After five years of hard work and a positive attitude, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Eric Schurz has changed his life—for his wife, his children, his family, and, most important, for himself. That change has taken Schurz to places he would have never imagined: In June, he was invited to Washington, D.C. by President Barack Obama and his staff to take part in the Champions of Change, a weekly initiative by the White House to highlight American people from all across the United States who are making an impact in their communities and doing extraordinary things for a better future.
Over the past two years, President Obama has joined with fathers around the country through the President’s Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative to send a strong message about personal responsibility while supporting dads who want to be there for their kids. This initiative has included support for local fatherhood programs, town halls around the nation, partnerships with outside organizations, and a new Web site, www.fatherhood.gov.
In honor of Father’s Day, the White House honored these Champions of Change who recognize the importance of good fathers as role models in young children’s lives and have dedicated themselves to mentoring and supporting fathers across the country.
Schurz joined 14 other Champions who were chosen for starting fatherhood programs in their communities, or from churches and social services departments, people who sit in higher positions and help their communities in any way they can.
“There were only a couple of individuals who participated in the actual programs and went through the right steps and positive changes to better ourselves,” said Schurz. “We sat in a round table meeting along with two men who worked closely with President Obama on the fatherhood stuff. We pretty much let them know what they could do to help the country, what made us change [the direction of our lives] and what we were doing in our communities to make positive changes; that was really exciting.”
The Champions of Change group touched on topics such as what “family” means to them. Schurz’s response was “being able to see your children smile every night before going to bed or being involved in their activities; family means happiness.”
Living a Negative Lifestyle
Schurz was living a totally opposite life just a short time ago.
“My life was just like a big party— every day I woke up and it was all about getting drunk or getting high, going to see this person or [another] person,” said Schurz. “Like a lot of guys out there, we never had a place to call home, we just floated around and went from one house to the next house. [I was] selling drugs and committing crimes, trying to find the easiest and fastest way to make money to get drunk and high. … That was just the life I chose to live back then.”
While he was incarcerated, Schurz came across the Community’s Fatherhood Program. He started participating and listening to the words that were spoken. Learning those new ways made him open his eyes and see that it wasn’t just about him anymore.
“I had a family outside of those jail walls that struggled even harder because I wasn’t there,” said Schurz. “Hearing my children over the phone and not being able to be a parent to them, and missing those first moments such as their first walking steps, is what brought me to change my life. I got tired of being incarcerated all the time, being on the run all the time and not being able to see my children when I wanted to see them.”
Making Positive Changes
In 2006, Schurz was released from the County Jail and was placed on intensive probation for the second time.
“That is when I started running hard with this new change, and by doing that I advanced in my employment and kept moving up the ladder. I kept going to counseling and the programs such as parenting and the Fatherhood Program, and using all the tools I was learning and turning them into action. That’s what helped me get to where I am today,” said Schurz.
Two of the programs that helped Schurz succeed were the Fatherhood Program and the Horse Program. At that time, the Horse Program helped juvenile youth who were incarcerated at the Salt River Department of Corrections by teaching them how to work with, care for and ride horses.
“When Eric started he volunteered [with the Horse Program] as part of his community service; he needed up to 80 hours a month. He worked until he was done with his probation, then we hired him,” said Garfield King, SHRRP Prevention Services Specialist/Horse Program coordinator at the time. “He helped me teach the youth and take them up to Clarkdale to see the buffalo, and we taught them how to dress a buffalo, wrap the meat and send it to the Tohono O’odham Nation.”
“The Horse Program with Garfield King really helped me see another way of life. I started learning more about my culture, started getting involved with all the wildlife out here,” said Schurz. “[That program] really inspired me, King really helped me see things in a different way; he wouldn’t try to sugar-coat things, he would tell me things straight out. That’s what I needed in my life at the time. Such as, ‘Either you do this or you don’t, you’re going to end up here or you’re not.’ And with some of the parenting classes, counseling and domestic violence classes, I picked up something from all these classes and put it all together, and [now I] live that way.”
Nominated for Award
Kevin Poleyumptewa, senior social worker for the Fatherhood Program, received a request to nominate a father from the Fatherhood Program to participate in the Champions of Change. He thought it would be right to nominate Schurz, in recognition of all his hard work to turn his life around and as a way to encourage others to do the same.
“I wrote a quick two-paragraph synopsis about his story, about where he’s been and where he is today,” said Poleyumptewa. “He was one of 15 men who were selected to be recognized by the President of the United States to attend a roundtable event to help with ideas having to do with fatherhood. The president is a very strong advocate of responsible fatherhood; he is pushing it in every way he can with services and the funding that provides money [for] services like this. He is strongly encouraging governmental support, so it was a very wonderful thing.”
Trip to Washington
This was Schurz’s first trip to Washington, D.C. In addition to attending the fatherhood meeting, he was also able to sit in a meeting with a member of Congress and talk to a lot of people who are very important to the country.
“They wanted to hear my story and what helped me,” said Schurz. “I hope what I said will be taken back and help change things out there for the men and women of the country.”
One major highlight of Schurz’s trip was a tour of the White House.
“We were able to see the room where the presidents have their Christmas, where they read their books, the China Room and the Gold Room (also called the Vermeil Room). [We were in] all these places where presidents all the way from George Washington once sat and walked. It was really exciting to get a walk-through of the White House, just to know I was in a place where all this history took place. I actually got to meet President Obama’s dog; I’m a dog lover, so that was exciting.”
Life Is Different Today
Today, Schurz is employed with the SRPMIC Human Resources Department as the Community jobs and Underfill coordinator to help individuals gain employment in the construction industries along the Pima Corridor. He is married to Rachel Cruz and has eight children.
“My wife has been a really good support; [through] the good and the bad, she has always been there for me,” said Schurz. “I have gained custody of all eight of my children. I have five of them at home, and three of them are up north with their grandmother under a special living arrangement. I also have my nephew, who was [living] in a group home, but now he is placed with my family, so we have six kids.”
Schurz and his family are involved in sports and weekend activities. They stay busy so he can give his children and family a better life than he had.
He continues to be a part of the Fatherhood Program; when time allows, he will go sit in on the meetings. Currently he has a lot going on with the boards and committees that he sits on, and his work; he also helps coach softball and baseball.
“I have a lot of my time geared toward that, and to my children and children of the Community that don’t have that role model in their lives. I want to be that person whom these children can come to and talk to and learn from,” said Schurz. “A lot of [the Community children] are children of my friends who are either incarcerated or not living the right way of life, and I can be there for their children and help them out.”
His Message: Never Give Up
Schurz wants to encourage fathers out there who are struggling or who are trying to change their lives, but may find themselves feeling pushed down due to setbacks or complications.
“Never give up. Of course there are going to be obstacles thrown at you, and it’s going to put you down and make you feel that you’re starting over again, but just never give up,” said Schurz. “What stuck in my head was I saw this [poster] when I was incarcerated, it is of a blue heron with a frog’s head and upper body in its mouth. But the frog’s front legs are choking the bird. The poster says, ‘Never Give Up!’ That is what I think—it’s not going to get better overnight, but just make progress [little by little] and you will eventually get to where you want to be.”