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Teresa Alonso Leon: Oregon’s first immigrant Latina lawmaker

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WOODBURN, Ore. — Teresa Alonso Leon envisioned a better life in a promised land when she was brought from Mexico to America as a young girl. Instead, her family wound up in an unheated house in Oregon with no indoor plumbing, eking out a living by picking strawberries.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that Alonso is now one of the first people brought to the U.S. illegally to become a lawmaker in America.

“I think it shows that human potential does not know immigration status, and that among America’s immigrants, especially those who have come here as children and benefited from the right to education, their potential offers leadership for the country,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The irony that Alonso was elected on the same day Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race is not lost on her.

“We didn’t get our woman president that we were hoping for, but they got me as a legislator,” Alonso said with a laugh in her small office in the Oregon Capitol.

Alonso, a Democrat, became a U.S. citizen in 2012. Now, with Trump stepping up immigration enforcement, she sees herself as a defender of her constituents. Her district is centered around the predominantly Latino town of Woodburn, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Portland.

Teresa Alonso Leon one of the first people brought to the U.S. illegally to become a lawmaker in America, has been making an impact as the first Latina immigrant member of the Oregon Legislature. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, known by its acronym as ICE, already has focused on the town, stopping two vans loaded with workers in February and taking several people away. Alonso is a former Woodburn City Council member.

“When I think about the folks in my community who wake up so early to go to work, and now they wake up in the morning to go to work and hope and pray that they don’t get pulled over by ICE, to me that’s just unacceptable,” Alonso said in an interview. Some kids are even afraid to attend school, she said, worried they’ll return to empty homes, their parents gone.

On a recent afternoon, students streamed out of Woodburn High School, many chatting in Spanish as they headed for their yellow buses. Four out of five students at the school, which Alonso once attended, are Latino.

“Our Latino students see her as inspirational,” said Victor Vergara, principal of the high school’s Academy of International Studies. “They see her and think ‘We can do that. She looks just like us.'”

Since becoming the first immigrant Latina lawmaker in Oregon’s Legislature, Alonso has joined three other lawmakers in filing a public records request with ICE to obtain details of enforcement actions, to determine how they have changed.

Teresa Alonso Leon is revered at Woodburn High School in Woodburn, Ore. “Our Latino students see her as inspirational,” said Victor Vergara, principal of the high school’s Academy of International Studies. (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky)

Among her bills is one that would require Oregon’s public universities and community colleges to promote inclusiveness and diversity. Another would prohibit state agencies from contracting with companies that don’t prevent sexual harassment and discrimination. The Oregon Trial Lawyers Association said in support of the measure that many workers face on-the-job discrimination, and that the state shouldn’t spend taxpayer money with companies that refuse to have policies barring harassment.

Some of Alonso’s fellow lawmakers, however, are unhappy about illegal immigration. Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel introduced a bill that sought to repeal a 1987 law that made Oregon America’s first sanctuary state. The bill died in committee.

“States need to comply with federal immigration laws,” Esquivel said in an email.

On the streets of downtown Woodburn — which resembles a Mexican town in many ways, with numerous taquerias, signs written in Spanish and wall murals — people are excited about Alonso’s election.

“We’re proud,” said Manuel Villanueva, owner of El Forastero, which sells cowboy boots and hats. “She is Latino, and can lower the racism we see.”

The possibility of more ICE raids has hurt Woodburn’s small businesses because people are reluctant to shop. Alonso and others brainstormed a solution.

“We started ‘small business Saturdays’ to encourage folks to eat something new, buy something new that they’ve never tried before,” Alonso said. Other politicians have come out in support.

Alonso comes from the Purepecha indigenous people. Hoping for a better life, her family left San Jeronimo, a village in Michoacan state on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro, famous for its fishermen who use butterfly nets from canoes.

In their rented Oregon house, they used an outhouse and got water from an outdoor hose, Alonso recalled. During the winters, they’d fill buckets and bring them inside so the water wouldn’t freeze.

“I remember this one winter, it didn’t matter if we had saved water because the water we had saved froze anyway inside the house,” she said. “Many winters, we kind of huddled up in my parents’ bedroom.”

Alonso’s family gained permanent residence status under a Reagan-era amnesty.

When Alonso campaigned for the state House, her materials were in English, Spanish and Russian, with Woodburn also home to Russian Old Believers.

“I feel so much pride,” Alonso said, choking up with emotion. “It’s such an honor to represent one of the most diverse communities in the entire state.”

Her ascendancy comes at a key moment, House Speaker Tina Kotek said.

“Having Teresa in the caucus and in this chamber allows her to give voice to those Oregonians who have been particularly impacted by the immigration rhetoric coming down from the federal administration,” Kotek said. “She’s doing a great job.”

Nationally, at least one situation mirrors Alonso’s. Blanca Rubio, who was brought illegally to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, was elected in November to the California State Assembly.

Two other immigrants overstayed visas and became lawmakers after obtaining U.S. citizenship: Isela Blanc, who was also elected in November to Arizona’s Legislature, and Adriano Espaillat, who won a seat in New York’s Legislature in 1996 and was elected to Congress last year.

“They’re as American as everyone else,” Vargas said. “And they love the country to the point that they make a sacrifice to serve the public.”

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A crash course in stopping the opioid epidemic

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As the opioid epidemic has swept across the nation, proving it doesn’t discriminate against race, income or age, there has been a conversation visibly absent from schools and among young people about the dangers and addictive qualities painkillers, often prescribed by a doctor, can have.

But that is changing.

Rise Above Colorado, a drug prevention program that emerged from the Colorado Meth Project, now incorporates opioid abuse into its drug prevention campaigns, which have mostly focused on underage marijuana and alcohol consumption. And other organizations, such as Speak Now Colorado, are advising parents on how to talk to their kids about prescription drugs.

“In Colorado, (data shows) the larger rate of misuse in opioids is among 18-25 year olds, so if you want to prevent those outcomes you really need to start early,” said Kavitha Kailasam, the director of community partnership for Rise Above.

She said the move to incorporate education on the dangers of opioids in particular has been data-driven. Surveys conducted by Rise Above found that perceived risk of prescription pain relievers has decreased. In 2013, 66 to 80 percent of teenagers surveyed in southern Colorado said they perceived the risk of prescription opioids as “high.” In 2016 that perception of significant risk dropped to between 51 and 65 percent.

In Schools

Maelah Robinson-Castillo, a Centennial High School student in Pueblo who works with Rise Above, said she doesn’t think a lot of the students she goes to school with are aware of how dangerous opioids can be.

“In a way, it’s kind of accepted,” she said, explaining that those drugs seem safer than others because they come with a doctor’s discretion.

Rise Above has mostly taken this approach to drug prevention: highlighting that a lot of a student’s peers don’t use drugs or consume alcohol. Kailasam said there is a misconception among young adults that use is more common than it is. According to a Healthy Kids Colorado survey from 2015, only 14 percent of those surveyed said they have taken prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, 59 percent said they’ve consumed alcohol and 38 percent say they’ve consumed marijuana.

But even with that data, there isn’t much more on the opioid epidemic as it relates to teenagers.

Alexis Ellis, a regional health connector for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said she thinks that’s going to be changing in the future, but where the data gap has presented the biggest problem is in schools where drug prevention programs are largely based on data.

Robinson-Castillo has taken on her own prevention program, called “Centennial on the Rise.” It’s an event where students highlight what they are passionate about. At its core, the high school junior said it’s a way for students to prove that they’re more than the negative stereotypes adults sometimes assign to high school students in relation to drugs and alcohol.

But she’d like to see schools do more.

“Prevention can be looked at in different ways, by just having a youth-adult connection can help. For me, (it’s helpful) going to an adult and them having the resources so I can talk about prescription drugs,” Robinson-Castillo said. “In Pueblo we really don’t have that engagement piece. That’s a place where it’s lacking. We don’t have those mentors in our schools that have the resources if we do come across wanting to get help or wanting to seek guidance. I don’t think our teachers are trained in that.”

With Parents

It’s not just the classroom. Some argue parents should do more to education their children on the dangers of prescription drugs. That can start with educating themselves.

When DeEtte Kozlow took her 17-year-old daughter in to have her wisdom teeth removed last year, the Douglas County mom was sure of one thing: her daughter would not take any kind of opioid for the pain following the procedure.

Kozlow said the nurse insisted on the prescription. She was told her daughter would absolutely need it for the pain and that it is normal to take a painkiller after a molar extraction. That was the problem for Kozlow, who said she eventually took the prescription she felt was being forced on her daughter and then ripped it up.

Her daughter was able to treat the pain just fine the following days with Tylenol and smoothies, Kozlow said. She was confident her daughter wouldn’t need the drugs — and she was right — but she doesn’t think other parents are as educated about the dangers painkillers pose for young people, or that a simple prescription for a normal procedure could be so addictive.

In 2016, Kozlow lost her best friend, Bobby Hawley, to a heroin overdose. He was 39, finishing a master’s degree at Regis University and, as Kozlow put it, a beacon of hope for other addicts he knew. Since his death, Kozlow helped start a non-profit organization in her best friend’s name, appropriately called “Bobby’s House” for his work in the addiction community. Kozlow said Bobby would often let people crash on a mattress at his house when they were going through withdrawal.  

Bobby’s addiction started with painkillers, just like the ones Kozlow’s daughter would have taken after the wisdom teeth surgery.

