Our Executive Team

As an organization, we operate and hold the following values to utmost standards: Honor, Integrity and Excellence.

 
 I have guided the formation and growth of Higher Ground from day one through my passion and intellect. After seeing the need in my own family, I decided to start Higher Ground as a way to help kids with their homework. To this day, my wife and 2 sons serve alongside with me at Higher Ground.  Growing up in a dysfunctional family as a child, I came from the Philippines when I was 18, I understood the need to break poverty mentality and empower youth to pursue their dreams and build a legacy in their community. My heart is closely tied with the kind of youth Higher Ground serves. I share my hobby with the youth by coaching them in martial arts and leading our grappling team to tournaments. My faith in God continues to strengthen and motivate me in my calling.  I want to see this community transformed and see the youth become the culture shaping catalysts of our future, a culture focused on legacy and compassion rather than personal achievement.  Jansen has been the driving force in a partnership to help improve school environment and culture between HG and Hollinger, a K-8 TUSD school. In addition, HG has successfully integrated social emotional learning, life coaching, and community-building into the daily curriculum of SUSD’s Star Academy, and is working to continue this work with other surrounding schools and will be expanding this integration into other schools.  Furthermore, Jansen’s leadership has also led to the community schools initiative which integrates Higher Ground into the school model. Community schools is a nationally proven effective strategy that creates a community hub of all the necessary services integrated into the schools itself. Higher Ground will become the provider of all the school’s social service needs so that schools can focus on academic instruction and curriculum. This model will have Higher Ground co-leading the school with the principals to turn schools into a one stop model for students and families. This initiative is currently in 10 schools and both TUSD and SUSD want to expand this to majority of their schools. This impact has the potential to change the school system in Tucson and is in collaboration with Arizona Serve and La Frontera. This initiative has several partners backed by the Mayor’s office along with Pima County.  Jansen’s leadership has also led into opening the first Evening Reporting Center with Pima County Juvenile Court as a main strategy to reduce recidivism in the Pima County Juvenile population.  Currently through its different in-school and out of school programming, HG serves over 2000 youth annually. 3 years ago, Higher Ground was serving 300 students annually.  Jansen also oversees HG’s 100+ regular UofA volunteers and 12 staff members.  In addition, he led his organization to have over 5 different contracts with different organizations in a matter of 2 years totaling to $600,000 of revenue a year.  Mentor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy 2016 Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 40 under 40 Winner National Afterschool Association 2017 Next Generation in Afterschool Honoree 2015 Child Abuse Prevention Award 2014 Youth Leader Award 2013 FBI Community Service Award 2013 Community Leadership Award Judo (Brown Belt) JuJitsu (Purple Belt)  2016 Judo Summer Nationals Novice Champion 2016 Judo Winter Nationals Novice Champion 2017 IBJJF Pan American Bronze Medalist  #1 National Veteran's Athlete for USA Judo 55kg

I have guided the formation and growth of Higher Ground from day one through my passion and intellect. After seeing the need in my own family, I decided to start Higher Ground as a way to help kids with their homework. To this day, my wife and 2 sons serve alongside with me at Higher Ground.

Growing up in a dysfunctional family as a child, I came from the Philippines when I was 18, I understood the need to break poverty mentality and empower youth to pursue their dreams and build a legacy in their community. My heart is closely tied with the kind of youth Higher Ground serves. I share my hobby with the youth by coaching them in martial arts and leading our grappling team to tournaments. My faith in God continues to strengthen and motivate me in my calling.

I want to see this community transformed and see the youth become the culture shaping catalysts of our future, a culture focused on legacy and compassion rather than personal achievement.

Jansen has been the driving force in a partnership to help improve school environment and culture between HG and Hollinger, a K-8 TUSD school. In addition, HG has successfully integrated social emotional learning, life coaching, and community-building into the daily curriculum of SUSD’s Star Academy, and is working to continue this work with other surrounding schools and will be expanding this integration into other schools.

Furthermore, Jansen’s leadership has also led to the community schools initiative which integrates Higher Ground into the school model. Community schools is a nationally proven effective strategy that creates a community hub of all the necessary services integrated into the schools itself. Higher Ground will become the provider of all the school’s social service needs so that schools can focus on academic instruction and curriculum. This model will have Higher Ground co-leading the school with the principals to turn schools into a one stop model for students and families. This initiative is currently in 10 schools and both TUSD and SUSD want to expand this to majority of their schools. This impact has the potential to change the school system in Tucson and is in collaboration with Arizona Serve and La Frontera. This initiative has several partners backed by the Mayor’s office along with Pima County.

Jansen’s leadership has also led into opening the first Evening Reporting Center with Pima County Juvenile Court as a main strategy to reduce recidivism in the Pima County Juvenile population.

Currently through its different in-school and out of school programming, HG serves over 2000 youth annually. 3 years ago, Higher Ground was serving 300 students annually.

Jansen also oversees HG’s 100+ regular UofA volunteers and 12 staff members.

