Editor’s note: Yamilette Ochoa-Colon was one of five teens featured by MSNBC’s The Elkhart Project in 2009, when Elkhart County had the highest unemployment rate in the state and nearly double the unemployment rate of the nation as a whole.
The idea of the project was to follow youth graduating from high school during some of the worst economic times in recent history. This is an update on her life since then.
Yamilette Ochoa-Colon, 23, has come a long way since getting kicked out of Elkhart Central High School more than six years ago.
The Elkhart woman grew up getting into trouble because her mother, a single mom, had to work multiple jobs to keep the family out of poverty.
“Because she was working and wasn't home, I started getting involved with the wrong crowd,” Ochoa-Colon explained, sitting in her living room inside the family’s home near downtown Elkhart.
“I was kicked out of Central and I went to LIFE (Tipton Street Center, an alternative high school in Elkhart),” she said. “And there were no steps, nothing — I went from old Yami to new Yami in a day. I didn’t want to be a high school dropout.”
Still, she only graduated because her mom and a dedicated teacher at Tipton, Linda Fine, wouldn't give up on her, she said.
Today, Ochoa-Colon is a recent graduate from IUSB, where she earned a degree in criminal justice, and she just enrolled in a graduate program for social work, also at IUSB.
She says she will try to stay in Elkhart because she understands what local kids in bad situations go through, and she knows how to help.
But it will depend on the job market to determine whether she can both achieve her dream and stay in her home town.
She hasn’t forgotten the violence and crime that’s rampant among Elkhart youth and she wants to help end it.
A 2011 report showed that more than a quarter —27.4 percent —of children in Elkhart are growing up in poverty.
One problem she sees is there’s not enough for Elkhart teens to do. She’d like to create a place where teens could “just hang out, with positive role models” and maybe get some tutoring at the same time.
"I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but have a place where kids who are having trouble can have a mentor, friends they know they can trust, who could be with them for years,” she added. “Trust is something that needs to be built. It wouldn’t be a short-term thing — trust takes years.”
She feels like youth violence splits up the community, and Elkhart can do a better job of curbing the problem.
Her ultimate goal is to work with teens as a therapist or social worker, and she’s already getting her foot in the door by working at a local residential home for children and as a peer mentor at IUSB. She believes she has a unique perspective as someone who’s come out of a violent, crime-filled lifestyle.
“I've seen all the struggles we go through,” Ochoa-Colon said. “It starts here. I wanted to do what I could here (in Elkhart) first.”
Her mother, Linda Delgado, 41, was so inspired by her daughter’s educational goals that she decided to go to school herself. Delgado graduated from Ivy Tech Community College this year with a degree in business management. The single mom has worked in human resources for about 20 years but wanted to get a degree.
Ochoa-Colon’s younger siblings still live at home: Jasline Delgado, 20; Liliana Delgado, 14; and Luis Rios, 12.
Jasline Delgado attended one semester at IUSB but then took some time off, Ochoa-Colon said. She hasn't decided yet what she wants to study.
Ochoa-Colon is a big believer in education. She said the factory jobs that kept Elkhart going for so long pre-recession “aren't stable.”
“I feel like you need an education,” she said. “With the little jobs we do have, it’s so competitive. You have to bring more to the table.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of one of Yamilette Ochoa-Colon’s siblings. The Elkhart Truth regrets the error.