Staff Member Biographies
We the staff of Higher Ground A Resource Center, are guided by a simple but strong foundation of love, morals, and ethics based on the Holy Bible. We start by recognizing the unlimited potential every individual possesses for a meaningful, responsible future. We also believe that every individual needs to be taught a set of values, self-control, and discipline in order to live a purposeful life.
As a company we operate and hold the following values to utmost standards: Honor, Integrity and Excellence.
Jansen Azarias (Batman) - higher ground Executive Director/Founder
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 in 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 and 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 am actively involved in all aspects of Higher Ground, with a main focus on Program Development and Quality, Community Relations and the Fund raising aspect of the organization. I am also directly involved in mentoring and coaching the kids as I believe that the only way to truly find out what is effective is to be with the people you serve.
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.
- 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
Barbara azarias (Harley) - director of operations/co-founder
My name is Barbara Azarias and I am the wife of Jansen Azarias and co-founder of Higher Ground. I have guided Higher Ground since its birth through my experience and passion. I decided to start Higher Ground because of my desire to share my life story and help other people going through hard times.
I grew up in a small town in Colorado with a great family who raised me to be involved and working for our church and community. However, I wasn’t aware of the many social issues that exist in our youth today. I have been in Tucson for over 20 years where and worked for charter schools.
My role as the Director of Community and Family Services allows me to utilize my experiences in building community and leadership systems within several organizations. However, out of all these experiences, being a single mother, the death of my father and being a cancer survivor became the source of my passion.
I want to see a generation of students that invest in their community, schools and family. I want to reach a higher ground together with our families.
Fernando Gil La Madrid (Superman) - Program Manager
I have been with Higher Ground since March of 2015. I found about Higher Ground through my Stepdad. Now I have the privilege to start working with this wonderful organization.
I am 24 years old, and I have lived in Tucson my whole life. I am a recovered drug addict and I am trying to use my past experiences to help change kids life so they don’t have to go through the same life I went through.
My goal is to try and make an impact on these kids’ lives so that they know there is hope and you are able to make your life whatever you want it to be no matter what their lives may seem like at the moment.
desmond davis (Flash) - RTE Team Manager
I recognized at a young age that I enjoyed working with people, sharing experiences and working to solve problems. I began my service with youth at the age of 14, acting as a mentor to middle/high school students. After some time away from direct service with youth, my wife and I began serving as assistant youth leaders at the church we attend. It was at this point where I connected with our executive directors Jansen and Barbara Azarias, experienced Higher Ground and was excited about the vision cast. I served as a volunteer basis on a limited basis until December 2015, when I decided to join Higher Ground full time.
I am an Air Force brat, spending the first six years of my life in Honolulu, Hi. We reluctantly relocated to America's oven, also known as Tucson, AZ in the summer of 1994. I love sports,reading, music,anime, electronics, food, listening to and experiencing new perspectives. I have a passion for serving and reaching the youth in our community and their families.
I currently serve as a child advocate which focuses on building meaning relationships and compiling information to assist in finding potential gaps in services for the students we serve.
My heart is to see each student we encounter make a impact in their area of influence, accomplish goals set out for themselves and contribute back to their community.
rob lester (arrow) - Director of Development and Community Relations
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 Education.
In 2014, after a three year stint as a PE teacher I began serving full time at Higher Ground. But my journey with Higher Ground goes back to the beginning. I was privileged to be in the first meeting where Jansen shared his vision with the pastor of the church we were attending 8 years ago. From that point on I was hooked and knew that one day I would be doing this full time.
As the Director of Development and Community Relations I oversee the Grants, Fundraising, Community Partnerships and AmeriCorps.
I want to see a culture shift to where our students live out a selfless lifestyle and see that they can make a difference. If just one of our students can make a difference in our community when they leave Higher Ground, it will all be worth it.
rebecca davis (canary) - higher ground office manager
I was the first in my family to graduate high school, go to college, and obtain a degree. I currently have my BS in Business Management through the University of Phoenix. I was a volunteer for Higher Ground for three years before officially becoming staff. My husband and I would volunteer to drive the van that picks up students from school and drops them off at the program, as well as assisting with Jr. High homework.
