Former ELAC coach leverages dark past to help others

GIVING BACK—Jason Tena-Encarnación former track and field coach, sits at his office at home working to give back to the community, helping students to realize their potential. CN/Tadzio Garcia

By Tadzio Garcia

A popular horror movie prompted former East Los Angeles College student and track coach, Jason Tena-Encarnación, to take the first step towards helping underprivileged youth.

“The plot about A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, was about kids being killed off one by one for something their parents did. The kids didn’t create the circumstances of their death but the kids had to deal with the consequences,” Tena-Encarnación said.

Tena-Encarnación and five other friends, who attended the same junior high school, saw this movie after they each left their homes to live together on the streets. They had commonalities such as living surrounded by drugs within their families, being neglected, beaten or molested. At a time when most teenagers were talking about video games, these kids were mulling over strategies to help others rise out of situations as theirs.

This family of six found a similarity between the movie and their lives. “Our folks put us here, so the connection led us to naming ourselves the Dream Warriors,”  Tena-Encarnación said.  Too young to know about shelters, this group of 12-year olds would sneak into McDonald’s after hours to play in the playpens and then sleep overnight. They would jump a fence to a carpet factory to wrap themselves up with loose carpet to keep warm.  Without money for food, they would break into an occasional ice cream truck or they would carol for money during the holidays and ask for donations. The easiest place to get food was the Boys and Girls Club, which provided free lunches, or by visiting friends’ houses where they would sometimes raid their refrigerators.

“We were a unique case. We had a strong mindset. We were together on the streets and didn’t use the substances that basically put us in our situation. I never touched drugs in my life,” Tena-Encarnación said. And it was drugs that put Tena-Encarnación on the streets.

Tena-Encarnación’s first 11 years were spent living with a mother who put drugs before her children. He grew up with his mother and two younger step-sisters in troubled neighborhoods where cocaine-snorting and crack-smoking were business as usual. “My mom was a beautiful talented artist who was hooked on drugs since before I was born.  Drugs killed her inner being. We drifted a lot, living in cars, hotels and on properties of acquaintances,” Tena-Encarnación said.

Tena-Encarnación’s mother refused help from friends who would offer things such as a warm house for her young son to stay in. “My mom would have to first admit she was doing something wrong, which she never did,” Tena-Encarnación said. His imagination kept him going. “I was pretty raw deep-down inside, just doing what you do every day, living life. I was more sad than anything, like being hungry. Drugs made me feel uncomfortable, like the empty feeling you get in your stomach when you don’t want to be there,” he said.

A step father added more problems for Tena-Encarnación from age five until he left for the streets. During this period, Tena-Encarnación attended five elementary schools. Out of desperation, he sought out Social Services at times, but as long as the family’s living space was clean, Social Services did not dig deeper and gave them a pass. “I had anger toward my mother for allowing me to be beaten, molested and go hungry. I left at age 12 because she would just disappear for weeks, leaving me no resources. At the time, my sisters had their dad taking care of them,” he said.

The Dream Warriors were Tena-Encarnación’s first real taste of what a family experience could be. These six friends shared everything, their hearts, their minds and their wallets. The Dream Warriors gradually changed members, but the six were the core. Life for a young Tena-Encarnación at this point was “very comfortable, at peace and feeling protected – and we shared everything with each other,” Tena-Encarnación said.

Two years later, Tena-Encarnación left when his biological family reached out. “My aunt on mom’s side got me to live with my grandparents who only supplied me a room and something to eat. I felt numb to the situation and did what I had to do to survive. I was like a robot with my emotions shut off. I had to enroll myself in high school, get two jobs and buy my own clothes. I was, however, able to visit my sisters to take them food,” Tena-Encarnación said.

At this time, Tena-Encarnación did not think about a future or family life as he did when he lived with the Dream Warriors. “I didn’t expect love because I had witnessed how my grandparents were when I was younger, so I knew what I was getting into. My mom came from that situation. My grandma, a violent and controlling woman, would beat my mom down and would cut up her new clothes. My mom became her siblings’ caretaker,” Tena-Encarnación said. His real family, the Dream Warriors, eventually pulled away from each other after he left.

Within two years, most of the Dream Warriors children would be dead. Thomas, a Dream Warrior because of his living situation with his step-father, was the first to leave after Tena-Encarnación. Peanut’s family took him away to live in Riverside. Peanut’s mother abandoned him and he eventually died from a gunshot wound. Candi left the Dream Warriors when her father forcibly took her away. Her mom, too, was on drugs. Candi and her boyfriend died when they were hit by a drunk driver. Oscar left and eventually died of drugs. Jose left and also died. Only Thomas and Jason are still alive.

Dream Warrior Reina, though not one of the original six, had a daughter with Tena-Encarnación. “We were close friends who happened to have a daughter. When my daughter, Chyenne, was two months old, she and Reina were killed by a drunk driver,” Tena-Encarnación said.

Severe depression set in for Tena-Encarnación. By chance, he saw a commercial about the Job Corps while at a friend’s house. Job Corps is an education and technical training program for economically disadvantaged or at-risk 16-to-24-year olds, which sponsors housing and an education at no cost.

Tena-Encarnación reached out to Job Corps. Job Corps afforded him some stability by providing him with an education and a choice of entering the program in downtown Los Angeles or in Clearfield, Utah.  He chose the latter to get away from being around gangs and drugs.

