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."