Unsung Santa Cruz: With a name like Strongheart, showing other vulnerable youth how to thrive comes naturally

Ooli Strongheart.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s been a decade since Ooli Strongheart, then 15, found a safe haven for transition-age youth (TAY) that helped fill in many of the missing gaps from a childhood devoid of love and support, filled with trauma and fear. Soon to be a UC Santa Cruz graduate, the former foster and homeless youth is passionate about giving back to the program — now aptly known as the ‘Thrive Hive’ — that has helped them recognize their purpose and potential in this world.

Ooli Ahanu Strongheart was 9 when a path to freedom appeared amid the chaos.

Along with the swirl of trauma — the swollen red eyes of the young crying siblings, nieces and nephews, the gang-affiliated men angrily banging their guns on the doors and windows, and no parents at home to protect them — there arose the opportunity to make a life-changing phone call.

“I’m the one who called the police because I was like ‘This is effed up,’” Strongheart says now, 16 years and seemingly lifetimes removed from the toxic world they were born into in the southern region of Santa Clara County.

The Santa Cruz County foster system — and stretches of couch-surfing-style homelessness — Strongheart endured over the years to come would be no Disney-inspired life either, they said. But it ultimately provided more safety and allowed Strongheart the freedom of self-discovery and self-acceptance to pursue the purpose they had always felt deep within.

“I’ve always known that I was gonna do good things in the world,” they said. “Just because I’ve had a lot of hardship … I always knew those hard things were preparing me for better things.”

Strongheart — who began using they/them/Sir pronouns and identifying as transgender two years ago and has connected strongly to their indigenous Paiute and Yaqui origins — epitomizes the saying that “The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell.”

The tribal surname they gave themself, meaning “One who walks with a strong heart,” affirms what can be overcome with time, support and the force of will.

It was a transition-age youth (TAY) program run by Encompass in Santa Cruz, which was recently rebranded and upgraded into what’s now known as the Thrive Hive, where that notion began to crystallize for the 15-year-old Strongheart when they discovered it a decade ago.

The 'Thrive Hive' for transition-age youth.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A large converted warehouse space on Emeline Avenue now serves as a resource center for youth ages 15 to 24, many of them experiencing homelessness, near Harvey West Park. According to survey results from the Point-In-Time count in March, such a resource is a crucial lifeline for as many as 222 unaccompanied children and transition-age youth quietly living in the shadows locally.

“Until I took this position, even I didn’t realize how many homeless youth we have out there and the things they have to navigate daily,” said Thrive Hive manager Maricela Aboytes. “Some we see out there we don’t even realize are that young because they’ve aged like 20 times because of the conditions they must endure. Our problem with youth homelessness is astounding.”

The Thrive Hive strives to be a beacon of hope for those young people. The services provided range from basic needs (laundry, showers, hot meals) to job-seeking (resumes, mock interviews, document procurement) to health/wellness and case management services (meditation, substance use and mental health counseling.)

Ooli Strongheart provides a welcoming vibe to those who seek services at the Thrive Hive.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now 25 and finishing up a sociology degree at UC Santa Cruz while working as a Thrive Hive peer mentor, Strongheart serves as a unique “lived experience” model for youth just like they once were, struggling to sort through myriad levels of lifelong trauma in order to put themselves on course to succeed despite difficult odds.

“We believe in them every time they walk in through our doors at The Hive,” Strongheart said. “It’s important to have a space, and staff, that does not give up on you.”

* * *

Long before they would testify against their own mother at age 9 in front of a judge, setting the table for themself and their siblings to enter the foster system, Strongheart’s fight to survive had begun.

“I remember at age 4 telling myself in my head ‘You were born into the wrong family — this sucks,’” they said. “I always knew something big would happen and I wouldn’t be there anymore. Then foster care came and I was like ‘Wow, this is it.’”

I always knew something big would happen and I wouldn’t be there anymore. Then foster care came and I was like ‘Wow, this is it.

They attended Main Street Elementary, New Brighton Middle School, Soquel High and eventually graduated from Costanoa High and enrolled at Cabrillo College. But it was far from easy — and included a disturbing, if brief, return to their biological family in 7th grade.

The primary goal of the foster care system is family reunification, but Strongfoot said some reunions simply aren’t meant to happen.

“My mom got it back together briefly, but I knew the pattern and wanted out immediately,” they said. “I rebelled. I was pissed. I was like ‘How can you rip me away from everything I formed here in Santa Cruz? I have friends here that actually care about me.’”

Ooli Strongheart has seen more than most 25-year-olds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Eventually, they found their way back to the community they had formed in Santa Cruz. And at some point they learned about a program for wayward youth that was handing out gift cards to those who stopped in. Free money kept them stopping in at first and then the spark grew.

“It was really cool to be with other youths. We were scattered about but we would text each other and say ‘Hey, let’s meet up at this workshop and get some free gift cards,” Strongfoot said, adding that the TAY case managers ultimately became like surrogate parents.

They were the people I needed in my life. Without them, I probably would’ve made a lot more bad decisions.

“They were the people I needed in my life. Without them, I probably would’ve made a lot more bad decisions,” they said. “Just to have someone to check in with you and process emotions and not make you feel any less.

“Just to say ‘What do you want to work on? What do you want to do?’ I was like ‘Wow, I really want to go to college’ and they were like ‘OK, let’s start with that.’”

* * *

Aboytes, the Thrive Hive manager who hired Strongheart, said the maturity and wisdom they bring to the mentoring equation is essential for those who show up in the throes of desperation.

“When you’ve navigated the systems and understand the barriers fully, and surpassed a lot of those barriers, that makes a big difference,” she said. “You can say ‘This sucks, I went through it, and it’s going to be all right.’”

Ooli Strongheart's connection to their indigenous origins have become significant.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Aboytes is also of Native American origin and believes a big part of Strongheart finding peace and harmony beyond the trauma has been that connection, that reclamation of lost identity. “I think part of the resiliency comes from the empowering narrative of our indigeneity and being a person of color,” she said.

“I did not grow up knowing my culture and had to show up and learn it, the ‘Red Road Way,’” Strongheart said, using a popular Native American spiritual metaphor that means the right way or the proper path of life.

Strongheart recalls how important those mentor connections became, how the validations small and large that they had never received from a parent figure could make a huge difference.

“As I got older and was doing different programs and learning how to live on my own, I recall really wanting to prove to my case manager Jose that everything I said was truthful,” they said. “I’d clean up my place before he came over to show him I was doing well. He’d look inside and just give me those eyes I knew he would, like he believed in me. That’s really all I needed.”

Now it’s their turn to pay that positive energy forward. And Strongheart’s words are pretty simple: As you find support to work through your past traumas, make sure to keep yourself in supportive environments like the Thrive Hive.

“We give them respect, resources, honor their dignity, their struggles and cheer them on,” they said. “My best advice to them is keep showing up for yourself in spaces that are rooting for your success.”


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