A man named Mr. White at Job Corps changed Tena-Encarnación’s life. In orientation, White picked Tena-Encarnación and said he would help  deal with his demons and to become the person Tena-Encarnación  was inside. “Mr. White said I would have to become lonelier than I had ever been, something I understood before finishing the program,” Tena-Encarnación said.

White pushed his students to write short stories. This helped Tena-Encarnación win an essay contest, which, as a result, he read at the opening of a new Utah building. In attendance was Senator Orrin Hatch, who ironically is one of the co-writers of the Dream Act (AB 540), which Tena-Encarnación connected with later in life. Tena-Encarnación carried a 4.0 GPA in Utah, far from his grades at Venice High School, which were just good enough for him to play on sports teams. He earned a high school diploma at Job Corps as well as a certified nursing assistance license and returned to Los Angeles at the age of 21, energized and driven.

In Los Angeles, his mother’s life had not changed and he became emotionally lost. Tena-Encarnación worked as a nurse working in psychiatry with suicidal adolescents. He then worked in mental health with young victims of abuse or neglect. On the young adults’ faces, he saw the faces he grew up with such as Candi, Peanut, Thomas, Jose, Oscar and even his own.

Years passed by and “my desires and goals changed when I got involved with MEChA at ELAC. The healing of that period was due to my girlfriend Lorenza and our friendship and life together. For the first time in my life, I had someone who loved me unconditionally the way I loved them,” Tena-Encarnación said. He would later marry Lorenza, who was and still is an AB 540 student.

At ELAC, Tena-Encarnación kept his nose to the grindstone with a busy schedule, which included classes from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., working in Costa Mesa from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., then sleeping in his car at ELAC before his first class. He was a Chicano studies major. He is pursuing this degree at Cal State Los Angeles. Also while at ELAC, he became the President of CASA – Chicano Association for Student Achievement and was involved with MEChA where he worked with AB 540 with both clubs.

While a student at ELAC, Tena-Encarnación met Louis Ramirez, longtime ELAC cross country and track and field coach. “Ramirez taught me the fundamentals of javelin and guided me to the track and field team. I placed eighth for ELAC in the javelin at the South Coast Conference finals, (scoring one of ELAC’s 21 points.) I competed the entire year with an injury and was not at full strength,” Tena-Encarnación said. This relationship led Tena-Encarnación to becoming head coach of the 2011 ELAC track & field team, leading the women’s team to its highest finish at the SCC finals in a decade and ending the season with two all-Americans in Jillian Schmidt and Shawnta Barnes.

“Coach Tena had big dreams for us all. He was powerful in everything he taught us,” Barnes, who is majoring in criminal justice and kinesiology said.

When asked about Barnes, Tena-Encarnación said, “we do not get top athletes at ELAC. We get locals and work on digging-up prospects. Barnes came to us a diamond in the rough. She will go far.”

REJUVENATION—Jason Tena-Encarnacion enjoys his baby girl, Maya, and a new chapter in his eventful life. CN/Tadzio Garcia

Tena-Encarnación described coaching track as something he loves to do and something he will return to one day. “Jason inspired the track team in more ways than one with his coaching and mentoring. His speeches were inspirational,” said bio-chemistry major Ricardo Navarro, a sprinter for the track & field team.

While a track coach, Tena-Encarnación taught the team how to come out fighting as an underdog. And they did just that. ELAC ended the 2011 season with members of the team ranked in three-dozen categories in the individual top-100 California community college statewide poll. Tena-Encarnación also taught them to learn about themselves, to see more clearly and know that they are not alone as they try to succeed.

Also in 2009, Tena-Encarnación and his then girlfriend Lorenza, graduated from ELAC. They are now married with a daughter, Maya, who was born during the track & field season. Tena-Encarnación now has a family for keeps. “My family, Lorenza and Maya, come first in my life, always. Lorenza is the healing process; she is everything to me as well,” Tena-Encarnación said. Today, Tena-Encarnación, who works as a counselor at Job Corps, said, “I’m fine. I’ve healed and forgiven people in my life. My (biological) family is still living in the environment I left. When they are ready to cross to this side of the bridge…”

Also in 2009, Dream Warriors was incorporated. It is a non-profit organization that gives young adults, at-risk, homeless or emancipated youth, various assistance in providing an avenue to college. The project began in East L.A., Los Angeles and San Gabriel. “Our goal is to build dorms where youths can stay two years while they work on their AA degree. The progress will take years to get to full potential,” Tena-Encarnación said.  So it has begun.

With Dream Warriors, Tena-Encarnación is fulfilling the vision of six kids to help others. After donating a printer to high school students, Tena-Encarnación received a thank you note from a teacher that included: “since most of our students come from homes where they may own a computer but lack a printer, therefore result in having to come to school and print out their documents… We greatly appreciate your kindness.”

“Dream Warriors lives on in everyone we help who will hopefully go on and help others,” Tena-Encarnación said.
With kindness and a can-do attitude, Tena-Encarnación has managed to pull himself out of seemingly hopeless situations to help out others –  a variation on an Oscar Wilde quote, “I may have been born in the gutter, but I’ve kept my eyes on the stars.”

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