Gentlemen and Scholars

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.

"Out of everyone I knew in the sixth grade, I think I'm the only one that still goes to high school," Joanna says. "Most of them I know are on their third prison term or on their third kid."

Joanna says her family always has had a strong work ethic. She speaks of an uncle who worked two jobs for 50 years. His reward? A house in Glendale.

"It doesn't matter if you didn't graduate from high school or not," she says. "Even if it's just washing dishes, you worked at it and you worked hard."

She's taking two summer college courses at South Mountain Community College. She also holds two jobs.

She credits MAYA for giving her education a big boost. Like many of the youths in the program, Joanna is the product of a broken home; her father left the family when she was 10. Still, she never uses that as an excuse.

"Being a part of a bad family situation is not an excuse for failure," says Joanna. "If you really want to, you can grow up and do what you want."

Students like Abel Solis and Joanna Garcia motivate Rudy Valenzuela to work long hours each week as a civil-engineering project manager, and about 20 hours more for MAYA.

Rudy, 51, put his own college education on the back burner so he could raise his four kids. He obtained his engineer-in-training certificate six years ago. Now that his kids are grown, Valenzuela plans to finish his engineering degree at Arizona State University.

Johnny Valenzuela, 50, started working with kids when he was one himself--at age 15. The father of two is a former star prep baseball player who caught the eye of some pro scouts.

Abel Solis wasn't the first young friend Johnny has lost. Johnny once worked as a youth counselor at the Glendale Community Center, but left after watching four of his young clients die.

"It all came to a head, the work got too intense, then my arthritis flared up," says Johnny, who is disabled with rheumatoid arthritis.

It's been about 16 years since Valenzuela last worked. Despite his disability, he's always volunteering.

"That's why I went with my brother to work on MAYA. I figured I can do some more good for the kids in another capacity--fund raising and through scholarships," Johnny says.

One noted Monroe alum--NBA referee Tommy Nunez--sits on MAYA's board and helps screen scholarship recipients. Nunez established an officiating program, separate from MAYA, to teach middle-schoolers at Phoenix Preparatory to become basketball referees. MAYA donates to Nunez's program. And the kids in the program will referee MAYA's next basketball tournament.

The Valenzuelas are currently working with Phoenix Prep to establish an after-school golf program for kids ages 8 to 14. MAYA is seeking golf pros from around the Valley to donate an hour a week.

They're also looking for parents who might help them in the task of tracking and advising MAYA's scholarship recipients.

"It's going to be like a turn-key operation. We want it to go on forever," says Rudy Valenzuela.


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