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.”