In addition, he led his organization to have over 5 different contracts with different organizations in a matter of 2 years totaling to $600,000 of revenue a year.

Mentor for the Young Entrepreneurs Academy 2016 Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce 40 under 40 Winner National Afterschool Association 2017 Next Generation in Afterschool Honoree 2015 Child Abuse Prevention Award 2014 Youth Leader Award 2013 FBI Community Service Award 2013 Community Leadership Award Judo (Brown Belt) JuJitsu (Purple Belt)

2016 Judo Summer Nationals Novice Champion 2016 Judo Winter Nationals Novice Champion 2017 IBJJF Pan American Bronze Medalist

#1 National Veteran's Athlete for USA Judo 55kg

Jansen Azarias

CEO and Founder / President

 So one thing about me, I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I decided to join my husband in an adventure of a lifetime and I am currently the Director of Operations and Co-founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center. In 2017 I celebrated 10 years of marriage and 10 years of Higher Ground. I am a mother to 2 sons, a 22-year-old and a 10-year-old. Even though I am not a native of Tucson, I have called it home for the past 18 years. Working for great organizations such as ITT Tech, Pima Partnership High School, and The Well Worship Center, I have learned that Tucson is a warm and heart felt city that embraces family, community, and culture above all else. Years from now, I hope to see Higher Ground continue to grow exponentially while still staying true to our heart of striving to make a difference in the lives of the youth we work with. I hope that my husband and I are able to grow this organization to a point where every youth around us can feel safe and supported despite of any obstacles or circumstances they may be in. We are who we are because of who you are.  So one thing about me, I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I decided to join my husband in an adventure of a lifetime and I am currently the Director of Operations and Co-founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center. In 2017 I celebrated 10 years of marriage and 10 years of Higher Ground. I am a mother to 2 sons, a 22-year-old and a 10-year-old. Even though I am not a native of Tucson, I have called it home for the past 18 years. Working for great organizations such as ITT Tech, Pima Partnership High School, and The Well Worship Center, I have learned that Tucson is a warm and heart felt city that embraces family, community, and culture above all else. Years from now, I hope to see Higher Ground continue to grow exponentially while still staying true to our heart of striving to make a difference in the lives of the youth we work with. I hope that my husband and I are able to grow this organization to a point where every youth around us can feel safe and supported despite of any obstacles or circumstances they may be in. We are who we are because of who you are.

So one thing about me, I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I decided to join my husband in an adventure of a lifetime and I am currently the Director of Operations and Co-founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center. In 2017 I celebrated 10 years of marriage and 10 years of Higher Ground. I am a mother to 2 sons, a 22-year-old and a 10-year-old. Even though I am not a native of Tucson, I have called it home for the past 18 years. Working for great organizations such as ITT Tech, Pima Partnership High School, and The Well Worship Center, I have learned that Tucson is a warm and heart felt city that embraces family, community, and culture above all else. Years from now, I hope to see Higher Ground continue to grow exponentially while still staying true to our heart of striving to make a difference in the lives of the youth we work with. I hope that my husband and I are able to grow this organization to a point where every youth around us can feel safe and supported despite of any obstacles or circumstances they may be in. We are who we are because of who you are.
So one thing about me, I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I decided to join my husband in an adventure of a lifetime and I am currently the Director of Operations and Co-founder of Higher Ground a Resource Center. In 2017 I celebrated 10 years of marriage and 10 years of Higher Ground. I am a mother to 2 sons, a 22-year-old and a 10-year-old. Even though I am not a native of Tucson, I have called it home for the past 18 years. Working for great organizations such as ITT Tech, Pima Partnership High School, and The Well Worship Center, I have learned that Tucson is a warm and heart felt city that embraces family, community, and culture above all else. Years from now, I hope to see Higher Ground continue to grow exponentially while still staying true to our heart of striving to make a difference in the lives of the youth we work with. I hope that my husband and I are able to grow this organization to a point where every youth around us can feel safe and supported despite of any obstacles or circumstances they may be in. We are who we are because of who you are.

Barbie Azarias

Co-Founder and Senor Director of Culture and Quality

I was the 1994 Sherman Oaks center for Enriched studies Varsity basketball captain, varsity volleyball captain and prom king. I attended the University of Arizona where I earned a social and behavioral science bachelor’s degree. I also graduated from the University of Phoenix with a Master’s in education. I love God, my family, and my opportunities to serve, which include my job and coaching basketball. I have 4 awesome children and a phenomenal wife whom I could imagine a day without. I am the associate pastor at Lighthouse church international, a high school basketball coach and a family counselor. I enjoy every aspect of life as I believe that all things, good or bad are purposed to teach us how to become compete in our purpose.