Being born to a single teenage mother and growing up in a blended family, I always felt like the black sheep of the family. I never had anyone to look up to or anyone to talk to when I was feeling depressed, angry, or hurt. I've been on my own since I was 18 and have had to learn many of life's lessons on my own. As an adult I want to be that person that kids can feel comfortable venting to, talking to, or asking for advice from.
As the Office Manager at Higher Ground, it is my job to set the stage for how our student's day will be during our program. Ensuring that the facilities are kept up, all questions are answered, and that everyone is greeted with a smiling face.
A change I would like to see in our community is that families obtain the support needed to raise their children. The saying "it takes a village to raise a child" is as true now as it was when it was first said. So many families are left alone to try to "figure things out" and don't realize that there are services they can get to help them when they need it.
Analisa barreras (Batgirl) - Assistant site coordinator
I graduated from high school in the Spring of 2015. I found out about Higher Ground through a friend who volunteered and was part of the Jiu Jiutsu program, I decided that I wanted to be a part of all this. I’ve volunteered here for 2 years and been part of the Jiu Jitsu program. Once I graduated I decided that I wanted to stick around higher ground and continue to help, I now work here.
I was born and raised in Tucson Arizona. I am the second oldest of 4 girls. I’ve always been very involved with kids, I volunteer in my church’s youth and children programs, and I worked in the daycare at my high school.
My position here at higher ground, as the assistant site coordinator, is to make sure that the program is running smoothly. I run around with the kids and fill in wherever my assistance is needed.
I hope that through me working here at Higher Ground I can make a difference in at least one child, and make a change in the community.
Araceli mendibles (Wonder woman) - Director of offsite Programing
Hi my name is Araceli Mendibles. In the summer of 2014 I came to HG to check out the summer program for my 10-year-old son. My sister's son was a part of the program and told me about it. I fell in love with the program and began volunteering in the front office during the 2014-2015 school year.
I left my teaching job of 22 years because I believe in what Higher Ground is doing in our community and want to continue growing with the mission of Higher Ground.
I am the Director of School Programs (Offsite Programs) here at Higher Ground. In my role I have the opportunity to build relationships with our local schools, students and their parents, learn about who they are as people and contribute to their success as future productive citizens.
What I would like to contribute to this community is building the bridge between Social Emotional learning and the classrooms in order to help the students in this community succeed at what they put their minds to.
Andris rapa (Gambit) - AmeriCorps Program manager
Andris moved to Arizona in 2015 as an AmeriCorps volunteer after completing his graduate studies at California State University, Fullerton. Tasked to create a program for high school students at Higher Ground, he implemented a program that developed workplace readiness and financial literacy while helping found the organization’s robotics team, the Higher Groundbreakers.
Part Peruvian, part Latvian, part ocean enthusiast, Andris was bit by the travel bug at birth. While studying abroad at the University of Queensland, he was fortunate enough to dive around the Great Barrier Reef. A memory he cherishes having found himself in the middle of the desert.
Now serving as the AmeriCorps Program Manager, Andris plans to bring his diverse experiences to help lead a team of volunteers, putting service before self, in the fight against poverty.
sabrina salcido (Kim possible) - Americorps state child and family advocate
Hi, I'm Sabrina Salcido!
I graduated from high school in 2015 and now I'm a sophomore at Pima Community College. I heard about Higher Ground through my best friend Isa who is part of the staff here. I started volunteering at Higher Ground the summer of 2016 and fell in love with their mission and values. I have always loved working with kids and youth so this has been a perfect place to get involved.
I am now serving as an AmeriCorps state member. As a Child and Family Advocate, I get the opportunity to work with the students to built positive relationships and life skills. I want to inspire the kids in this community and help them realize they can go out in the world and make a difference.
