How to Give Back to Your Community
Some faces may come and go and some children may leave the nest, but there are others who remain in their neighborhoods despite the changes taking place around them.
What keeps people close?
In Santa Ana, a 17-year-old high school senior named Selina Mendez, who won multiple Youth of the Year titles with the Boys & Girls Club of the Central Orange Coast this year while not counting her place of upbringing as one, has an answer just a stepping stone to their future, but just as central to finding it out.
Let them tell you themselves:
When you think of leaders, “you might think of presidents, politicians, or generals,” she says in a filmed speech for a regional youth leadership competition hosted by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the 163-year-old philanthropic group providing after-school programs across the United States
“But when I think of leadership, I think of the youth around me.”
Mendez, a senior at Nova Academy Early College High School between downtown and the administrative center, won the first part of this competition in January, competing against six different candidates in her club association’s College Bound program.
There she received the local Youth of the Year award for an individual between the ages of 14 and 18 who demonstrates academic achievement and leadership qualities.
More importantly, someone who demonstrates their role as a role model for younger children in the program.
The process included essays, letters of recommendation and interviews before a jury.
And there were higher stages in this competition.
On March 8, Mendez won a major, statewide Youth of the Year title, beating three other club locations in Costa Mesa, Irvine and Huntington Beach.
She didn’t win the next phase, which was the national title, but reflected on Thursday that it’s all about the experience.
“It was a great achievement for me to make it to the national level of the competition and I wouldn’t change my performance in this competition.”
She explained why she accepted the contest in February during an interview at the youth center she calls home, a branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana building.
“I’m Latina, and I come from a Latino community, and … those opportunities aren’t really given to a lot of those communities, I didn’t grow up with people in the media looking or talking like me,” Mendez said.
This notion of “transformational leadership” – Mendez’s speech defines her as “one who reaches out to those around them and effects change in individuals and social systems”.
“Other people — no matter what they’re going through, all the adversity they face, we can count on our success. The little things in life, the big things in life, you don’t have to be the CEO,” Mendez said in February.
“If your goal is to be a kind person and you can achieve that” – she threw up her hands – “you will be successful in life.”
Some things about Selina:
She is a multi-instrumentalist and the youngest of three children in her family who once helped start a traditional dance club at her school. And as for the college she would be first generation for, she has her eye on the University of California at Berkeley.
Her parents left Michoacán in her 20s and settled five minutes from the Boys & Girls Club in Pico-Lowell, where cleaning was done every Sunday and her mother’s radio featured Havana-born “Queen of Salsa”, Celia Cruz .
Also Los Bukis: “My mother played a lot of it when we were growing up, but I love the rhythm more – salsa, cumbia. And when I started learning how to dance, the rhythms just came more naturally to me.”
With five instruments, of course.
“I’m learning the cello right now. I know the guitar, piano, marimbas and alto sax,” she said. “I write and compose music.”
It’s her passion.
“Everything about learning how to read it, all the different components, it’s multiple skills that you have to have to read and play and move, all at the same time. And from there I still wanted to write my own music, write my own songs.”
One thing she thinks goes unnoticed in K-12 schools is that as kids get older and face new aspects of life, especially in low-income areas, this really special kind of talent can be left in a locker .
“They think, ‘This isn’t a job.’ And a lot of people don’t have the support in their homes to go ahead and say, “Mom, Dad, I want to be a musician — an artist.” Luckily, I had the support of my parents from the start. Above all, they want me to be happy.”
For Mendez, the contest was less about a title and more about trying to pay back the people who got her to this point.
More prestigious than a title:
recognition by the community.
Opening Doors to Great Futures is a saying you’ll see associated with the organization Boys & Girls Club, whose chapters across the country interact with often underserved children in low-income and disadvantaged metropolitan areas.
Near the club-operated Joe MacPherson Center for Opportunity on West Highland Street in Santa Ana, you’ll find apartments with “FOR RENT” signs used for 24-hour surveillance, child unloading at Pio Pico and Lowell and a weekly food distribution site advertises outside of the east wing of the building.
The large sign above the wide-windowed facade reads Joe’s GARAGE / Teen Center, which has been converted from a literal garage.
Its previous owner: Joe MacPherson, an icon of car culture and a pioneer of a local car dealership, whose relationship with the 65-year-old Santa Ana chapter of the Boys & Girls Club is commemorated on a center plaque.
There, club staff aim to provide children with a college lounge environment to encourage college-bound life. There is a main lounge with TV and video games, board games and a kitchen. There is a tech lounge for homework, as well as activities like painting and sports.
There is access to the internet.
“A lot of families in this area don’t have Wi-Fi,” Maggie Valenzuela, the center’s marketing manager, said in a February interview with the center.
And in a city that lacks much-needed parks and recreation spaces, the center has a gym and outdoor recreation field.
Still, private philanthropy can only go so far.
In February, Valenzuela said about 100 children were enrolled at the center, which has a waiting list and caps it to accommodate the number of staff, some of whom have gone through the program themselves.
“I used to live around the corner from here,” said Osvaldo Palacios, a teens coordinator at the center who now watches kids grow up between math problems and basketball games. “I have known most of the families who are brothers and sisters here for generations. I’ve been here for 18 years and work for the club.”
Meet another: Verenice Gomez, a 23-year-old Dominguez Hills, Cal State student and teen enrichment specialist who works with the center’s eighth graders.
But you’ll also find her and Palacios behind the kitchen counter, preparing meals for kids as often as they transition them from “tweens to teens” through enrichment programs.
“They’re recipes that we know,” said Gomez, who added that she herself was born and raised in Santa Ana.
Prime example: Tostilocos – “It was easy for us. Often I have it at home or I already know how to make it at home. My mom taught me how to do it at home.”
“I can relate to a lot of them because I’m like a lot of them. We went to the same school. We grew up in the same community,” Gomez said. “Whatever they tell us, we try to bring it to life.”
At some point in her adult life, after college and everything else, Mendez said she plans to help other young Latinos make music.
“I want to give others the same chance. You will not find anyone on the street who will accompany you musically or record your song for free. I want to be able to give students and children the opportunity.”
To achieve that?
For Mendez, like Palacios and Gomez, it’s about going back to the place that made you and building it for someone else.
“I would like to stay here,” she said in February. “My biggest goal overall is to come back.”