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“Spotlights” are a feature of the YouthLaunch blog where our people share their stories. From Plan II/KIPP Partnership leaders, to PALS Alumni Corps members, to current and retired PALS teachers and advocates in AISD, these are our friends and collaborators who share our goal of empowering youth to incite positive change."

Pete Salazar was a Johnston/Eastside PAL*, Class of 1998. He remembers the eastside where he grew up as a community where many kids experienced severe life stressors. “The dropout rate after middle school was high,” he says, which wasn’t helped by the reputation of Johnston High School (now Eastside Memorial) as “a tough campus.” Johnston/Eastside PALS understood the challenges their younger peers were facing and helped ease their transition to high school. Pete knew he was making a real impact on his PALees’ lives. He and his fellow PALS also volunteered on their own campus, gardening and assisting in special education and ESL classes. Warm and outgoing, Pete volunteered as a PAL at Dobie Middle School in 7th and 8th grades, and at Johnston/Eastside as a junior and senior.

*Peer Assistance Leadership and Service (PALS) is a youth empowerment program, founded in Austin in 1980, which provides trained peer helpers who promote a positive, supportive and productive school experience for students throughout the district. The program has spread across Texas and beyond.

As a PAL he observed how the program creates balance in the school environment and in students’ lives. It facilitates a positive, supportive atmosphere and provides kids with much needed social and emotional support. “PALS matters,” he says, because “PALS links what’s happening in life to education. A school’s job is to nourish a student’s mind. A PAL’s job is to nourish a student’s spirit.”

“PALS matters because PALS links what’s happening in life to education. A school’s job is to nourish a student’s mind. A PAL’s job is to nourish a student’s spirit."

One way the PALS program nourished Pete’s spirit was by giving him the special responsibility of a role model. As PALS, he and his cohort were asked to set an example for their peers. Empowered by this sense of responsibility, they strove to do their best for their school and community. “We knew we were going to college,” he tells me, “and we encouraged and motivated each other.”

Pete attributes his positive outlook and dedication to service to his hard-working military family, deeply rooted in central Texas. His grandparents were the children of migrant farm workers. They attended a segregated school in Lockhart. His father was an Austin cab driver, and later drove a limousine for local celebrities and musicians. It was he who encouraged Pete to go to college and inspired him to read all the classics he’d never had the opportunity to study. Pete’s mother was the first female bag carrier at the H.E.B, and his grandma Stella has been a housekeeper since she was young.

Born with cerebral palsy, Pete carved his own path to serving his country by serving his community. As a child he would wake early to train with his grandfather, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. “Life’s going to be hard, but you’ve got to be harder,” he’d say.

Pete was a leader from an early age, participating in a college preparatory program from grades 5-12. As a freshman attending the Liberal Arts Academy (LAA), then housed at Johnston/Eastside, he was outspoken on what he saw as the “new form of segregation [practiced] by LAA [and its] generous budget.” As Pete recounts his story, he emphasizes the importance of remembering history and his pride in being Latino. He reminds me that it was not until 1975 that the anti-discriminatory Voting Rights Act was applied to everyone. Pete spoke out and left LAA, although he’d been warned that if he left he’d get a girl pregnant and drop out. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen.

Years later, after graduating from The Institute for Law and Public Affairs at UT with a degree in history, he chose community work over law school. He worked for grassroots campaigns in Texas and voter access in Miami, travelled to the Czech Republic, volunteered for the Red Cross after Katrina and served as an AmeriCorps member for the United States Veterans Initiative. As a clinical case manager in Las Vegas, he helped vets and refugees who were ill, homeless, unemployed or recently hired find stability. He raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Veterans Initiative by organizing an art show. (Pete always has ideas for community projects up his sleeve.) In 2006 he went to Washington to speak in advocacy of AmeriCorps and was honored as an exemplary AmeriCorps member. Among other speakers were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, then a second-year senator. Since his return to Austin, Pete has worked for Goodwill, Caritas and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. In 2014 he ran for Austin City Council. He is the only non-vet on the City of Austin Veterans Commission.

One day, while scanning the newspaper, grandma Stella’s employer asked her whom she was supporting in the race for City Council. She said she preferred to keep it to herself. Her employer then criticized “Mexican immigrants” for neglecting to participate in American politics, to which Stella replied, “My grandson is on page 8.”

A major focus of Pete’s life has been serving others, and we’re glad to have him on our team, advocating for PALS and PALees. He has been on both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship. Some of his mentors are still active in his life today, and he remains active in the lives of his mentees.

He and his former PALee, John Rivera, reconnected thanks to Facebook, and quickly became close again. John was also a PAL at Eastside/Johnston, and he had the same teacher as Pete, Diane Cooke. She said she had no idea that John had been a PALee, until she saw a picture of he and Pete together. He had never mentioned it. John has kids now, which is hard for Pete to believe. He laughs as he tells me, “I have no idea what to tell John anymore when he calls for advice.”

Pete says PALS are needed on the eastside today as much as ever. He argues that screen time and social media are removing kids from real social interactions. “Kids today are falsely connected,” he says, and he’s right. They have “friends” on social media, and they play video games. What about their real friends? Where’s the socialization that’s so important? He quotes Dennis Miller: “Never have lives less lived been more chronicled.” The noise of social media leaves no quiet space to develop one’s social and emotional capacities, observations and knowledge, he explains. There are fewer genuine connections. This means that kids are facing more social challenges than before, and the PALS program addresses these challenges, providing students with a supportive friend, who also happens to be a trained peer helper and their role model. PALees are more comfortable sharing their feelings with their PALS than they tend to be with adults, and their PALS can get through to them more effectively.

The goal of the Austin PALS Alumni Corps is to ensure that the Austin PALS program continues to evolve, thrive and promote positive school experiences and the acquisition of life skills for students throughout the district. Recommended by his PALS teacher, Pete has volunteered to lead our Eastside PALS Alumni Corps chapter. We are excited to work with him in the coming year to rally support for Eastside Memorial PALS and their mission.

Interview by Jasmine Castellanos, 12/17/2015

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