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College Dreams program evolves

A decades-old program tasked with guiding at-risk students through high school and onto a successful college, trade or other career path has embarked on a rebranding effort during a year with more change and uncertainty than any time since the program began.

Founded in 1998 as a pilot substance-abuse-prevention program, College of Dreams — newly dubbed Project Youth+ — has evolved over the years to provide academic and workforce development, along with financial and other help, to more than 1,300 students (ages 11-24) in a three-county area.

Originally focused on nudging students toward college, the program’s emphasis now is to support a productive, promising path. Some 88% of program participants live in low-income households, while more than three-quarters aspire to be first-generation college graduates.

Browsing some homework on a borrowed Chromebook Friday, Phoenix High senior Bryan Flores watched his three younger siblings play with a ball while he pondered the additional hurdles inserted into his life during 2020.

Already a strong academic, the Phoenix High drum major could one day become his family’s first college graduate. While his mother, Beatriz Flores, attended college in Mexico, she left after three years to start a family.

When COVID-19 restrictions began earlier this year, long hours in a local restaurant were suddenly cut back, leaving his parents to support the family of six with a fledgling auto repair business.

Scanning over some recent class information and chatting about college plans with his family, while his dad, Julio Flores, added a chunk of wood to a warming fire, Flores contemplated how life had gone from band practice and college planning to living at the Southern Oregon RV Park.

Students in Southern Oregon were already grappling with distance learning under COVID-19 restrictions when hundreds of Phoenix-Talent families lost their homes and everything they owned in the Sept. 8 Almeda fire.

Adding insult to injury, Flores’ mother, Beatriz Gomez Flores, had her birthday the day of the fire. The family had plans to order takeout and celebrate at their home inside Coleman Creek Estates, one of several mobile home parks destroyed that day. Instead, they were suddenly homelessness.

Already a participant of the College Dreams program, Flores said the evolution and name change were a good fit for the program; mentorship and resources from the program, he said, are more important than ever for students trying to focus on life after high school after so much chaos.

“This year has definitely been the hardest I’ve ever had. Senior year is supposed to be hard, but it’s not supposed to be how this has been. It’s good that we’re still getting some extra help,” Flores said.

Immediately after the fire, Project Youth+ coordinators networked with families hardest hit by the fires, helping with everything from finding housing and food to simply touching base with students and keeping financial aid applications on track.

Flores added, “With so many people wanting to help, it makes it feel a little bit easier to adapt to everything.”

Program advisor David Tovar said he was inspired by Flores and his family’s motivation. Even after much of the town had burned, Flores’s family was one of three to show up for a financial aid meeting.

“It’s such a challenge when you’re doing the kind of work we are. You’re trying to help young people see that making decisions now while you’re trying to look down the road is just hugely beneficial, but everyday life is just really, really hard, too,” Tovar said.

Tovar said the program was both a lifeline and cheering squad of sorts for students.

“Just showing up and listening to them, telling them it’s all going to be OK, and giving them space to talk and feel like someone is listening and rooting for them,” he said. “It was already a struggle to do school during COVID. The fires were a whole other layer. I just get up every day and remind myself that everything will work out as long as I keep them talking to me.”

Flores said he plans to pursue a career that involves helping people, perhaps a combination of his dad’s technical abilities and his mother’s love for medicine.

“I want to end up with a job that will help a lot of people, and I want to help my family, too,” he said.

“I’m thinking about making medicine or discovering medicine. My dad is a mechanic. Looking at those two things, I’ve been checking out biomedical engineering, but I have time to think about it.”

Flores’s mom said she was grateful for help from Project Youth+ and for help from the community after the Almeda fire. Despite losing their home, she said, her focus is to push her four children to follow their dreams.

“I try to focus him because I know that he has dreams, and I want to see them realized. I tell him to look at your life and decide what you want and then go after that,” she said. “Live your life live your dreams.”

For information, see projectyouthplus.org

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Phoenix High School senior Bryan Flores looks for college info on his laptop with his mother Beatriz Gomez at their temporary mobie house at the Jackson County RV park.