AJ works in behavioral health industry and teaches kids how to provide tools for themselves; tools that might not be immediately available. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the most adaptable man on a planet,” AJ says. He often reflects on personal experience, on support system he had to build for himself at the age of five in order to survive.

“So I’m five years old and I make a friend that goes to the same school, he lives three doors down. I was constantly going to his house, and hanging with him, and then I started to hang out with his family. I’d kind of go over there in the morning and his mom would make breakfast, and I’d sit there and I’d eat a living crap out of this breakfast. How many tortillas do you want? And she made them from scratch, it wasn’t even tortillas that you’d buy at the store. So, how do you say ‘No’ to that? Yes, I want something to eat, yes, I will eat again. I found myself eating there everyday and then it became pretty consistent.

“There was a point in time where I didn’t want to go home. You know, my family was so involved in gangs and… So I just kept going over and eventually she kind of noticed the pattern of, ‘This kid’s always at my house!’ So she just took it in her own liberty, like ‘Hey, from now on, whenever you’re hungry, doesn’t matter if it’s morning, before school, if it’s after school, if it’s dinnertime or if it’s in the middle of the night – you come over and you eat.’ Of course this is all broken English.

“By the time I was ten years old I was spending five years with this family. They kind of started seeing the bits and pieces of my life. I was worried about things like bills, and food, and making sure that the water was coming out of the tap they didn’t shut it off; which is terrible for a ten-year-old.

“Mario and Maria are definitely the people that were – people from Mexico, where they’re originally are from, would come over and they’d stay with them for few weeks until they got on their feet, found a job – they were constantly taking care of someone. They had a little house in the back. They just did the same thing for me. Only instead of crossing the border I just passed a few houses.

“I think they taught me how to care for someone else genuinely, without asking for anything in return. From Mario’s aspect he taught me that it’s OK to make fun of each other, and make jokes, and not to worry. To be ten.

“I didn’t really reflect on any of this until about a year ago, to be honest with you. Mario’s passed away a few years ago. When he passed away I really felt like I lost my dad. The family that really was my support system, and they were the people that showed me about love and they showed me about carrying, there was even times when they were teaching my how to shave and doing all those parental things that weren’t there for me on the consistent basis. My security blanket, people that made me feel safe. And I do really well when there are people that say to me, ‘Hey AJ, I’m really proud of you,’ or ‘Hey AJ, you’re messing up,’ or ‘Hey, let’s just go and get lunch. Don’t worry about it, I’ll buy.’

“That’s when you see yourself going to talk to a boy or a girl that is way out of your league, or going for the job that pays much more and you’re kind of nervous about it, ‘oh, I don’t know…’

“And the only other thing I have to say is that the Suns got robbed on the NBA Lottery Draft.”

listen to Open Conversation episodes also every Tuesday on KJZZ 91.5, NPR member station in Phoenix, Arizona, a bit after 9:30 am PST.

music by KomikuLoopstache

recorded, produced by Regina Revazova

note: this content is intended for listening. This transcript might not be accurate. We advise to listen to the podcast to get full range of emotional highlights and other story elements.

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