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Santa Rosa Junior College honor student Liz Quiroz isn’t shy about sharing her background. There’s no shame in rising above substance abuse, no excuse about serving time in jail and prison.

As president of the college’s Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students, Quiroz, 32, welcomes a platform to tell her story. Burglary, possession, drug dealing, stolen vehicle, priors, enhancements — they’re all part of her past.

By reaching out to fellow students with rap sheets, she can provide compassion, understanding and proof there is success despite insurmountable odds.

If she can make it, she said, anyone can.

“We’re all equal. We’ve been through the same situations,” she said. “A lot of our time was behind prison bars. We need to learn to rehabilitate back into the community.”

Quiroz and Second Chance Club Vice President J. Loya, 37, recently welcomed 10 students to the club’s first weekly meeting of the school year. During brief introductions, students shared backgrounds of meth addiction, alcoholism, arrests and incarcerations. Some had lost children, spouses and homes because of their struggles.

Loya and Quiroz credit each student for stepping forward and reaching out for help.

“People like us, where we come from, I guess we don’t release our emotions,” Loya said. “It’s difficult to come here.”

Loya spent a combined 12 years incarcerated, from county jails to San Quentin State Prison. Ask what landed him behind bars, and Loya is succinct: “Drugs and gangs.”

Both he and Quiroz say they ultimately worked through their addictions and criminal backgrounds because of their love for their children; Loya has an 11-year-old son, Quiroz has a 6-year-old son and four stepchildren.

The challenges, setbacks and self-doubts to getting an education are enormous, the student leaders say, but SRJC has numerous resources available. The Second Chance Club has a support team of 20-plus individuals and programs, including teachers and advisers.

Retired probation officer Richard Ortiz volunteers with the club and helps guide eligible students through the expungement process that can clear criminal records. Cesar Basilio, a parent educator with the California Parenting Institute in Santa Rosa, provided outreach at the recent meeting.

Ortiz told students that by having a willingness to share their backgrounds and reach out to others, they have the capacity to help change lives.

“You can be that one person who inspires someone,” he said. “You are the person someone can look to for hope. You can be their inspiration.”

Club adviser Rhonda Findling said students benefit from the nonjudgmental community the club provides.

With resources in place, and the fellowship and empathy of others in similar circumstances, “a layer of support is there to help the person take a different path,” she said.

Findling, a counselor with SRJC’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, is among the EOPS staff members who founded the Second Chance Club in 2005.

Helping formerly incarcerated students succeed has an impact on the entire community, she said. It can help reduce crime and recidivism rates and direct students to become active, engaged and contributing members of society.

Many come from backgrounds of physical, emotional and substance abuse, and face housing and employment barriers. Enrolling in college and keeping up with classes is a huge step forward.

Many students with drug and alcohol histories “are severely damaged from childhoods they’ve had no control over,” Findling said. “None of it’s good, none of it’s conducive to childhood.”

The Second Chance Club provides the support and encouragement missing for many students from backgrounds of family dysfunction and neglect.

Findling invited Quiroz to serve as the club’s president three semesters ago. Outgoing, energetic and articulate, Quiroz is “the model of someone who has turned her life around.”

Quiroz is dedicated to promoting the club, hosting workshops and increasing outreach efforts.

With a grade-point average that’s fluctuated between 3.8 and 4.0 during her years at SRJC, Quiroz leads by example. With a background of abuse, she was a runaway and high school dropout at 15. She earned her GED while incarcerated.

Quiroz was pushed into human trafficking at 16 by an older and controlling boyfriend, spent 10 years addicted to drugs and was incarcerated seven times, with stays from six to 18 months. She did time at county jails and women’s prisons.

Quiroz owns up to her background, using it as a springboard to help others. She plans to graduate from SRJC in the spring of 2019 and then transfer to Sonoma State University. She hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology so she can use her background and education to help others.

She takes great pride in her blended family, the driver’s license she earned last year, her part-time job at Women’s Recovery Services and her advocacy work on behalf of the Second Chance Club.

Quiroz has spoken before faculty, inmate and social service groups — a big leap for someone once worried about opening up at the Second Chance Club.

She loves sharing the fact she’s been clean and sober nearly six years.

The first-generation college student was fearful her background might intimidate or offend others.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be ashamed to tell my story,” Quiroz said.

She recognizes why formerly incarcerated students are reluctant to come forward. Although the club’s email list includes more than 100 students — many in their 30s and 40s — just a handful show up for meetings. Jobs and other obligations prevent some from attending, but both Quiroz and Loya are concerned too many students are worried about sharing their backgrounds.

“They’re embarrassed to come and tell their story,” Quiroz said. “I think they’re afraid to come forward.”

Loya recognizes that hesitancy, but is grateful he joined the Second Chance Club during his first semester at SRJC. He never attended high school, and can’t recall if it was eight or 10 different elementary schools he attended as he was shuffled among family members.

“I kind of lived with a little bit of everybody in my family,” he said. “I got in trouble at a young age.”

He imagines his lack of an education contributed to his criminal activity.

Now starting his fourth semester, Loya says every day is “always a struggle, always a journey, I’m always defensive.” Yet he’s still in school, moving toward his goals to “give back to the community,” attend Sonoma State and work with at-risk youth.

The Second Chance Club “helps me get through school,” he said. “You can come here and feel like we have something that belongs to us. There are never awkward moments. You don’t have to feel ashamed of what you’ve been through.”

For more information, visit studentlife.santarosa.edu/club-list#Second Chance Club or email rfindling@santarosa.edu.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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