For the previous decade he struggled with addiction, spending time in and out of rehab. His addiction was something Kozlow said she and the people close to him didn’t talk about a lot. But now she wishes that more people would talk about opioid addiction. It’s why she was so adamant about her daughter not taking any painkillers.

Kozlow said if other parents knew what a simple prescription could lead to, maybe they’d rip them up too.

“Parents can help stop this epidemic,” Kozlow said plainly. She describes the epidemic as an oil spill, and that to keep it from spreading it has to start with kids.

Kozlow said she doesn’t think parents are aware of the problem or that taking a prescription could eventually lead to addiction down the road, as it did for Bobby. Most parents probably have some type of opioid in their medicine cabinet, and then when it comes to their kids being prescribed some type of painkiller, parents don’t know what they’re taking.

Speak Now’s guide for parents — which Kozlow said is easy to follow and reference — is a start. It breaks down what opioids are, what their medical names are, what forms they take and why they’re addictive. The organization’s information paired with Rise Above’s alternative highlight has become a sort of two-pronged approach.

“We need to start paying attention,” she said. “We have to quit taking a pill for everything and cope.”

Kozlow can rattle off statistics about the opioid epidemic — that it’s surpassing the AIDS epidemic, that more than 100 people in the U.S. die from overdose each day — and has stories, too. Friends of Bobby’s who have relapsed have been admitted to the hospital only to be released with little help with recovery.

And there’s a lot to be done to address the epidemic, she said. But it could get a lot better with parents asking questions and educating kids even younger. The majority of addicts say they started using as teenagers.

That’s a statistic that has Kozlow convinced the epidemic can be stopped “from the bottom up.”

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Lost Youth: A rise in teenage suicides highlights a looming crisis for Pueblo County’s youth.

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A spike in teen suicides and attempted teen suicides in Pueblo last year is a matter of concern that is being met with a sense of urgency by local police and behavioral health professionals.

“We at the Pueblo Police Department are affected and concerned about these tragedies,” says Officer Brandon Beauvais with the department’s Community Services Division. “Our officers who respond to these calls along with the families and friends of the victims are all impacted. This certainly is a community-wide issue, and we must all work together on the preventative side of things to get these individuals the help they need before loss of life occurs.”

Preventative measures are being taken by police in tandem with others. “We work closely with our CIT [crisis intervention team] clinicians from Health Solutions [in Pueblo] who are out with us on patrol to provide initial resource information and follow-up with these type of incidents or parties involved,” Beauvais says.

Health Solutions is a non-profit behavioral health care organization and has been providing behavioral health services since 1962. The organization provides behavioral health services to Pueblo, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

Kristie Dorwart, Youth and Family supervisor at Health Solutions, has been working in suicide prevention since 2007.  She became interested in the field because of the widely perceived disgrace associated with suicide and mental health.

“I have had family members die by suicide and had a growing interest in the reason for so much stigma,” she says.

Dorwart is unaware of a career path or any way by which someone can be trained to work in suicide prevention. “It is more of a lot of immersing oneself in suicide prevention: reading on suicide prevention and attending training in the field.”

All of that reading and training is being put into practice in Pueblo.

Pueblo PD’s Beauvais says, “Generally speaking, on suicide attempts, they will be taken for medical treatment immediately and once that is taken care of they are put in contact with a hospital psych liaison who decides from there what the best option is moving forward as far as a hold or further help, treatment, additional resources, etc., while working with parents or guardians.”

Jeff Tucker, a public relations specialist with Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, says the hospital does not treat teen attempted suicides any differently than adult suicide attempts. “Attempted suicides are one of the highest priorities in our Emergency Department and a behavioral health assessment is usually given following life-saving treatment,” he says.

And last year more attempted teen suicides occurred in Pueblo County than in the past five years.

Nine too many

In 2017, nine young people in Pueblo County between the ages 10 and 20 killed themselves, according to Coroner Brian Cotter. That compares with only three teens committing suicide in 2016, another three in 2015, two in 2014, one in 2013, and six teens in 2012. Cotter also reports that suicides among all age groups also spiked in 2017 compared with the previous five years — 28 in 2012, 34 in 2013, 47 in 2014, 46 in 2015, 34 in 2016, and 49 last year.

In the city, Pueblo Police Department incident reports show that over the past three-plus years, it responded to six teen suicides last year, one incident in 2016, and one in 2015. Mercifully, there have been no teen suicides in Pueblo from January to March in 2018 as of deadline.

The police also report there were 12 incidents of attempted teen suicide last year, another 12 attempts in 2016, and seven incidents of teens attempting suicide in 2015. And as of March of this year, two incidents of attempted teen suicide have been reported.

Why?

Health Solutions Dorwart explains that suicide is the result of a string of complex emotions. “There is not one single reason that someone dies by suicide,” she says. “There are many things that happen to a person that leads them to contemplate suicide.”