Timothy herrera (Night wing) - Performing arts coordinator
Timothy is the son of Jansen and Barbara Azarias and was the ten year old boy that Higher Ground was started from. Timothy graduated from Cholla High Magnet School in 2013 and attended Christ for the nations institute to graduate with a Bachelor degree in Music. Music has played a big part in his life and would like to share the same experience he had with music with the young men and women at Higher Ground.He hopes to see young men and women changed by music to reach, transform and elevate their community.
Music is a universal language and can unify a community, that is the goal of the music program we have started at Higher Ground. The mariachi program teaches young men and women not just music, but where the music comes from and the effect it has on the community and themselves.
Kenny Briggs (spiderman) - Rec Coach (outside sports) and Child Advocate
My name is Kenneth Briggs, I’m 23 years old from Gallup, New Mexico. I am a Graduate from the University of Arizona. I have volunteered with Higher Ground a little over a year and have been employed by Higher Ground for a little over a year as well.
I started as a part-time volunteer in the Outdoor Athletic Program, then moved to working with program as an Ameri-Crop 300hr member. After finishing my time volunteering I was hired to work as the Outdoor Athletic Coordinator and now progressing to a Child Advocate.
I have been very passionate about Youth Development for many years as well as creating a change in both my community and hopefully at a larger scale. I have learned many skills and have been a part of many opportunities such as, living abroad, attending University, being a Gates Millennium Scholar and now working with in a field that I more than enjoy.
I plan to continue a career in Education as well as Youth Development. I’m open to the future and more importantly the possibility that anything can happen.
Christina Rupp (Black Panther) - Basketball coach - coming soon
Celeste Chacon (Poison Ivy) - Administrative Assistant
I am currently a senior at the University of Arizona, I will be graduating in May 2018 with a Bachelor's degree of Science in Family Studies and Human Development and a Bachelor's degree of Arts in Psychology with a minor in Spanish. With this I hope to work with South Tucson's at risk youth as a Juvenile Probation Officer.
I started working at Higher Ground in 2013 through the TYD program, when the program ended I volunteered for two years then was hired as the Administrative Assistant.
I have always known I want to help others, especially in my community. Higher Ground has made this passion of mine grow throughout the years, I love being a part of such a life changing organization.
Elvia obregon (Elektra) - Child and Family Advocate
My name is Elvia Olivares-Obregon. I was born in Carson City, California but raised in Tucson, Arizona since I was 2 years old. Even though I complain about Tucson summers, I wouldn’t want to live any place else. Nothing beats the Tucson sunsets and star gazing during cool summer nights.
I graduated from Cholla High School in 1987 and continued my education at Pima Community College, receiving an Associate’s Degree in Social Work. Wanting to further my education, I decided to attend New Mexico State University where I received a Bachelors in Social Work.
I have worked with children for many years and have enjoyed every moment but my greatest moment ever was when I became a mom. One of the toughest yet most rewarding jobs that I have had is raising a son on my own.
My desire for all children who come to Higher Ground is to not only practice the values of Respect and Honor during program, but also practice it when they go out to serve in the community.
Felicia Mendibles (Felix the Cat) - Office administrator
HI, my name is Felicia, also known as Feli.
I am an office administrator here at Higher Ground. My job is ensuring that everything in the office is organized and running as smoothly as possible as well as providing everyone who enters the building with a welcome.
I first heard of Higher Ground about 3 years ago from my mom. I decided to come check it out and I was captivated with everything the program is doing for the youth in our community. I wanted to be involved. I started off as a volunteer art teacher along with my sister. After the school year ended I continued to volunteer off and on for the next two years. In March 2017 I applied to work here full time.
I love being able to come to work every day within the community I raised and to be a part of a center that offers so many resources and support for families. My hope is that no matter where these kids go they will remember the values of Higher Ground.
