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.


We have so many heroes in this world. But some of the more important heroes, the people that are the glue that make the walls stick together, the people who work consistently day-to-day on a volunteer basis, the people who actually in reality make things work -- are the most ignored heroes in our lives. They are the ones who are there -- always -- in your classrooms, in the police department, at the hospital, at the museum...They are there always -- not just when the fire storms hit.

Here's my first group of heroes -- a set of Barton Hill Elementary School teachers --who retired from their teaching positions at the school, but agreed to return to bring art to the kids in their classrooms under the auspices of the non-profit group, Art To Grow On. ATGO teaches thousands of children art throughout the Los Angeles Harbor using volunteers like the women above. Most of the volunteers for this program are mothers with children in school where they teach.

But the five women above (except for the one to the right corner above are all retired teachers who returned to their former school so the program wouldn't end. Not enough parents volunteered to continue the art classes.

These former teachers, who-would-not-be-named, are the first set of heroes I selected to post -- because they deserve it (even if they hate the photo!)

Do you know a local hero that works with kids? Email me at
ART CORNER FOR KIDS -------------
YOU GO GIRL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dear Diana,

Hello I am Maja Pavic. I am a thirteen year old girl who attends Richard Henry Dana Middle School. Dana Middle School is a nice school and the teachers I have had for the past two years were wonderful and the teachers I have had in seventh grade are great. My English teacher for sixth grade was very nice and she is always willing to help people that need help. Her name is Mrs. Evano and Mrs. Evano would always help me with my work and she would help me in things that I did not understand. My English teacher for seventh grade is Mrs. Bradford. Mrs. Bradford is a very helpful teacher and she is a wonderful person. She also takes the time to explain homework and class work as well. Mrs. Evano influenced me to always be organized and always be ready for school and to be prepared for tests and quiz's. Mrs. Bradford influenced me to do well in life and to have all of your homework ready, have your school supplies and to follow school rules and to be a good student. And then there is my seventh grade History teacher, Mrs. Crow. Mrs. Crow is a wonderful teacher as well; she is a understanding teacher and she can help you in many ways. If you tell her something she will understand. She is a caring and kind teacher. She always cares about the students and how we do in school, and she cares about our grades. She influenced me by showing me that you can have fun and learn at the same time. She showed me that you can do your best; you just have to try you hardest to get to the goal you want. And the rest of my teachers were also helpful to me.
My goal in life is to finish High School and move onto college. In college , I will take classes to be a veterinarian when I grow up, and I will work as a veterinarian on work days and on weekends I will work as an artist, which means I will have two jobs. I will have two jobs because I cannot choose between the two jobs. And after college I will stay with my parents for a couple of days until I find a house and then I will buy furniture and I will buy a ferret, which is a weasel. I will try to be as successful in life as possible. I will buy my parents a house near to my house so we will be closer to each other. I will help my parents as much as I can with anything they need help with. And I will always be there to help my family members and that is what my goal is in life.