'Youth of the Year' finalists speak out

Contest ends in evening of tearful, joyful speechmaking

Overcoming neglectful parents and breaking free of a gang were among the stories shared by high school students in a tearful and joyful evening of speechmaking at the East Palo Alto clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.

Nancy Orocio, a senior at Sacred Heart School, was picked from five finalists as "Youth of the Year" after recounting her life story of immigration and hardship.

"I will go to college because I don't want my mom to be on her knees scrubbing toilets nor my dad to be drilling sheetrock into an old age," Orocio told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 Thursday night.

Executive Director Peter Fortenbaugh called the Youth of the Year event "absolutely the most fun night we have at the Boys & Girls Club -- our Superbowl." The club serves 2,700 youth ages 6 to 18 in year-round programs at 11 venues in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City.

Along with families, friends and mentors, the audience held donors to the Boys & Girls Club, including members of the Moldaw and Zaffaroni families, for whom the expansive clubhouse on Pulgas Avenue is named.

Orocio described having shared a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and nine other men. Gangs dominated her childhood neighborhood, where she frequently encountered violence, profanity and crime.

A turning point came when she defied her friends and applied to Sacred Heart School, which "felt like a foreign world."

She said she felt she "did not belong" at Sacred Heart and "yearned to leave" until the day she shared her life story in a student assembly and heard the applause.

"I realized I didn't have to be just like them to belong," she said.

Orocio will advance to the Northern California Youth of the Year contest, where she will represent the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.

Finalist Antonisha Fuller, a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School, recalled her most searing childhood memory.

"I was nine years old standing outside of my apartment in the rain hoping somebody would come for me," she said in her speech.

"My dad, my father, left me there crying to myself, with thin clothes on and barefoot. But when someone lets drugs take a hold of them, irresponsibility is inevitable....

"I was just nine years old, looking for love and shelter."

Fuller told of trying to care for her three younger brothers.

"I grew up thinking that we were all going to escape this kind of life, but that was just wishful thinking. All three of my brothers are currently incarcerated.

"I could go on and on telling you stories of things that children should not have to bear, but what I can stand here and tell you tonight is that this cycle stops with me."

Fuller said her involvement with Boys & Girls Club programs since the age of 9 has been "like a paradise."

"It gave me the chance to just be a kid and escape the presence of drugs, violence and the peer pressure that was all around me," she said.

Finalist Richard Brown Kaho, a Carlmont High School senior, said his father was jailed the year he was born.

"My mother raised me and my two sisters on her own by working both day and night shifts for as long as I can remember," he said.

"During this time I joined the Tongan Crip gang because I wanted to feel accepted and have a strong sense of security. Throughout that time ... I made the worst decisions of my life."

Kaho described resorting to violence, abusing drugs and alcohol, losing the trust of his mother and being expelled from Menlo-Atherton High School.

"That was the old me," he said to applause from the audience, including about 15 friends from his fellowship group at First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto.

A turning point for Kaho came after a near-fatal accident two years ago, in which he said he promised God "if I survived I would come back as a different man."

Kaho said today he is "strong, healthy, and humbled by the second chance I was given."

After the accident, he said, "I began to focus on my family and the good people in my life ... I went back to my old high school and apologized to the vice-principal for all of the trouble I caused; I began to work on my relationship with my family, and walked away from my gang."

Kaho said he has been released from probation, reinstated into the school system, learned how to rap and perform, and become involved in community service.

Finalist Janiece Burns, a Carlmont senior, described pressures she said are felt by many African-American students.

"Most African-American kids feel the need to live up to the stereotypes that are placed upon them....

"Some assumptions I faced were that I'd end up pregnant and flunk out of high school. And two years ago, that's what path I was on. I was failing classes and getting into fights, which resulted in a semester expulsion from the Sequoia Union High School District."

Burns said she took the expulsion "as a sign I needed to get it together. I wasn't content with the person I'd become, and was just another stereotype."

She got involved in a church, joined programs at the Boys & Girls Club and, a year ago, was reinstated to Carlmont.

But a huge setback came last April with the unexpected death of her mother, "leaving me to be a mother to my two younger brothers....

"But I have to keep moving forward because my mother would've wanted me to," she said.

Finalist Ruben Ruvalcaba, a junior at Eastside Preparatory School, used the podium to nominate his parents, Ruben Sr. and Carmen Ruvalcaba, to be "parents of the year."

"My parents taught my siblings and I lessons of hard work," he said. "They promised this was the best payoff.

"This was not the American way or the Mexican way, but this was the Ruvalcaba way."

The five finalists were interviewed by four judges: Redwood City Police Chief Lou Cobarruviaz; Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides; venture capitalist and Stanford University trustee Miriam Rivera and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.

"I feel blessed to have shared your stories," Rivera told the group. "You guys really give me a lot of hope for how the human spirit can overcome, in all aspects."

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Megan
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 17, 2011 at 11:19 am

Way to go kids!!!! Fantastic job. We need you, and your courage and strength so desperately at this time. Keep living your dreams, telling your stories, and giving the little kids around you, people to look to as the future! My hope for all of you is that your hard work and dedication will pay off in more ways than you can imagine and you will have long fulfilling lives. Congratulations!

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 17, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Possibly the most uplifting "news" article I have read in years. Kudos to all these kids. If anyone deserves a break, it is they. Of course, after reading this article, it's pretty clear that they would be the last ones looking for, or expecting one. They all certainly deserve our support, in any way we can.

Like this comment
Posted by south PA Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

What inspiring young people! Your perseverance in the face of huge adversity makes my heart sing. It is good to see you recognized. I wish you success in achieving your dreams.

Like this comment
Posted by Lottie
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2011 at 1:45 pm

This is a great story, a testimony to determination and hard work. Also a testimony to the importance of the Boys & Girls club, and to ways we as individuals can make positive contrbutions to our young people.

Like this comment
Posted by Loren
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Congratulations to you Nancy, Antonisha, Ruben, Richie and Naiece! You should be so proud of yourselves. You are amazing and will continue to inspire us all. Best of luck to you.

Like this comment
Posted by Anni
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm

It was a truly inspirational night. I urge everyone who has read this article to visit one of the BGCP Clubs to see for yourself the amazing programs and meet some of the youth that are members. Visit the website

Like this comment
Posted by Anni
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Correction, go to

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 5,321 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 13 comments | 1,975 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,764 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,296 views

The kindness of strangers
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 571 views


Register today!

‚ÄčOn Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More