared, I think it changes their perception. A lot of young people feel like they can’t communicate or no one is listening or no one has the time. If we just slowed down a bit and helped every kid feel connected, we would see a difference.

That is the power of LIFE Art, that’s why my wife and I do the work that we do. Because kids have things to say, and if no one is there to listen, then it just reinforces or enables the negative thinking. Not every kid knows how to raise their hand and say, "I need help."

If we could frame our community to think about creating a responsible, reliable, educated workforce. How can we leverage all our understanding and organize the Southern Oregon Attendance Initiative to be consistent and get all students to school every day?

Just the motto "Every Student, Every School, Every Day" reinforces the concept that attendance matters as we encourage positive habits for college and career readiness.

Phil Ortega, in blue, with art students in his Medford studio LIFE Art. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta