Teen fights way out of adversity, with help from her friends

September 04, 2001|By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, Staff Writer

Restless and rebellious, Jennifer Lee of El Centro was tumbling toward a life of delinquency.

While she created disorder in her Martin Luther King Elementary School classroom, she mixed with the wrong people on the streets.

Many reserved little optimism for the girl, and one fourth-grade teacher even went so far as telling Jennifer she'd be surprised if she "made it past the sixth grade."

Luckily, change was forthcoming.

Now 16 and focused, poised and brimming with ambition, Jennifer is founder and president of the Imperial County Teens Against Tobacco Coalition and recently was among 22 students participating in the California Chicano News Media Association's Multi-Cultural High School Journalism Workshop in San Diego. The CCNMA receives almost 70 applications annually from top-notch scholars.


For a girl who used to care little for school or her future, her accomplishments are all the more remarkable.

Since age 2, Jennifer's grandmother Trinidad had been raising her and her brother Kico, now 27, in a down-and-out El Centro neighborhood.

Jennifer's parents, Joseph and Rosario, died in a murder-suicide in October 1986, leaving behind the two kids as well as Eric, now 20, and Sonia, now 21.

"We didn't have the best of everything," remembered Jennifer. "She raised us the best she could but I'd still hang around with the wrong crowd."

In 1995, after months of seeing Jennifer become further enmeshed into gang life, family friends Tim and Gloria Blankenship intervened and offered to bring her into their home.

Hoping a change in setting would spark change in the sixth-grader, they enrolled Jennifer in Faith Academy, a private Christian school in Imperial.

She attended St. Mary's Catholic School in El Centro for grades seven and eight before moving on to high school at Valley Christian Heritage in Imperial.

Despite the new stability in her life, Jennifer's problems — both academic and behavior-wise — persisted.

"Jennifer was very bright but somewhat hyper," said Gloria. "She couldn't keep still and had problems staying focused on her schoolwork."

While Jennifer was at Faith Academy, the Blankenships took her to a psychiatrist after she began to fall seriously behind in class. Although all agreed Jennifer was a sharp girl with, interestingly, a certain flair for writing, testing revealed she had the math skills of a third-grader and difficulty spelling.

After several more visits, the psychiatrist concluded Jennifer had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a complex neurobehavioral syndrome that mostly afflicts children.

In general, those with ADHD have difficulty concentrating, sitting still and controlling impulsive behavior.

Accordingly, it most often leads to poor performance in school.

As a way of helping Jennifer pass the time in her bedroom — often there for disciplinary reasons — while encouraging her talent for writing, the Blankenships gave her a word processor for her 11th birthday.

Amid the chaos of ADHD, Jennifer found calm through creative expression. The present became an emotional outlet, enabling her to convey unspoken feelings through poetry and original stories.

Nonetheless, the days were still rough.

"We went through some bad times with her," Gloria admitted. "There were times, believe me, when I wanted to give up on her. But I saw she had a lot of potential."


Gloria didn't want to hire a baby-sitter, but at the same time, leaving Jennifer home alone to "bounce off the walls" was clearly not an option. She asked her friend Rosie Nava, then director of the county's Tobacco Education Project, if she needed any volunteers.

For everyone involved, the timing could not have been less perfect.

Nava was looking for support staff and a high school student she could mentor for a county Office of Education program in which she participated.

So for two hours a day after school, Jennifer would Xerox copies and run errands.

She also began to volunteer at Campesinos Unidos and El Centro's community and youth centers to keep her busy and out of hot water.

Still, there seemed to be more Jennifer could do, and within a matter of a few week, Jennifer launched the Teens Against Tobacco Coalition.

As president of the coalition, Jennifer's responsibilities include providing her staff with proper training, organizing meetings and tobacco-awareness events and speaking at schools.

Jennifer is also producer of "Stuck in Radioland", an alternative and punk rock show on KUBO 88.7 FM that promotes a healthy lifestyle among teens by relaying information on tobacco's ill effects.

Devoting much of her energy to the county's anti-tobacco project, eventually as a full-time employee, allowed Jennifer to steer clear of trouble.

What made her start focusing on academics was the dream of becoming a broadcast journalist.

Said Gloria, "We were watching the news one day, and I told her, ‘You write very well and you want to be on TV… why don't you consider journalism?' "

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