Cheryl Lopez (Xena warrior princess) - Family Engagement Liason
I am Cheryl Lopez the Parent Liaison. I started with Higher Ground from the beginning 10 years ago and in December came back and have been loving it ever since. I am able to offer services such as financial planning, parenting classes, grief classes and parent support sessions. As we are here to reach, restore and elevate our students, my goal is to do the same but for parents/guardian.
Jessica Mendibles (Pocahontas) - Art Teacher - coming soon
Mike Whiting (Mike Wazowski) - Rec Coach(Archery), SEL Instructor
My name is Mike. I’m a SEL (Social & Emotional Learning) Instructor and Rec Coach. During the day I work as a SEL Instructor I work with several alternative schools around the community to teach life skills, character building, and communication skills. In the afternoons I also teach your children about the different techniques of archery as well as practicing good sportsmanship.
I graduated from Desert View, where I was a three time welding club president. I attended college for a couple years before I decided to go a different route. I went to work in the local mine. I worked in the mine for about 10 years where my work mainly focused on welding and heavy equipment mechanics.
I discovered Higher Ground through a family friend. I started off here as a volunteer, I helped the students with Archery and Boxing. During this time, I discovered I really enjoyed working with kids. Never had I imagined I would work here full time but after about 9 months of volunteering my time I got hired on as a part-time employee. And in March 2017, I was asked to become a full-time employee!
Being at Higher Ground has helped me understand the need for positive role models in our community. It has also helped me realize the great need for community involvement in the lives of young adults and children. My hope is to be able to impact at least one life for the better.
Ryo Sato (Mr. Miyagi) - Rec Coach (Judo), SEL Instructor and Child Advocate
My name is Ryo Sato. I graduated from the University of Arizona with a B.A. in Linguistics in 2013. During my time in college, I was a member of two honor societies and earned summa cum laude with a GPA of 3.9.
I started coming to volunteer at Higher Ground in the summer of 2014 to coach Judo. I was coaching Judo on and off for about 2 years and I was officially hired on December 2016 as a Rec Coach, SEL Instructor, and Child Advocate.
I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. I spent 19 years of my life there and couldn’t speak English when I moved to Tucson back in 2008. I started practicing Judo in 2006 when I was in high school. I won the AZ State Championship two times and State Championships in NM and CA in Judo.
I start my day usually at off-sites, teaching social emotional learning through judo and different activities. At HG, I build relationships with students, teach social skills and coach Judo during program hours.
My hope is to be able to share my knowledge and experiences with the community I serve and make a positive impact.
Aaron mesenberg - Music program coordinator
Aaron Mesenberg has dedicated more than 25 years to instructing and perfecting his Method. He has provided professional private instruction services, offered innumerable performance opportunities to his students, supported and hosted numerous musical events, written and recorded many original songs not only for himself but also other artists, as well as compiling and producing many original songs for students and other area artists.
He is currently in the writing process, completing his original method Lesson Book Series.
He also offers private guitar instruction to students of all ages.
Aaron performs as a solo artist, El Gel is his unique instrumental world music style, perfect for many types of special events and dinner venues. He also performs comedy and music with his wife and daughter in their 1880's Variety Show and family band, Arizona Freedom Trio
Jessie Haro - Boxing coach
My name is Jesse Haro, I am the boxing coach at Higher Ground the name of the boxing club is Scrapyard Boxing at Higher Ground my credentials as a coach are; I have a combined number of a hundred amateur and professional bouts.
It is my privilege and honor to coach at Higher Ground to instruct and mentor both boys and girls who want to what has been called the sweet science of boxing I coach the fundamentals of boxing I teach them strength and conditional skills as well as teaching them that hard work and dedication will allow them to obtain anything they pursue in life.
Never let your Guard Down
Steve Owen - Judo/JJ tournament coordinator - coming soon
Rema hamdan - Academic Coordinator - AmeriCorps Vista - coming soon
Casey Cannon (Jean Grey/Phoenix) - AmeriCorps State Child and Family Advocate
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Developmental Psychology. Throughout my college years I routinely worked with people of all ages who could not advocate for themselves and needed assistance. Before college I had both paid and unpaid positions that involved helping children, geriatrics and mentally handicapped individuals. I have worked in physician group practices, hospitals, adult day care facilities and as an EMT while working 911. I am also a certified Yoga teacher.
