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Head of Monarch School says housing status doesn’t define students, they define success on their own terms

Afira DeVries poses outside of The Chrysalis: Monarch Center for the Arts in Barrio Logan
Afira DeVries, the president and CEO of the Monarch School Project, poses for a portrait outside of The Chrysalis: Monarch Center for the Arts in Barrio Logan on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. The mural was painted by students and a local artist.
(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Afira DeVries is president and CEO of The Monarch School Project, a nonprofit that operates the K-12 school serving unhoused youth, in partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education

All it took was a visit to Monarch School’s campus, and Afira DeVries was all in. Although her previous career path had her leading more globally focused nonprofit operations, she was intrigued by Monarch’s commitment to educating and nurturing kids experiencing homelessness, and their families.

“It’s been a year and I can confirm my instincts were spot on. I have never enjoyed a role or mission more than I’m enjoying this work,” she says.

DeVries accepted the position of president and CEO of the nonprofit arm of the school, Monarch School Project, last year. The nonprofit runs the Monarch School in partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education. The public school currently serves 300 homeless students from kindergarten through 12th grades, utilizing a trauma-informed approach to meet each student’s academic, social, emotional, and life skills needs. Prior to her work with Monarch, she served as the U.S. director for the nonprofit Spring Impact and as president and CEO of the United Way of Roanoke Valley in Virginia.

DeVries, 46, lives in Scripps Ranch with her husband, Jason; their two daughters, Ava Rosa and Amora; and their dogs Vito Corleone (a Shih Tzu and Yorkshire terrier mix) and Luca Brasi (a beagle and Chihuahua mix). She took some time to talk about her work at Monarch, the school’s new arts center in Barrio Logan, and the time an organized crime operation considered her a potential threat.

Q: Why did you want to join in the work being done at Monarch, as its president and CEO? What appealed to you about taking on this position?

A: I’m passionate about directing my energy toward the social challenges that are frequently, over time, unofficially written off as “unsolvable.” I’ve often found the condition of homelessness to be the primary example of such a condition. I joined Monarch because our students are facing seemingly insurmountable odds and yet they are learning to harness their potential, heal and seek stability as they enter adulthood, and they are teaching the world that they are not lost causes. They’re not problems to be solved or victims who need to be saved. Instead, they’re kids with dreams and goals, and they thrive when given the support and space to do so. I joined an extraordinarily successful organization with the intention of making it accessible to more kids and families in more places. We are a one-of-a-kind operation; I’d like to change that.

Q: What are your goals and vision for the school?

A: At Monarch, we aim to build a future in which an experience of homelessness does not define or limit any child’s promise and potential. One of my goals for the future is to share the expertise of the caring professionals at Monarch with more young people. That includes codifying our practices and developing learning modules for schools, afterschool care providers, and early learning settings in an effort to maximize support for children managing trauma. Fundamentally, Monarch School is positioned to explore the best approach for bringing our proven practices to more children and families experiencing homelessness and other traumatic impediments to a healthy, stable life.

Q: Can you talk about the unique challenges that students who experience homelessness face in their academic pursuits? And what Monarch does to help students get past those challenges?

A: Monarch School serves students across San Diego County who are experiencing homelessness. These students face barriers to receiving the education they deserve, and the trauma they experience as a result of homelessness can have lasting impacts on their educational achievement. When children are unhoused, they often face frequent mobility which makes it difficult to stay connected to the same school and maintain consistent progressive learning. Even beyond mobility, the emotional upheaval of being unhoused takes a mental and physical toll. Students experience trauma that overshadows any capacity for academic focus or retention and they’re often exhausted and drained from the state of insecurity they’ve endured.

This experience in their childhood has the potential to be one they repeat in adulthood. Unhoused students who do not earn a high school diploma or GED are four and a half times more likely to experience homelessness as adults.

What I love about Scripps Ranch ...

I love the views from my backyard. I get a beautiful glimpse of the distant mountains, and I get to see the hot air balloons taking flight. I also love the proximity to everything without feeling crowded or rushed.

Q: Tell us about The Chrysalis: Monarch Center for the Arts.

A: We celebrated the opening on Aug. 26, and the new space is just a few blocks away from our main campus in Barrio Logan. The Chrysalis will provide dedicated performance and visual arts spaces for K-12 students, families and the community to cultivate their own resilience through the power of creative expression. With our own home for the arts, we will deepen and expand our dance and visual arts programming while creating and launching programs for theater, music, media arts, poetry and creative writing, and student entrepreneurial programs. In addition, we plan to provide community arts partners and organizations with much needed rental space for their own arts programming, expanding its arts network and creating mutually beneficial partnerships that serve the greater community. This is an expansion of our creative youth development program.

Q: Can you talk about the mural that was painted on the exterior of the center, by the students? How would you describe what the mural looks like, for our readers who haven’t seen it?

A: Local visual artist Araceli Carrera worked alongside our students to develop the mural design and bring the students’ vision to life. The mural is a colorful image of a butterfly with expanded wings, but when you look closely, you’ll see the human anatomy of a heart in the center with a set of lungs for wings.

Q: What was the inspiration for the final design of the mural? What significance does this mural have within the context of similar work in the Barrio Logan neighborhood?

A: The image has two meanings: The literal representation of the butterfly is associated with our monarch brand and the notion that the chrysalis is a butterfly in its incubation stage. The more abstract imagery is that of the hearts and lungs, representing the idea that “art is life.” Our kiddos are a soulful and creative bunch.

Q: What’s been challenging about your work at Monarch?

A: The hardest part of our work is watching the volatility of the world around us impact our students and their families. We are generously supported by our community, but the implications of a deadly pandemic for unhoused families is severe and we have needed to step up our capacity to support the sheltering and housing needs of our entire student body at a time when the entire nation has been in emergency mode. The reality is our students have always dealt with inequity, and this pandemic has put those inequities into a glaring spotlight. The hardest part of my job is, and will always be, knowing that good enough is not good enough; our students and their families need and deserve permanent, stable housing to truly stabilize and thrive in life and that requires a broad, dignified, solutions-oriented statewide effort on the part of all relevant players.

Q: What’s been rewarding about this work?

A: There are no bad days when you’re around kids. They’re hilarious and nothing is all that serious when a child is around to remind you that you aren’t that interesting or important so you may as well get over yourself.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: I have to remind myself that biases are real and that I am not immune to them. Judgement and compassion are incompatible concepts, and there’s no place for judgment in the space of service. It’s common for people to judge parents, and even though I guard against that, it creeps in occasionally. I’ve learned to spot those feelings in myself and others and to police them because they are of no value, they don’t help to foster healthy, supportive relationships in our environment or anywhere that values dignity.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: Never be so smart that you have nothing left to learn. It’s advice I now give often, and if you hear it from me it’s meant to be a warning that you might be needing to listen more than talk.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People might be surprised to learn that I was once forced to hide from an organized crime syndicate because I overheard a conversation I shouldn’t have been privy to!

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Well, I’m new to town and I moved during a weird time. So far, I truly enjoy a trip to the beaches with my kids, or a shopping excursion to the vintage shops in and around North Park.


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