WESST Client Wins 2010 TeenNick Halo Award

Lauren Huichan began heading down a path of self destruction when she was removed from an abusive household at the age of 12 and put into foster care. Living mostly in group homes without any real support, she began rebelling and acting out. She was getting into fights, abusing drugs, overstayed her welcome at 22 housing placements in just two years, and got kicked out of high school at the age of 15. Life in the foster care system proved to be far more traumatizing for her than being removed from her abusive birth family. “The system was failing me. I felt that I was better off with my mom,” says Huichan. Eventually, she ended up in treatment foster care. That’s when things started to turn around for the Albuquerque teen.

“I got involved in an advocacy group for foster youth called Adelante Youth Advocates of New Mexico. It was inspiring to be in touch with kids with similar backgrounds who had overcome barriers and were building bridges to a more productive life,” says Huichan. Encouragement from her peers and an adult Youth Transition Worker, with whom she formed an immediate mother-daughter-type bond, helped Huichan realize that she could either continue living a life of drugs and despair or do something worthwhile with her life.

She re-enrolled in high school at Albuquerque’s Creative Education Preparatory Institute (CEPi), a charter school that gave her the flexibility of online learning so that she could work at her own pace. CEPi’s Service Learning Coordinator, Jessica Barreras, said that Huichan put in long hours in an effort to catch up on the academics disrupted by her tumultuous personal life. Statistics show that foster children often graduate from high school a year or two late. Huichan was determined not to become part of those statistics.

Huichan also began pouring her time and energy into various community service projects at school. She organized various civic activities for students including food drives to benefit Road Runner Food Bank and clothes drives for the homeless. She also logged more than 550 hours of community service work on her own time at the Taylor Ranch Community Center.

At CEPi, Hiuchan took advantage of a Youth Financial Literacy Program being offered by WESST, an Albuquerque-based small business development organization. She said the program provided her with a strong foundation for positive financial behavior. “I didn’t have parents who could teach me about money management – paying bills, paying taxes, controlling debt, saving money – so the classes were really helpful. Especially since they match what you save.” (The WESST program matches what class participants save to apply toward their education through an IDA , or Individual Development Account, that WESST helps them manage.) “Lauren’s very unique in the sense that she had a period where she made some bad turns that were taking her down the wrong path in life, but once she decided that she wanted to get her life back on track, she hasn’t looked back,” says Barbara Lopez, WESST’s IDA Program Coordinator who teaches the Youth Financial Literacy classes at CEPi.

Today, the 18-year-old Huichan is a freshman at the University of New Mexico where she plans to major in Psychology. She juggles her studies with continued involvement as a tireless advocate for New Mexico’s foster youth. She is now President of Adelante, the organization that first gave her hope that a better life was attainable; she serves on the board of Friends of Foster Children; she’s a co-facilitator for a grief and loss center for foster youth called Gerard’s House; she is a youth mentor; and she works with the Heart Gallery of New Mexico Foundation and CASA (Child Appointed Youth Advocates). She also lends her powerful voice to training workshops to help educate judges, social workers, foster parents and school administrators about the social, academic and emotional hardships foster children endure.

Her decision to change her life and make a difference in the lives of others helped her gain national recognition as one of four 2010 TeenNick Halo Award honorees, announced in November. The TeenNick HALO Awards partners with celebrities to recognize four deserving teens who are “Helping And Leading Others” (HALO), and Huichan was matched with Mariah Carey for sharing a passion of helping kids. The hour-long special will premiere Friday, December 10, at 6 p.m. MST on TeenNick, Nickelodeon’s 24-hour TV network exclusively for and about teens and tweens. In addition to receiving acknowledgment for her philanthropic leadership, Huichan will receive a $10,000 scholarship and $10,000 for the charity of her choice. She hopes her win will inspire other youth to become agents of change in their communities.

WESST, www.wesst.org, is a non-profit small business development organization with offices in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Gallup, Rio Rancho, Roswell and Las Cruces. The organization provides training, consulting and loans to entrepreneurs across New Mexico as well as business incubation services to members of the WESST Enterprise Center in Albuquerque.