Thursday, August 02, 2007

(photo: Steve Ybarra to the left, College Bound Director Yesenia Aguilar and tutor/writing teacher Joseph Elizondo)

By Diana L Chapman

It was a warm day at Bogdanovich Park. My son’s team – the Pirates – were playing against a Wilmington team. The game was tight and went into extra innings. The weather was hot – but not too hot – and that’s when I struck up a conversation with the young man sitting next to me.

Sometimes, you just know things happen for a reason. And that day, at that particular moment, in that particular second, I knew I met this young boy -- lip piercing and all -- for a reason. And I think, so did he.

As his story unfolded, I knew it even more so. Steven Ybarra, 18, was moments away from graduating from San Pedro High School and talked about going to Harbor College. He had come ot the game to watch several of his close buddies from his neighborhood play. Having known each other practically all their lives, they had built a strong web of friendship, fashioning themselves like strong threads in a tapestry into a tightly woven support structure.

That's why Steve had come -- to show support for his friends

But now Steve needed a job. He had won two scholarships in poetry, one for $2,500, but wasn’t sure what to do with his life. Harbor College was a possibility, he mused, but he had decided that next week he'd go to the local recruiting office and join the military.

I blanched. My face didn't hide my emotional concern for a second. My forehead wrinkled up (all I could think of was Iraq and all the beautiful soldiers who had gone and were killed and injured there to protect us). Witnessing my expressions, Steve immediately leaped into a defensive diatribe as to why he should join; The military offers recruits 330 different careers to train in and he could select from anyone of them; the chances of going to Iraq were slim, he added.

He did not, however, say the magic words I was looking for: "I want to join."

In the past, I've been always telling kids I meet, "Go to college. Go to college. Go to college." It didn't dawn on me what a burden I was placing on them if they didn't have parents or some advocate to help guide them. To a kid, the lack of understanding --the how-to- get-there-holes -yawn before them like large crevices they don't know how to jump.

Until now, I hadn't realized how much I was blowing off wasted breath -- because I had no idea where to tell youths who needed help to go -- how to pick schools, apply for applications and the myriad of other requirements -- except for their already overwhelmed high school counselors working withhundreds of other students.

But now, I knew exactly where to send a kid like Steve before he made a momentous decision to join the military and discovered that wasn't the place for him. Explore your options, I said, and get down to the College Bound Program at the Boys and Girls Club. For me, it was a moment of realization -- what an incredible gift this program was to this community– one that didn’t exist until about five years ago.

Having steadily increased its numbers of students going off to university from a handful its first year – to now over "40" this year, college bound prepares students on taking SATs, filling out applications, writing essays and how to seek scholarships and financial aide. I used this myself when I was ready to tear my hair out helping my girlfriend's son apply through the college application process. What was taking me hours to do, took the program director a few seconds.

Currently, two hundred and fifty students are enrolled and are studying their realm of possibilities in higher education. They can begin as early as 7th grade.

A loud crack bolted through the air. The baseball suddenly snapped way past leftfield; players on the other team scrambled in vain to snatch it as the Pirate's pitcher, the other Steven who my friend had come to watch, scored another homerun. How many had he hit now? He had to be the best ballplayer I'd ever seen in any of the leagues -- as a pitcher easily sweeping out three players in a row time and time again. Not only was this youth a great pitcher, he was smooth and resilient under pressure, bringing us nearly as many outs with his fast pitch.

What about him, I pointed at the ballplayer friend. Will he go to college? Steve, the poet, didn’t know whether his friend, Steve, the ballplayer, had much of future either, because his grades were less than hot. The poet was bemoaning the fact that it was unlikely the tenth grader could even make his high school team with his grades -- and so was I, his coach and my husband.

Once I was sure the poet Steve wasn't exactly sold on the military, I called Yesenia Aguilar, the college bound director then and there and asked her if I could send the two Steve's down on Monday after school. Send them down, she responded, but I could tell over the phone she was calculating the possibilities of finding a school for the poet in such a short period of time. She'll be waiting for you, I explained to Steve when I got off the phone, and she'll do anything to help a kid. Take your friend, Steve with you. He nodded and the game was over.

We lost 6-5. And I wondered as we left if the poet Steve would lose too. I took a deep breath. The question was, would he do it? I'd have to wait and see and the soonest I'd know anything was Monday.

Steve showed up on the dot that Monday; his friend didn't.
By Tuesday, he’d placed everything Yesenia asked him for – transcripts and other paper work – on her desk. He had fulfilled all the requirements he needed, Yesenia said, but one class – chemistry! I could tell she was running around now looking not only for a college for Steve, but a summer chemistry class. Didn’t anybody tell him he needed it, she fumed to herself.

That same week, on Wednesday, I went to the College Bound Graduation Banquet to watch the graduating seniors get recognized and the Boys and Girls Club give out $1,000 scholarships to those students who had received acceptances and were headed off to achieving a higher education in the fall. One student, Justin Johnson, had received four acceptances (three to UC schools)and received a special $4,000 scholarship from the Palos Verdes Penisnsula Rotary Club.

At the banquet, Mike Lansing, the executive director of the Los Angeles Harbor clubs, urged all students to be accountable for themselves – and to do what was right for them – not their teachers, their parents or friends who may be telling them they didn’t need college.

Break the mold, he said.

And that’s when I spotted Steve – sitting in the crowd -- looking so happy. Yesenia called him up to the podium and said he qualified for the club’s scholarship: “We are still looking for a college for Steve. But he is going to one.”

Later she told me: "He's been great. He's followed through on everything. He was just confused, and now he knows he wants to be an architect. He's awesome."

On occasion, when I go to the club to teach writing, I see Steve -- and it makes me happy. It makes me happy because I know had it not been for my parents, I would never have made it to or through college, which allowed me to have a great journalism career.

Bravo. Steve. Bravo for breaking the mold. Bravo because you went for help and explored your options as my Dad would say. I pray Steve gets his baseball friend to go to the Boys and Girls Club too where they understand that -- sometimes -- there are many , many valuable kids like Steve out there -- just sitting and waiting for a bit of guidance.

1 comment:

Margaret M. Ruiz said...

I'd like to thank you for the wonderful article that you wrote about my son Steven Ybarra. Your conversation with him that afternoon really did make a impact on his life and just what he was going to do. He came right home and told me all about it and the days that followed at the Boys Club.
As a mother, I'm sure you can understand that I did not want him to enlist for fear of being sent off to Iraq. I've already had a nephew join the Army and right off shipped off to Iraq for a year. Luckly he came home ok and is now out of the service for good.
Your article has made me even more prouder of him even more.
So once again thank for that conversation with him that sunny afternoon.