History — Higher Ground (2024)

Higher Ground started because Jansen and Barbie witnessed various patterns and struggles among their son and his friends: falling grades, overall hopelessness, and difficult life circ*mstances. This is the story of why we empower one life at a time to reach, transform, and elevate their community.

From one family to communities across Southern Arizona

History — Higher Ground (1)

The concept of Higher Ground started in Jansen's living room, shortly after he met his wife, Barbie, and her 10-year-old son, Timmy.

At the time, Timmy was struggling in school, so Jansen started tutoring him in his most challenging subjects. Not long after, Timmy’s friends started joining because almost all of them were failing or behind in school, particularly in reading and math.

Aside from struggling in school, they all had one other thing in common.

They all had stories of trauma: divorced parents, single moms, incarcerated family members, family members involved in gangs, drug or alcohol abuse in their household, daily struggles associated with poverty, and abusive home lives, to name only a few. This was something Jansen was familiar with growing up in an abusive home around poverty himself.

At only 10 years old, they all found themselves feeling defeated in life. They saw no potential in themselves, no worthwhile future, nothing for them to fight for. Because of this mindset and their traumatic life experiences, academic success was even more challenging for them.

Eventually, Jansen and Barbie married, and Timothy became his son. The pair welcomed another son, Kenji. Around that time, they decided to take action toward empowering youth.

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Our Story

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In 2007, Higher Ground began, housed at the Mission View Assembly, where the Azarias family offered their services, free of charge because the community was unable to afford even a small service fee. The results were overwhelming.

Within two years, Higher Ground quickly outgrew the church facility, with an average of 60 students attending their after-school program every day. In addition, there were between 30 and 50 students on the waiting list, even without advertising any services.

Due to the increasing demand and need, Higher Ground reached out to Pima County Parks and Recreation in late 2010 to propose building a youth center at one of the local parks. This prompted their incorporation as a 501(c)3 organization and initiated their efforts to meet with various community leaders.

Ultimately, Jansen and Barbie quit their full-time jobs, devoting themselves to Higher Ground. For the next 3 years, they were the volunteer directors for the non-profit.

After meeting James Fish and some of the leaders of Tucson Unified School District, the district offered to partner with Higher Ground, providing six entire classrooms at Valencia Middle School for use during the 2011-2012 school year.

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Immediately the after-school program grew from 60 students to 130, with more than 40 on the waiting list. Even then, Higher Ground remained free of charge to the community. At that time, Higher Ground also expanded its service offerings, with homework tutoring, math and reading programs, tackle football for our middle school students, a dedicated boxing team, dance, art, choir, high-school career internships, character development, jujutsu, and financial literacy.

Through a partnership with TUSD, Higher Ground is housed in a 70-year-old historic landmark: the Wakefield Middle School. Unfortunately, Wakefield Middle School was momentarily closed as a public school. Due to several school closures, Valencia Middle School needed all of its classrooms, which prompted the move into Wakefield Middle School, giving us more space and community outreach.

Now, Higher Ground champions the community school model in Arizona through the Restart SMART strategy. With teams deployed in 8 schools in two counties, Higher Ground serves over 2,000 youth, thousands of families, and hundreds of educators. With over a hundred partners, what started in their living room has expanded to impact systems and cultures.

According to research, a youth with Timothy's risk factors – divorced family, low-income neighborhood, high-crime neighborhood, and low-performing schools – is eight times or more likely to drop out of school than a youth without those risk factors.

Timothy spent five years at Higher Ground. He not only graduated from Cholla High School, but he also graduated from college at the Christ For the Nations Institute. He returned to Higher Ground to work as a Child and Family advocate, building relationships that help to reach, transform, and elevate lives. He now serves our country in the United States Marine Corps. Timothy’s story of success and community contribution is not unique among our youth alumni.

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“Jansen Azarias is a paragon of grit. He is everything I study — laser-focused on his goal of making kids’ lives better and, at the same time, incredibly hard-working and resilient in making that goal a reality. I’m honored to know him.”

— Dr. Angela Duckworth, Character Lab

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Your Donation Helps Us Empower Arizona.

Every contribution, no matter the size, plays a vital role in advancing our mission. Donations made to Higher Ground are used where the need is greatest. Your support allows us to further our mission of empowering one life at a time to reach, transform, and elevate the community through love and character-building.

History — Higher Ground (2024)
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