Bagdad, Ariz. — If someone had told 18-year-old Emarie this time last year that she would be where she is now, she would have highly doubted it.
Emarie will soon head from Bagdad, Arizona to Mesa, where armed with work experience and a great reference from her boss, she will be in a new job at the restaurant where her mother is a longtime employee. A few months back, Emarie was working to get off probation for an arrest that took place at home when an altercation with her father and stepmother turned physical.
“I feel like I’m a lot happier and confident in who I am,” she said.
Emarie points to Amber LaFon as a central character in her turnaround story. LaFon is program coordinator at Yavapai County Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. A national nonprofit in 31 states and the District of Columbia, YAP partners with youth justice, child welfare and other social services systems and municipalities to provide safe, effective, community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, out-of-home placements, and neighborhood violence.
Yavapai County Juvenile Probation Department is one of six youth justice agencies in the U.S. to receive Safely Home startup funding a couple of years ago to launch YAP programs. The grants came through a partnership with YAP and the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University aimed at improving outcomes and bringing more equity to youth justice systems.
As her Advocate, LaFon, who lives in Emarie’s community, received YAP training to help her see her strengths while connecting her with tools to help her turn her life around.
“I am honored to help kids like Emarie through YAP, and I think YAP is such an important, vital, service to kids who are often overlooked,” she said.
Most of her work as Emarie’s Advocate came during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when Bagdad, like most U.S. communities, had all but shut down.
“Quarantine was rough. That was the saddest I’ve ever been,” Emarie said.
In addition to coping with her loneliness, Emarie had to work through her parental relationship issues, which was particularly challenging with her living with her dad and stepmom in close pandemic quarters. But before they could even get started, Emarie had to move beyond her initial reservations about working with LaFon.
“I didn’t like her daughter,” Emarie said, acknowledging that while her own reputation was one of a tough girl, everyone knows LaFon’s daughter to be just the opposite.
Bagdad is a copper mining town with a population of 2500 people. There’s one high school, no stop lights, and for most people, few opportunities to reshape a reputation, let alone make new friends.
After spending a little time with LaFon, Emarie found herself becoming more independent in her thoughts and actions. She opened to getting to know LaFon’s daughter and couldn’t help seeing her as a reflection of her new Advocate, whose kindness was hard to reject.
When Emarie dropped out of high school, LaFon encouraged her to re-enroll online and has continued to support her plans to earn a GED. LaFon was always quick to respond when Emarie got into arguments at home and was 100 percent supportive of Emarie when she applied for a job at Bagdad’s steak house.
“She’s worked her way up from dishwasher all the way up to cook,” LaFon said. “I was talking to the owner of the steak house, and she was saying how now everyone there loves Emarie.”
While winning friends at work came quickly, making a whole new name for herself proved more difficult.
“Where we live, the culture is different from anywhere else,” LaFon said. Once you do something, the whole town labels you and judges you. Nothing will change their mind.”
When pandemic restrictions loosened, more people saw Emarie at the steakhouse and out and about with LaFon during her time off.
“We’d go shopping or to movies and my favorite place – Dutch Bros,” Emarie said. “I started doing things I like instead of what others say I should do,” she said.
Pleasantly surprised, LaFon said before she knew it, others in Bagdad were looking at Emarie differently.
“Most people in and around her life just wrote her off as a ‘bad kid,’ but now they see what I see. She’s a great person, hardworking, driven, hilarious and kind,” LaFon said. “People can see it now that Emarie has self-confidence and can see the self-worth that I see in her. I honestly believe YAP saved Emarie’s life by just showing up, building relationship, finding, and encouraging her strengths and showing her who she truly is and can be. “
LaFon said Emarie proved that even in Bagdad, where reputations die hard, changing people’s minds about you is possible.
“The opinion of the community has completely changed. She’s a good girl. They just needed a minute to see that. I don’t think that would have happened without YAP,” LaFon said. “I adore this girl. She’s pretty special and is going to do very well in life.”
LaFon said beyond those who are just now getting to know her, Emarie’s mother notices the change and that even her father can see the difference. But most important, Emarie does, too.
“I feel like I know myself so much more,” she said. “I really just found my soul.”
To learn more about YAP, please visit www.YAPInc.org. Follow the national nonprofit on Twitter @yapinc.