Gentlemen and Scholars

Johnny and Rudy Valenzuela help disadvantaged but promising students stay in school. If only they could keep them alive.

Johnny Valenzuela had expected to be on the phone soliciting donations to help 16-year-old Abel Solis, an aspiring artist, stay in school.

Instead, he was raising money to bury him.
Abel had been one of the underprivileged but promising youths that Valenzuela and his organization, the Monroe Alumni Youth Association, had granted a small scholarship as an incentive to finish school.

Johnny and his brother Rudy founded MAYA in 1993. Both are graduates of Monroe Elementary, which has been closed for 15 years.

Rudy says Abel's death "brought the whole program to a standstill. We put all our efforts into helping his mom and just getting that whole situation resolved.

"In fact, to this very moment, [Abel] hasn't left us emotionally."
Abel's name and address are still listed among the others on MAYA's scholarship list. Beside his name, the word "deceased" is typed in parentheses. Rudy Valenzuela says that Abel's name will always be on that list.

"It has given us the motivation to really focus on the kids a little more and become a little more personally involved," says Rudy.

Juanita Solis says her son was loving and good-natured. When he was smaller, he did yard work for his grandmother and aunts.

"They would give him $10 to buy clothes," remembers Solis. "Then he'd say, 'Here, Mom, five dollars for you and five for me.'"

"I couldn't ask for a better son," says Solis, whose husband died in 1995 after four years in a coma induced by a bad reaction to heart medication.

Johnny Valenzuela last saw Abel in late August when he visited Abel at his home. He already had met with the other 15 MAYA scholarship recipients. Abel was set to start his sophomore year at North High.

"He was one of those kids who looked you in the eye when he answered you. He wanted to work, go to school and become an artist," Johnny recalls.

Last Labor Day, Abel went to a party thrown by his brother's girlfriend. This was the first time his mother allowed him to go to such a party. Afterward, police say, Abel was walking with a female companion along the 700 block of North Ninth Street, less than a block from his house. They came upon another male and female on the same side of the street, but going in the opposite direction.

Phoenix police then say that Abel either touched or fell into the female, and a verbal confrontation ensued between him and the male. The male pulled out a pistol and shot Abel once in the chest, according to police.

Abel's murder is unsolved. The suspect is believed to be a Mexican citizen who might have fled to his homeland.

Abel's pencil drawings of Christ, award certificates he'd received for his art and his basketball-card collection were moved into a room at his aunt's house. Juanita Solis doesn't know if she'll ever have the strength to enter that room. She's undergoing counseling to cope with the losses of her husband and son--both died within the space of a year.

With MAYA's help, Juanita Solis was able to bury Abel in a plot directly above her husband's coffin, a place that was supposed to be reserved for her.

"I guess it wasn't meant for me," Juanita Solis says.

MAYA takes its name from Johnny and Rudy Valenzuela's old grade school, Monroe Elementary, a stately building at the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Van Buren. Their mother still lives a couple blocks away.

They founded MAYA four years ago, and Rudy runs the organization from a tiny office in the garage of his Glendale home.

MAYA asks teachers to recommend students who show a desire to finish school and have a real need for financial assistance.

MAYA gives youths $200 scholarships each year they're in high school--$100 goes to the high school bookstore for gym shorts or art supplies, and $100 is in the form of a K mart gift certificate for clothing. If a student needs anything else related to education, the Valenzuelas see to it that he gets it.

The Valenzuelas say they gave $4,700 to students in the past year.
MAYA asks businesses and organizations to donate to the cause. Some give money, some make other contributions--Southwest Supermarkets donated hot dogs and sodas to MAYA's February three-on-three basketball tournament, held at Phoenix Preparatory Academy. The hoops tourney and a golf tournament are MAYA's two major fund raisers.

Twelve of the 15 students in MAYA's program are graduates of Phoenix Preparatory; the other three come from Isaac Junior High School.

Although the scholarships might seem small, they make a big difference to the students who get them.

"I think the Monroe Association is one more example of local people trying to do good for kids in the local community," says Lori Walk, principal at Phoenix Prep. "I think that's the most powerful way to make a difference."

If MAYA has a poster girl, it would be Joanna Garcia. The 16-year-old carries a 4.1 grade-point average at South Mountain High School, where she'll be a junior. The Valenzuelas half-jokingly regard Joanna as MAYA's future president.

She says she's not that popular at school and admits that in middle school she was considered a nerd. But her dedication to her schoolwork has helped keep her out of trouble.

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