Emmanuel Catalan celebrates his victory to go to law school despite the odds.
Friday, February 22, 2013
A Feather in the Cap of the Boys and Girls Club College Bound; Student Who Once Called Himself "Worthless" Now Gaining Acceptances And Full Rides from Several Law Schools
By Diana L. Chapman
I felt like screaming with joy when the email came through.
Emmanuel Catalan, 23, -- once a lost, "wandering" kid who believed he had no value -- reported to family and friends via face book last week that he has been accepted to four law schools, two of which offered him a full ride. He is waiting to hear back from four more.
"It was the most amazing feeling in the world knowing where I started and how far I came to coming one step closer to reach my dreams," he told me recently about the acceptances. "Much of it I owe to the Boys and Girls Club for helping me reach my potential and expanding my moral imagination about what is possible in life.
"I keep on climbing."
For Mike Lansing, the Los Angeles Harbor Area Boys and Girls Club executive director, the news was more than sweet. He's been challenged over the past five years to keep the College Bound program alive and running since he created it in 2002-2003 school year as a way to break his members away from the cycle of crime, gangs and poverty. Despite the souring economy and smaller donations, the program's staff still sent 1,000 participants to college over the past four years -- including Emmanuel whose life changed radically.
Within the College Bound program, he quickly surprised and impressed staff when his once failing grades flipped into As. They helped him plan his future in law. But when he hit another ugly jarring in his family life, fears rose that he would become lost again.
Instead, he showed us his muster.
"I am just so proud of Emmanuel for his hard work and sacrifice to get to where he is today," Lansing said adding that there's so many more Emmanuels. "I am also very proud of our staff and College Bound program for placing him on the right path to the success he is experiencing today.
"He just needed our program to free him from the self doubts and provide him with the resources to tap his great potential."
George Mayer, who mentored Emmanuel said he couldn't be more proud.
"We at the Boys and Girls Club saw his potential before he did," said Mayer, a long time club volunteer who mentored Emmanuel. "What a story I have to tell about my first mentee and his journey when he left of the club. I am proud of the paths he chose."
So far, Emmanuel, close to graduating from University of South Florida with a major in political science and a minor in international relations, immediately embarked on applying to eight law schools. He has been accepted so far to four: University of Miami Law School, Hofstra University of Law in New York, Florida Coastal School of Law and New England School of Law in Boston.
The last two universities both offered him full rides. Hofstra offered him a partial scholarship of $25,000 a year.
But the truth is it's nearly a miracle that Emmanuel made it to university at all -- much less that he will soon enter law school. When I met him the first time in a volunteer writing workshop at the Boys and Girls Club, he stood up and told the class he was "worthless," had a 1.8 GPA and had moved every two years in his life.
I argued no one was worthless, but he disagreed. I was about to let it go, when a 16-year-old student, Anabel Jiminez (now 22 and getting ready for law school), offered this up: Hadn't Emmanuel just been named sergeant in the junior ROTC? she asked.
That was the day at the Boys and Girls Club that a boy who was repeatedly belittled and hammered by his stepfather transformed. He didn't realize that being awarded a sergeant title showed responsibility and leadership skills or actually understand he had great writing talent.
"The Boys and Girls Club gave me hope that there was something better than what I had in my present life," he said. "That there was something that I could achieve that no one in my family could ever achieve."
On the other end, Yesenia Aguilar, the College Bound Director at the time, was working to encourage him about all the things he could do with his life. Why not? She had done it herself, determined to get away from the gang links in her family using college. If she did it, so could he.
Aguilar returned to run the College Bound program after Lansing had a disastrous first year using a professional who failed to understand his youths. Aguilar defined the program and understood the kids, especially Emmanuel.
She assigned him a mentor, got him into a writing program and helped him recover credits from his failed ninth grade year. When his family moved to San Pedro, his grades improved but remained average in his sophomore year. With the club's grounding, however, Emmanuel turned his life around reaching a 4.2 GPA in his junior year. The remarkable changes, he said, came from the club's staff and his peers who supported him, believed in him and had faith in his career choice in law.
"We had the opportunity to surround Emmanuel with adults who truly believed in him and kept that expectation of him. He had that dream of becoming a lawyer from day 1," Aguilar explained. "We got him into College Bound, gave him a plan, supported him via tutoring , workshops and mentoring."
She also mentioned that his peers, such as Anabel, made him feel wanted and welcomed.
But another ugly blip would arise with Emmanuel that scared us all. His stepfather, with the military, said the family, including his two half brothers, were moving back to Florida. It was the summer right before Emmanuel was suppose to step into his senior year and finish out at San Pedro High.
We panicked that his now found confidence might come crashing down if he was yanked away from the club's support system.
Aguilar worried so much that "we would lose him," she went to Lansing and lobbied him to help Emmanuel stay to finish off his senior year. Lansing offered Emmanuel a room, but the stepfather refused the offer.
Instead, he packed the family off to Tampa, Florida. Within the month, he abandoned the family, including his own son. Emmanuel helped his mother care for his brothers while attending university and was struggling in his first year with grades, but didn't want to lose his mission. He improved them.
Whatever the club did, it provided him a foundation that stuck. Emmanuel kept in touch with the club members via social media and did internships at the Sindhi American Political Action Committee, The Torture Abolition Survivor Support Coalitions and the Empowering Center for Career Development.
"Nothing has stopped him," Aguilar said. "His diligence and hard work toward his goals and his value in education. He kept the belief that anything is possible through hard work."
An addendum: Emmanuel continues to explore his writing penning out poetry to this day.