Shelby Miller, Parkview’s adolescent charge nurse on the hospital’s behavioral health floor, says poverty is a major factor behind teen suicides in Pueblo. “The majority of our patients are Medicaid clients and only have one resource — Health Solutions.”

Miller adds that other reasons for teens attempting to kill themselves include “a lack of effective coping skills, stress within the family or school, inability to effectively communicate with parents or caregivers, or they don’t feel parents are listening or want to hear about their issues.”

Teens contemplating suicide should seek help, Miller says. “Ask for help. Tell someone, anyone,” she says. “You’re not alone. There are lots of teens and young adults feeling the same way.”

And Miller emphasizes that comforting teens who are considering killing themselves brings its own reward. “Try and help someone and you will in turn help yourself,” she says.

Health Solution’s Dorwart imparts that hope and help is available for teens contemplating suicide. “I encourage anyone thinking about suicide to please reach out to a caring adult and let them know that you are hurting,” she says. “There are several places to go for help.”

Dorwart adds that in addition to calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (844-273-8255), the Colorado Crisis Line (844-493-8255), or Health Solutions locally (719-545-2746), “Health Solutions has Crisis Living Rooms [at 400 W. 17th St. in Parkview Medical Center’s North Annex, and 1310 Chinook Lane] that are available 24/7 that anyone can walk into for help.”

More information, including a list of suicide prevention do’s and don’ts, can be found at www.suicidology.org.

Just girls and boys

Pueblo PD reports that the average age for teens committing suicide is about 15 and about 14 for those attempting to kill themselves.

Pueblo PD also separates suicide and attempted suicide incidents by gender. Those statistics show that in Pueblo, although boys younger than 17 commit more suicides than girls (six boys from January 2015 to March of this year as opposed to two for girls over the same time period), attempted-teen-suicide incidents over the same time period reveal that girls younger than 17 attempt to kill themselves more often than teenage boys (24 girls attempted to take their own lives and only nine boys).

When it comes to the gender split for attempted teen suicides, Pueblo is not unique.

“Historically across the nation, females have always attempted [suicide] more than males, but what is important to remember is help is available, and it is OK to reach out and ask for help,” says Health Solution’s Dorwart.

“Some factors [for girls attempting suicide more than boys] include suicide pacts, sexual, physical, or emotional abuse or neglect,” Parkview’s Miller says. “Others can be child-parent relationships, and a lack of supervision or too much freedom.”

There is hope

“Across the nation suicide has been on the rise, however, there are great strides being made in the prevention side of suicide prevention,” Health Solution’s Dorwart says. “The approach in suicide prevention is moving upstream — helping people before suicide becomes an option.  Getting people into treatment early.”

And the community does seem to be getting involved as well.

Suicide was a popular topic of concern in Pueblo judging by the sizable crowd that attended a presentation about suicide at the city’s South High School auditorium on April 5. The presentation was given by Kevin Hines, the man who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000. He says he landed feet first on granite rocks when he plunged into San Francisco Bay and was later rescued by the Coast Guard. Innovative spine surgery, he says, helped him to recover from his suicide attempt and he demonstrates the procedure’s success by kicking up his heels during his presentation. He emphasized the importance of self-affirmation and greeting others with a smile to prevent people from taking their own lives.

If you are someone you know is contemplating suicide call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for resources or to speak to a trained counselor.

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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Colorado, Arizona teachers pressure lawmakers for 2nd day

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Colorado and Arizona teachers plan to don red shirts and descend upon their respective Capitols for a second day in a growing educator uprising.

Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough. The walkouts are the latest in demonstrations that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

On the first day of the historic statewide walkout, around 50,000 educators and their supporters marched Thursday through downtown Phoenix in nearly 100-degree (38-Celsius) heat and swarmed the Capitol grounds.

In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators.

Lawmakers in Colorado have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits.

Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address other demands.

Teachers voted to walkout after Ducey unveiled his plan, saying that it failed to meet their other demands including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff.

“We’re going to get this 20 percent pay increase, we’re going to get $100 million for support staff and other needs,” he said on KTAR radio. “And then if there’s still a teacher strike I don’t think that will make sense to parents, I don’t think that will make sense to kids.”

More than 840,000 students were out of school as a result of Thursday’s walkouts, according to figures from The Arizona Republic.

Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle. In Oklahoma and West Virginia, teacher strikes stretched beyond the one-week mark.

Organizers say they haven’t decided how long their walkout will last.

“We want to make sure we can gauge the membership about what they want to do,” said Derek Harris, one of the organizers of grass-roots group Arizona Educators United.

At least one Arizona school district, the Chandler Unified School District, has said school will be held on Monday. The district said it polled staff and determined there are enough teachers to re-open.

___

Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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