I have been helping people, in one capacity or another, for many years now. I truly feel it is what I am supposed to do and should continue to do. I have worked with people of all ages, abilities and difficulties.
I am currently an AmeriCorps State Member serving as a Child and Family Advocate with Higher Ground. I am truly honored to be part of such an amazing organization that cares so much about making a difference not only in the lives of the children who attend Higher Ground, but also within their families and the community. Working with the staff at Higher Ground has been truly inspirational.
I plan on going back to school for my masters (MSW) this Fall and eventually one day I plan on getting my PHD.
Imani White - Community Schools Resource Developer - AmeriCorps Vista
Imani is a social justice warrior who believes that compassion and passion are some of the key characteristics to achieving equity. Eventually Imani wants to start her own non-profit focusing on providing educational resources to older children in the foster care system and children aging of the foster care system.
Imani is recent alumni of San Francisco State University (SFSU) with a major in Political Science. She has interned at a police station, a Board of Supervisor’s office, SFSU career center and Peer Health Exchange and is currently serving a term an AmeriCorps Vista member.
Imani is obsessed with the Mexican Eatery Taco Bell and the poetry of Tupac Shakur. When not at work, Imani can be seen aimless wondering around Ulta while drinking an overpriced drink from Starbucks and wishing she was attending Beychella next year.
Juan Carlos Medina - DAEP Program Team
My name is Juan Carlos Medina I am part of this amazing youth program. I am a family counselor graduated from ESCOL University and still enrolled with the AACC American Asociation of Christian Counselors.
I have been working with youth for over 15 years in churches, schools and other organizations. I'm also an interpreter certified by the University of Arizona, and a TUSD interpreter.
Daniel Payette (Wolverine) - Youth Success Center Staff
My name is Daniel Payette (Copper/ Wolverine) and I am a Juvenile Surveillance Representative working in the Youth Success Center at Higher Ground. I have lived my entire life in Tucson, with the exception of my time in the Army. I have attended both Pima Community College, where I studied social services, and the U of A. Go Wildcats!
I am a proud parent myself and many times in my life I have been told I am a “helper” and have a knack for working with kids and young adults. I have always been very involved with mentoring kids, including coaching youth sports and working as a child advocate at Youth On Their Own.
My role in the Youth Success Center allows me to build positive relationships with court involved kids. I teach them general life skills, positive change exercises, and engage in friendly sports competitions!
My hope is for our kids to believe in themselves and their futures as much as us adults believe in them. I also hope they can continue to grow and learn in their quest for a healthy and happy life.
Todd Harriman (Punisher) - Youth Success Center Staff
One of my main goals is to make sure that every child that I work with makes sound decisions and does what is necessary to have a happy and successful adolescence. I firmly believe that with a solid foundation and good support system every child is capable of success, no exceptions. However, it is also important to enjoy childhood and all the beautiful aspects of being a kid.
I graduated from Sahuaro High School in the 90s and Pima Community College a few years later, with an associate’s degree. I have worked with the Youth of Tucson as well as all over the world for the past 18 years. The first 9 years was spent as a Residential Advisor at a boarding school near Sabino Canyon. As a RA I provided security, counsel, and mentoring to teens all over, including Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and many more countries. The last 9 years I have spent as a Surveillance Officer for the Pima County Juvenile Court. While I still provide security, counsel, and mentoring I now help the youth navigate through the Juvenile Justice System and learn through the crossroads and Real Colors curriculum.
In my spare time I enjoy reading books and watching tv. I try to stay in shape by riding my bike, playing golf, and going to the gym. But, unfortunately, I also like to eat… A lot. Most of all I love watching sports and want everyone to remember that REAL MEN WEAR BLACK! GO RAIDERS!!!