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The Mixed Blessing of Having Been There: Sonya Zuniga and Amicus Radius

December 21, 2011

Amicus’ Katahdin Fellow, Sonya Zuniga, is helping girls and young women find their own paths out of the dark places of trauma, despair and anger, toward more hopeful futures.

Post by Steve Nelson

“I’ve been there, I know,” is a phrase that might cause eyeballs to roll at the Amicus Radius program.

The fact is, most of those who dedicate their careers to helping girls involved in the justice system, can never really know what it’s like for a girl dealing with the most serious issues, because “having been there” is simply too high of a price to pay. Fractured families, life on the street, abuse, drugs, and other criminal activity can weave a net that many can never escape.
Sonya Zuniga has the mixed blessing of being able to speak from experience.

Sonya is Amicus’ Katahdin Fellow, a new position created to help talented individuals who struggled as teens but now aspire to gain the academic and work experience needed to help others in the social work field.

In this role, Sonya is helping establish a support group for young women who have “graduated” from Radius but could still use some support to deal with the stresses of challenging lives. With financial support from the Katahdin Fellowship, Sonya is also a second-year student at Inver Hills Community College, studying psychology.

Not too long ago though, Sonya was studying for an advanced degree in finding a place to sleep for the night. At age 13, she was one of the estimated 2,500 kids in Minnesota who struggle with finding housing each day. She bounced from place to place, friends’ houses, cars, public parks, doing whatever it took to get what she needed to live on. She dropped out of school at age 15 and had no idea what her future might hold.

“I don’t know how I got through it,” she recalls. “Summer wasn’t so bad. I would stay up all night if I had to. One day I just woke up and got tired of the way I felt. I was angry. I was lost.”

She started entering a series of treatment facilities and halfway houses, began working on her GED and started reaching out to people who might help.

At one treatment facility Sonya came across a very good counselor who helped get her out of her shell. She opened her eyes to see how the lives of girls only a little older than she was were being wasted through chemical dependency and other issues.

“There was so much talent! Musicians, artists, poets, people who loved to help people. When I look back on it, I remember
asking what could have been done differently. Maybe they could have seen that they were more than what they were doing. That’s what happened to me…You grow to hate life at that time. What we need to find are ways to help make them fall in love with it again.”

She credits reading and poetry among her lifelines. Even when she didn’t know where she was sleeping that night, she almost always carried a book in her backpack- earning her the nickname “bookworm” among her friends. “That was my escape. I think it might have taught me to care about things. I knew I was different and wanted something better for myself.”

Sonya sees one shortcoming of typical programs for “troubled teens” as their limited duration.

“If you’ve lived so many years one way, a short time of doing things differently isn’t enough. So many of these girls get released back into the same environment they came from with only a few nice words to say to themselves as they look in the mirror.”

That’s why she’s passionate about the beginnings of a Radius “graduate” program. “Yes, you’ve graduated from the Radius program, but let’s keep the progress going. Let’s keep thinking… We need to provide a safe place for our participants to look at themselves – a supportive place where they know they’re not alone.”

Sonya’s “now” life is going well. She’s reconciled with her mother and is a mom to two daughters, ages three and five. She is in her first full semester of school and is watching her dreams become reality, step by step. Still she never leaves her past so far behind her that she can’t see herself when she works with a troubled Radius girl.

“I know the feeling of surrender and defeat; of hopelessness and destructiveness and hatred and anger. I’ve been in the darkest place ever at a really young age. I also know what it takes to rise above it.”

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