'Youth of the Year' finalists speak out about their hopes

Eighth-graders speak of struggles, perseverance in contest sponsored by Boys & Girls Club

Words like "perseverance" and "sagacious" peppered the speeches of eighth-graders vying to be named "Youth of the Year" last week in a competition of the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.

Omar Avellan, originally from Nicaragua and now an eighth-grader at Hoover School in Redwood City, was named "Youth of the Year" Nov. 8 after an evening of speech-making judged by a panel of outside volunteers, including the managing partner of a technology startup and an assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors.

Avellan credited his family and his education with nurturing his creativity and helping him achieve his goals.

Finalist Roman Loza, an eighth-grader at Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto, said he tries to live up to the word "sagacious" – being wise and intelligent – in guiding his younger brother, 9 years his junior.

"One of my hardest obstacles to face" was moving to East Palo Alto several years ago without the English fluency to understand school lessons and interact socially, Loza said.

"This memory reminds me of the importance of communication and serves as a constant reminder of my plans for success," he said.

Finalist Melvin Santos, an immigrant from El Salvador who is now an eighth-grader at Belle Haven School in Menlo Park, said his mother taught him that "education, not money, is the main foundation to a good life.

"Our community, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and the rest of the Peninsula, is now contaminated with hatred, death -- the total opposite of formal civilization," Santos said.

"Due to this, many of our family members have perished. All due to violence, we have all lost at least one person. This needs to stop."

Santos said the Youth of the Year competition is "the big helping hand that I need."

The Boys & Girls Club runs "Youth of the Year" contests annually for eighth graders and high school students.

To apply, a student must be in good academic standing, participate in the club and have completed at least 40 hours of community service in the past year.

This year's contest drew 13 initial applicants: From East Palo Alto's McNair Academy, they were twins Ahjenea and Ahjenique James, Loza and Paloma Valencia. From Belle Haven, they were Juan Mora-Gomez, Dudley Ryder, Santos and Jocelyn Sandoval; and from Hoover, they were Avellan, Oscar Batres, Kevin Cano, Andrea Fuentes and Jocelyn Prieto.

Judging the speeches were Kris Weems, assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors; Tim Brady, managing partner of Imagine K12; Minh Ngo, president of 100 Women Charitable Foundation; and Tom Friel, former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles and board vice-chair of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula serves more than 3,000 K-12 students in after-school programs at seven venues in East Palo Alto, eastern Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Chris Kenrick


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Best wishes to them
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 15, 2011 at 10:24 am

Great to read about kids who don't feel they have to dumb themselves down to make it in the teen culture. Best of luck to them!

 +   Like this comment
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm

There are many,many wonderful students in Ravenswood District -- East Palo Alto. I work there and am excited to see the great progress being made by students like those above, even if they aren't voted student of the year.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 15, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Thank you for running this inspiring story. These are great kids and I so enjoyed reading about their success.

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Laurie Hunter
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Another fine story by Chris Kenrick ... I love reading her articles.

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