Ariana Gabriel is 18. It’s an important fact to keep in mind as this story unfolds.
She’s bright, thoughtful, motivated. And conflicted. Her life experiences would be enough to break most teenagers. They would be enough for anyone to say “That’s it. I’m done.”
Yet, here she sits, talking about murder, gangs, drugs, pain, anger, hope, opportunities, and a very bright future. It’s a future that involves a successful summer internship at John Deere and a freshman year of college.
She has a strong mother to thank for much of that transformation. She also can look at herself and feel pride, being smart enough to know when to ask for help. And there’s Craig Sharp, the Rock Island (Illinois) High School iJAG (Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates) specialist who showed her the way.
Gabriel clicks through her life like it’s a to-do list, summarizing harrowing events as if they were chores.
Her dad, Jerrell, was sent to federal prison when she was 1-year old. In the war on drugs, the Rock Island gang member was given a life sentence in 2002. That sentence was commuted 13 years later when non-violent offenders were set free. Nine months after that he was gunned down in a parking lot while attending an outdoor party. He was 34.
Gabriel’s memories of childhood start and end with her father’s death.
Her mom, Julie Jensen, a single parent at 19 moved her three children as a method of survival, going from homelessness to sleeping on friends’ couches to enduring an abusive relationship to starting her own in-home daycare.
“After my dad died, things at home were very hectic,” Gabriel said. “My mom was going through her own time of coping. Eventually, we got back to normal.”
Such an odd word, normal. It has one definition and countless interpretations.
A world changes
That background summarizes who Gabriel was, a child growing up in the midst of gang violence. It is not who she is.
As Gabriel stands in her front yard, the irony of a white picket fence near the weed-choked sidewalk is not lost on her. The slumped pieces of wood hold very little paint or purpose. “I guess this isn’t your typical white picket fence neighborhood,” she said with a laugh.
That front yard and many more like it taught Gabriel the “rules of the street.” Eventually, it was the hallways at Rock Island High School and Sharp’s persistence that showed her what the foundation of a life beyond her surroundings could be.
“During the period after my dad died, I started to not do well in school. And then I just stopped going,” she said, letting the words settle for a moment. It’s here, she said, that her life could have taken an expected path considering her environment.
“But then Coach Sharp started showing up,” she said with joking annoyance. “I kept thinking ‘Why is he so interested in what I’m doing?’”
Sharp had coached Gabriel in seventh-grade basketball and remembered her for her spirit.
“She had a great attitude and was fiery and competitive,” Sharp said. “She worked hard, and we connected.” And for Sharp, the connection stuck.
“When I got involved in iJAG that was something I thought would be perfect for Gabriel. Because, again, for anyone with any barriers whatsoever, iJAG is a really good place for them to be.”
Sharp’s own journey to the high school and iJAG was somewhat similar. His son, Justin, a star basketball player at Rock Island High School lost a seven-month fight with leukemia his senior year in December 2003.
“I sat with him for seven months, and you get a lot of time to think about life. You think about what’s important and what you should be doing,” Sharp said.
The power of iJAG
It’s nearly impossible to talk with an iJAG supporter and not hear the term “barriers.” It’s a definer of sorts, a way to understand the challenges many students face.
For most students — roughly 80 percent — it’s poverty. There’s also homelessness, education, health issues, and plenty more. What prevents a potential overwhelming feeling of hopelessness is iJAG’s singular, clearly defined goal, Sharp said.
“We’re there to help kids graduate and to get them ready for what comes after school,” he said. “Those are the only things I do all day long. I love it because I get to tell kids ‘I’m here just to help you have a better life.’ That’s a pretty special thing to say to a young person.”
In the end, it’s about one word: hope
“We sell hope because we believe in hope and we do things that give them hope,” Sharp added.
Gabriel said the feeling is almost immediate for a student entering an iJAG classroom.
“What I really liked about iJAG is that we were all pretty much the same,” she said. “There is no judging. There is no worrying about who is wearing what or if someone has the same shirt on three days in a row. We’re all dealing with our own thing, and we all understand and respect that. There’s definitely a feeling of belonging.”
Equally important is helping students feel comfortable with who they are outside of the iJAG classroom.
“This — my story — is not something I regularly go out and tell,” Gabriel said. “I don’t want to be labeled as the girl that was.” The words stop coming as Gabriel lets the rest of the sentence just be understood. She then picks back up. “I’m normal, you know. I feel like everybody goes through stuff. You can drown in a teaspoon of water or 20 feet of water. It’s all relative to your own experience.”
She admits there is a sense of “you have no idea.” What Gabriel walks around with in her head, a knowledge unique to her upbringing, provides a different perspective to most issues.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have your mom pick between water and electricity,” she added. “My mom always chose water because we need showers, we need to cook. There’d be times where there’d be candles.”
Help does come from beyond the classroom. Since 2005 the John Deere Foundation has donated more than $2.5 million to iJAG, making it the program’s largest private sector funder. Numerous local businesses and organizations, like United Way, also are key contributors.
In 2014, John Deere added a mentoring component to its iJAG assistance, and in 2018 an early talent intern program was initiated. That program allowed Gabriel to continue her journey away from her barriers. It’s a journey that was equal parts helping hands and self-realization. And it’s a story where Gabriel is willing to give Sharp and iJAG more credit than he’s willing to take.
“My GPA (grade point average) was not the best. A 1.6 or something,” Gabriel recalled. “He made sure I was at school, that’s the first thing he did. Then, if I had 50 pages to read and I said I didn’t have time to do it we would split up the work. He would sit with me and read half and I’d read half and then we’d tell each other about what we read. He was just there every day. He didn’t let me lose focus.”
The teamwork paid off. She finished with a 3.2 GPA becoming the first person from her dad’s side of the family to graduate high school. She landed numerous scholarships to attend Georgia State University in Atlanta and spent her summer as a Corporate Citizenship intern at John Deere. She did so well with that internship she has already accepted a Marketing intern position for next summer in Deere’s Ag & Turf Division in Olathe, Kansas.
The arc of her story brings a smile and a feeling of pride to Sharp.
“Knowing what we did in iJAG may have helped prepare her for success at John Deere, I mean that’s crazy that they can tie so closely together,” he said. “It makes me feel like the decisions I’ve made have been really worthwhile.”
Gabriel’s dramatic journey and the help along the way is not lost on her.
“What amazes me is that there are large companies that will take on large issues and that’s great,” Gabriel said. “But John Deere not only does that, they also reach deep into their local communities and spot someone like me and help me, too. That means a lot.”