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Tucson non-profit Higher Ground receives $2.3 million grant to help empower underserved communities

The nonprofit hopes to expand from six to nine schools
Students walking in Utterback Middle School.
Posted at 5:14 PM, Aug 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-08 11:58:45-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Tucson nonprofit Higher Ground is expanding its program with a $2.3 million grant from the Arizona Department of Education.

The Higher Ground Resource Center started 15 years ago in the CEO’s living room when he was teaching his son, and now with this funding, the programs are expanding from six schools to nine schools.

Utterback Middle School is one of the six partners of Higher Ground Restart S.M.A.R.T. Program.

CEO Jansen Azarias-Suzumoto said the program empowers communities by providing resources to students, and lifting weight off school staff.

“It’s a lot on their plate, but we can take all of that, we can run the focus groups, we can do a lot of these different things, we can address some of the bullying issues, and be responsive to it,” he said.

Higher Ground has provided 47 partnerships that have supported Utterback Middle School.

Principal Taranika Sanders said the partners have not only helped strengthen their focus on fine arts, but also build a community school. One of the ways is by providing social emotional support.

“They often look to our higher ground personnel to help them make positive choices, and help to even facilitate difficult conversations, thereby reducing our behavioral issues that flare up across the campus,” she said.

Cheryl Lopez, Utterback Middle School Psych Director from Higher Ground, said the Restart S.M.A.R.T. Team takes care of problems that happen outside of the classroom.

“We just kind of give them a safe place. They want to feel safe. And when they feel safe, then they let their guard down, then they open up,” she said.

The program helps each school in unique ways, and Suzumoto said it’s an honor to be able to extend Higher Ground's reach.

He said the nonprofit is currently in the process of creating new partnerships with schools.

Reyna Preciado is a reporter for KGUN 9, she joined the KGUN 9 team in July of 2022 after graduating Arizona State University. Share your story ideas with Reyna by emailing or by connecting on Instagram, or Twitter.