Freedom Writers visit Erie high school

Category:  News
Wednesday, October 11th, 2017 at 2:23 PM

Narada Comans and Sue Ellen Alpizar both experienced homelessness and abuse before the age of 18; there were points in each of their lives in which neither of them thought they would graduate high school.

Former high school teacher and mastermind behind the book “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” Erin Gruwell, inspired Comans and Alpizar to be better than the circumstances they were dealt.

Now, 20 years later, the two members of the Freedom Writers Foundation travel all over the world to speak to kids and community members about overcoming hardships and struggles in their youth. On Oct. 4, the two spoke of their experiences at Erie High School.

Comans’ story starts in East Hill, Pittsburgh, where he lived with his mother, father, brother and sister. His father became a drug dealer, drug user and domestic abuser, often hitting his mother in front of Comans and his siblings.

Comans said of the time his father pushed his mother down the steps of his house: “I remember looking at him in that moment and just thinking ‘wow.’ From that day forward, I decided that wasn’t who I wanted to be.”

Eventually, Comans and his mother moved to Los Angeles; when the Los Angeles riots started a few years later, the two moved to Long Beach, California. He attended Woodrow Wilson High School, where Gruwell taught.

Comans and his mother were evicted from their house and moved into a stranger’s home.

The only possessions Comans had in his room were a mattress on the floor, a blanket and a mirror. When he realized he was homeless, he said he was extremely embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to find out.

One day during class, Gruwell had the students play the “line game” where she would tell students to step on the line if they belonged to a certain group she was describing. During the game, she asked anyone who knew a homeless person to step on the line — and then she told the kids who were homeless themselves to stay on the line. Comans hesitated, but eventually remained in his spot on the line.

“I looked to my left [and] Sue (Alpizar) was there,” he said. “I looked to my left and right and realized I wasn’t the only one. It was so much more than a game, it was a step to freedom for me.”

Alpizar has a similar story as her father was an alcoholic and her mother was “narcissistic” and a “habitual cheater.”

Alpizar said her father found out her mother was cheating on him and threw her out of the house. Her mother called the police on her father, and he was arrested for domestic abuse.

Shortly after, Alpizar came home to an eviction notice which stated she and her family had to leave within three days. She, her brother and her mother moved into a camper that was parked at a gas station. Alpizar recalls this as one of her lowest points.

“I remember praying to God that I didn’t want to wake up,” she said.

She attempted suicide and eventually dropped out of school because she “didn’t want to face anybody.” Finally, she came to the conclusion that her life needed to change and “it wasn’t going to change because of her [Alpizar’s mother].”

She began to take care of her brother, who passed away when Alpizar was 16.

“The day that he died, my mother was getting her hair done [and] by the time we got to the hospital, he was gone,” she said.

She said at that point she was determined to live a full life for her brother.

“I was going to graduate for him. I was going to go to college for him.”

She returned to school and Gruwell was her teacher.

“She was like a sunflower in a dark room,” she said.

Gruwell helped Alpizar realize she had a learning disability and helped her become a great student despite her difficulties.

“Every single time I doubted myself, there was someone who believed in me,” she said. “I remember being terrified to share my story; I felt like I was telling all my family. They [the Freedom Writers] taught me that I was a survivor. I survived because of them.”

Now, Alpizar is the fiscal and human resources director at the Freedom Writers Foundation. She used to work at a medical billing office, but she “hated it because I felt like I wasn’t making a difference in anybody’s life.”

Around the time the “Freedom Writers” movie came out, Gruwell wanted to develop a speaker program for the foundation.

Alpizar applied, interviewed and got a job at the foundation, where she helped create the speakers program, recruiting Freedom Writers to go out and give lectures in the community.

“I’m very happy to say that every day I go to work [and] I’m listening to people write to us, or call us, or other kids open up once we open up. It’s just a wonderful feeling that I’m making a difference,” she said.

About children who are experiencing the same things as she did in her youth, she said:

“It’s not always going to be that way. There’s still opportunity, there’s still a chance, there’s still hope for the future. Even in the darkest room, there’s some light.”

She also encourages teenagers to find their emotional outlets, whether it be writing, art or poetry.

“For me, it was poisonous to keep all of those emotions in and bottle that up,” she said. “Once you’re able to put it out, you’re able to find some peace.”

Comans is currently an outreach speaker for the Freedom Writers Foundation, which was founded by Gruwell in 1997. He began speaking in 2006, when Alpizar recruited him.

“In my family, we’re big on legacy, [and] this book...from what was just supposed to be a book assignment to what it turned into is absolutely phenomenal and humbling.”

Comans said sometimes teenagers come up to him after lectures and tell stories of their lives that he can relate to and it’s like “a back to the future moment.”

“I look at myself talking to my younger self in any of those kids, so I tell them whatever they’re going through...I’ve been there and it doesn’t last all the time.”

He continued: “Don’t let those moments define who you are. Those moments can shape you, but let it be for good. Don’t let it be for bad, because these moments are just moments — it’s not going to be like this forever.”

Dakota Palmer is the news editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at

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