Higher Ground receives $2.3 million grant

Students enrolled in Tucson’s Higher Ground Resource Center meet with volunteer adults in an after-school learning program. The nonprofit group has received $2.3 million from the Arizona Department of Education to expand its programs. (Courtesy photo)

A Tucson nonprofit that helps children and families in underserved neighborhoods will be expanding its efforts thanks to a $2.3 million grant from the Arizona Department of Education.

Higher Ground Resource Center, 101 W. 44th Street, received word of the grant in May, said CEO and cofounder Jansen Azarias-Suzumoto. The group will use the money (its largest grant to date) to expand its Restart SMART community schools program.

Higher Ground serves mainly low-income youth and families through in-school, summer and after-school programs that build life skills and provide multigenerational support.

The money comes from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and is part of Arizona’s ARP School and Community Grantees. The money granted to Higher Ground was one of three such grants totaling $15.3 million.

“This grant will allow for an effective and targeted approach to supporting youth through the current disparities that can make learning so hard,” Stephanie Anderson said, chief community officer for Higher Ground Resource Center, in a new release from the state.

“It will help us bring in more partners to fill the needs at the school sites where we work, and it will allow us to address learning loss and opportunity gaps at the individual level and the schools with Higher Ground,” Anderson said.

Restart SMART is a community school initiative of Tucson Unified School District. Restart SMART teams work at designated schools. They focus on family and community engagement, trauma-informed care, social and emotional skill development, workforce and career skills, positive behavior intervention support, enriched learning time opportunities and after-school and summer enrichment programs.

Higher Ground’s application was among 140 applicants and one of 40 that were funded. Azaria-Suzumoto said the grant will allow Higher Ground to expand its Restart SMART efforts from five to nine schools. These schools are in low-opportunity, high-proverty and high-trauma communities.

“We are part of the school and in the world,” Azaria-Suzumoto said. “Part of the school engagement.”

Higher Ground staff talks to students, families and teachers. They steer committees to meet with neighborhoods, Azaria-Suzumoto said. “Different schools have different needs.”

Higher ground serves some 2,500 children, 500 families and 300 educators annually. By July it will have a paid staff of about 40, and it works with 100 nonprofit partners.

“I have an amazing team of people,” Azaria-Suzumoto said. “I have been fortunate to have a great team of people, and we have an amazing team of partners. Tucson has really embraced our organization,” he said.

Born into poverty in the Philippines in 1987, Azaria-Suzumoto and his mother were economically rescued from their situation by his father. When Azaria-Suzumoto was 16, his father acknowledged him as his son and made him a U.S. citizen. He dropped out of a university computer science program and came to Tucson.

Eventually, he married, embraced religious faith and became the father of two sons. Higher Ground was started in his living room, helping his wife’s son Timothy (then 10) who was struggling in school. Soon Timothy began inviting friends to join him.

They were all struggling with school, but they also shared similar stories of trauma: divorced parents, single moms, incarcerated family members, family members involved with drugs, gangs and alcohol abuse. Underlying these stories were poverty and abuse.

Higher Ground began being housed at Mission View Assembly Church in 2007, when Azaria-Suzumoto and his wife Barbi began offering their services for free.

In two years, Higher Ground was serving 60 students in its daily after-school program, with more on the waiting list. The program reached out to Pima County Parks and Recreation to build a youth center. Higher Ground then became a 501(c)(3) organization.

Jansen and Barbi quit full-time jobs to work for Higher Ground as volunteer directors. Tucson Unified School District offered to partner with the group, providing six classrooms at Valencia Middle School during the 2011-2012 school year.

After-school attendance at the free program grew from 60 to 130 students and Higher Ground expanded. It started offering tutoring in math and reading, tackle football for middle schoolers, a boxing team, dance, art, choir and high school career internships, character development, martial arts and financial literacy.

When Wakefield Middle School closed, its students were moved to Valencia Middle School, leaving no extra room there for Higher Ground services. Luckily, Higher Ground was allowed to move into Wakefield.

“Our success is not about numbers,” Higher Ground’s website says. “It’s about creating momentum for lasting sustainable change; it’s about the individual transformation that leads to community contribution; it’s about building a stronger collective impact in our community.”

Timothy, Jansen and Barbi’s son, is now serving in the Marine Corps in California and he and his wife have a child. Jansen and Barbi’s other son Kenji is training to be an Olympian in judo.

“We have amazing people,” Azaria-Suzumoto said of Higher Ground. “That’s the secret. … We work alongside people in this journey to get to higher ground together, so it’s kind of a metaphor.”

Higher Ground

visit higherground.me