Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition to celebrate quinceañera

The Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition cohort meets with Arizona Sen. Raul Grijalva in Washington, DC, at the culmination of their 2018-19 program year in April. (Courtesy Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition)

Over its 15-year history, the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition has changed the lives of 176 teens from Southern Arizona’s Jewish and Latino communities. The nationally recognized youth leadership program fosters political advocacy and cultural awareness in both the Tucson community and the nation. The group will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a quinceañera party next month and honor its founders Paul Baker and Humberto Lopez.

The coalition was born after a fact-finding tour of the two communities by local lay and agency leaders and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, recalls Shari Gootter, a local therapist and the group’s passionate volunteer leader for the past 13 years. Lew Hamburger, Ph.D., has been at her side for the past nine years. The group’s overriding concern was about children and the future. Local businessmen and philanthropists Baker and Lopez committed to funding the coalition for three years, Gootter says.

Today, JLTC is funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona through the support of private donors and a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. “It’s a unique program — the only Jewish-Latino teen program of its kind on a national level,” says JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan. “It’s been important in grooming a new generation of civic-minded activists, and it’s been a wonderful vehicle for fostering friendships and understanding in our local Jewish and Latino communities.”

“We celebrated the 10th anniversary and the 13th year with a b’nai mitzvah,” says Gootter. “The quinceañera is to celebrate Baker and Lopez. When I asked them if we could honor them in this way, instead of just saying yes, these busy and humble individuals turned around and offered to sponsor the event. There aren’t words to express the value of their continuing commitment to changing the lives of so many kids. This took their dedication and philanthropy to a new level.”

Competitive applications open each fall. After rigorous interviews, a selection committee builds a diverse, multi-gendered, multi-ethnic group that commits to months of education and weekly workshops, growing knowledge and skills for advocacy and leadership. JLTC launched its 16th cohort on Dec. 15 with a family dinner and cultural exchange. This year’s participants come from seven different high schools.

“They learn to discuss, disagree, understand, work together, and share openly and honestly. It’s an experience of self-reflection, exploration and learning more about themselves through the group. My favorite thing to watch is the kids start out one way and end up another,” Gootter says of the process. “The kids are changed in so many different ways, sometimes you just don’t know how.”

As the teens explore, they select a compelling policy issue. Then, local leaders engage them in workshop dialogues “to educate them on that issue, along with how to advocate and lobby policymakers,” Gootter says. Last year’s focus was on immigration issues. Students were able to volunteer in local shelters to interact with migrants and get a first-hand view of the issue.

“One of our students, who could speak personally on the subject of immigration as her parents had been deported, spoke at a pre-immigration rally conference,” says Gootter. “The conference happened to take place in the building where Martin Luther King drafted the Civil Rights Act and was attended by over a hundred people, in large part rabbis and clergy.”

Four months of weekly learning culminates in a trip to Washington to employ lobbying skills in the offices of senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill. “One year we had the very special opportunity to be escorted to Sen. John McCain’s secret hideaway in the Capitol. The students all met, spoke with, and enjoyed meeting McCain,” says Gootter.

Last year was the students’ most robust Capitol Hill tour, Gootter said. They had one-on-one visits with Reps. Grijalva, Pramila Jayapal, Ann Kirkpatrick, Dan Crenshaw, Sharice Davids, and Sens. Martha McSally, Kyrsten Sinema, Lindsey Graham, Tammy Duckworth, Cory Booker, and Catherine Cortez Masto. JLTC alum Andrea Kippur hosted a dinner for the group.

Lisa Kondrat was a member of JLTC’s first cohort in 2004-5. After university, she returned to Tucson and is on the administrative team at The Gregory School. “I had quite a few leadership opportunities in high school but JLTC was impactful enough that 10 years later I wanted to get involved again,” she says.  Kondrat has been a JLTC program and logistics coordinator and trainer for the past nine years. “I go to the weekly workshops, schedule the D.C. meetings and work closely with Shari.” There are a million things that made her want to come back to the program, she says. “The essence is the impact opportunity it provides for students, but more often it just has to be experienced, to see it is to believe it. To watch a group of 10-12 strangers in the fall culminate into a bonded, cohesive group, going from shy kids to a machine that works for the common good.”

Peris Lopez was a member of the 14th cohort. She now is majoring in culture and politics in her first year at Georgetown University. Attending school in Washington was “nowhere in my mind before JLTC,” she says. Lopez was an intern/mentor for the group last year. “My group has a deep place in my heart. They are some of the closest friendships I’ve ever created. JLTC became everything for me, it became an avenue where I could actually make a difference,” she told the AJP. She found mentoring empowering and enlightening. “It was cool to watch their growth in personal relationships and passion for advocacy.” Lopez looks forward to meeting group 16 in D.C. next year “to see what they are passionate about. It’s so incredible to see how it inspires them. I am so grateful for the JLTC experience.”

“We never know how one experience will change our path,” says Gootter. “I am so grateful to so many people who make it possible year after year.”

The free quinceañera celebration is Sunday, Jan. 5 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, 3718 E. River Road. There will be hors d’oeuvres, margaritas, mariachis, and klezmer music. Reservations are required by Monday, Dec. 30 at www.jfsa.org/JLAT.

For more information on the JLTC, contact Gootter at 577-9393 or sharigootter@comcast.net.