Arthur Rodgers

Community School Director - SUSD

I was born in Tucson but only stayed for 2 months since my dad was in the Air Force. We moved to Oklahoma where I grew up and graduated from high school. After graduating I tried the college route but was unsuccessful and found myself joining the Army. I served in Germany, Desert Storm, Korea, Ft. Benning and Ft. Riley. When I got out I tried many things from becoming a certified Aircraft Mechanic, a youth pastor, to Senior Pastor. Eventually I found myself back in Tucson with my wife and 5 kids going to the U of A getting my Bachelor of Science in Physical Education. I graduated from the U of A in 2011 and started working at Elvira Elementary as their PE teacher. After a 3 year stint at Elvira, I accepted a full time position with Higher Ground as the program director, since then I have worked in every position here at HG. Now I have the privilege to serve as “Batman’s” Executive Assistant or better yet “Alfred”

Rob Lester

Executive Assistant to the CEO

 I grew up in the City South Tucson and I am a 1988 graduate of Pueblo High School!! "Si Se Puede". Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a doctor, and have always strived to help people. This led me to being a teacher for 22 years, and in my years of teaching I have gained an understanding of how all children deserve to be loved and to feel safe. I try to apply the same love to my job, as I do to raising my kids, which is how I came to know Higher Ground. My son came to visit the jujutsu summer program and fell in love with the staff and other students. After I became a parent volunteer I decided to leave my teaching career to join this amazing team. I am currently the Director of School Programs and I am honored to work with the local public schools to bring Grit, Social Emotional Learning and character building to each site. I want to see our partnerships with each school grow and see the youth of Tucson giving back to their communities.

I grew up in the City South Tucson and I am a 1988 graduate of Pueblo High School!! "Si Se Puede". Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a doctor, and have always strived to help people. This led me to being a teacher for 22 years, and in my years of teaching I have gained an understanding of how all children deserve to be loved and to feel safe. I try to apply the same love to my job, as I do to raising my kids, which is how I came to know Higher Ground. My son came to visit the jujutsu summer program and fell in love with the staff and other students. After I became a parent volunteer I decided to leave my teaching career to join this amazing team. I am currently the Director of School Programs and I am honored to work with the local public schools to bring Grit, Social Emotional Learning and character building to each site. I want to see our partnerships with each school grow and see the youth of Tucson giving back to their communities.

Araceli Mendibles

Director of School Programs

I started off at Higher Ground in the Spring of 2015 as the resident math expert, volunteering through a class I was taking at University of Arizona. As the kids got to know me and I took on the Academic Coordinator AmeriCorps State position, I became known as “The Evil Math Queen" that made all the kids do the one thing they hated most – homework. I guess the kids did not have much say when Higher Ground asked me to stay another year as an AmeriCorps VISTA, who could now follow them into the school day, to make sure their homework actually made it to the program.

After two years serving as an AmeriCorps member and wielding my evil math powers, I was hired on to manage Higher Ground’s expansion into the schools through the Community Schools Initiative. I now work with about 16 AmeriCorps members placed in the schools and at Higher Ground to build up each school as a community resource hub and coach students to improve attendance rates. Even though my focus has shifted and I am always running between school sites, I still manage to make it to the program to dawn my mathematical crown just enough so the kids know their queen has not seceded.

For an undergrad who just wanted to share her love of math with kiddos, Higher Ground has become a place where I can help shift the culture of education in Tucson – all because the kids, the staff, and the mission captured my heart from the very first moment.

Rema Hamdan

Community School Director - TUSD

 A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...  Born in a village in the badlands of Land of Enchantment, and after a couple of moves around the Southwest, we settled down here in the Old Pueblo. Living on the Southside of Tucson for the majority of my life I graduated from Sunnyside High School.  When people ask me what I do for a living, my response is, "I'm a dad to 4 beautiful girls!" Followed by, "Higher Ground is how I finance that!" I have been working with youth for over 30 years, as a camp counselor, youth coach, Sunday school teacher, church youth leader, community projects, and various other volunteering opportunities, including Higher Ground.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Born in a village in the badlands of Land of Enchantment, and after a couple of moves around the Southwest, we settled down here in the Old Pueblo. Living on the Southside of Tucson for the majority of my life I graduated from Sunnyside High School.

When people ask me what I do for a living, my response is, "I'm a dad to 4 beautiful girls!" Followed by, "Higher Ground is how I finance that!" I have been working with youth for over 30 years, as a camp counselor, youth coach, Sunday school teacher, church youth leader, community projects, and various other volunteering opportunities, including Higher Ground.

Andy Barreras

Director of Operations

Born in Washington, DC, I have lived in a variety of places, including Maryland, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, and now Arizona since 1999. Along with the many different states I've lived in, my education and career paths have also been varied. With Master's degrees in both Electrical Engineering and Accounting, I've worked as an engineer, an accountant, and a children's book author. I even hit the New York Times Bestsellers list for children's books twice! Working with children as an author during school visits sparked my desire to help children in a broader way. And now, my experience with non-profit organizations as their auditor and accountant enables me to join my financial expertise with my passion for making a difference in the lives of children as a member of Higher Ground.

Rhody Downey

Director of Finance