Woodside High School sophomore Bianca Trujillo went from failing grades to straight As last year and is now looking forward to college. The reason for her newfound success? Her participation in "Be the First," a program run by the St. Francis of Assisi Youth Club in East Palo Alto.
"Just because I come from a place not a lot of people know about, just because I'm from East Palo Alto, that doesn't mean I'm not gonna make it. I'm gonna be somebody," she said.
Be the First seeks to help students who are the first to graduate in their family. With a focus on writing and reading skills -- and on the personal statements required for college applications -- it serves students in the East Palo Alto area and is in its second year of operation.
A $3,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund helps support the program.
Marisol Alvarado, the program director, works closely with youth to give them advice and education they need. The group meets every other Saturday, and last year 12 students took part.
"We're so blessed to have them," she said.
Now the program has begun to focus on mathematics. Be the First has partnered with Khan Academy, an online educational resource that offers one-on-one math training for students. Administrators are able to monitor individual progress.
The youth had asked to study math more intensely, after a focus on writing the previous year.
"They wanted to switch to something they weren't as comfortable with," Alvarado said. "We listened to them."
That kind of attention keeps the students coming back, said Trujillo, who had attended the St. Francis of Assisi Youth Club summer program before joining Be the First.
"They're always there when you need them. They're very important to me, now," she said of her mentors.
"At first I was scared about college, about what I was going to do with my life, but (Be the First) really helped," she said. Trujillo was a "trouble-maker" and "didn't care about grades or school" in eighth grade, she said. Now, that's all changed.
"Bianca is one of our best students. She's really turned around," Alvarado said.
After only one year with the program, Trujillo has achieved a 4.0 GPA. When her grades came in the mail, it was "unbelievable," Trujillo said.
Alvarado agreed: "I showed the board of directors (at St. Francis), and I had to bring the report card because it was too amazing even for me."
This isn't the end of Trujillo's involvement in the program. She wants to stay for as long as she needs it, she said.
Alvarado said that students are encouraged to be a member for as long as they wish, but they also push them to get outside support.
"We don't just kick them out after a year or two," she said. "Our students can go to College Track if they want to. We want to make sure they're getting what they need, even if it isn't directly from us."
College Track is an after-school college-preparatory program that offers support for students who are about to enter college but can't find the necessary resources at home or at school.
Several times throughout the year, Be the First students also take field trips -- sometimes to college campuses.
"It opens our eyes," Trujillo said. "They make us see things we need for life."
Be the First students have visited U.C. Davis, San Francisco State University, Sacramento State University, Stanford University and others. This year the group is looking at visiting more vocational colleges, Alvarado said.
"I want to find a college that fits me," Trujillo said. "That's what's most important."
When participants aren't visiting nearby campuses, they engage in activities like bowling, movie nights and community-service trips. Last weekend, they went to a senior community center in Palo Alto, bringing cookies and helping seniors walk to the theater.
"The community service is good for us; we're taken places that normally we wouldn't care about but we should. They make us better people," Trujillo said.
And among Be the First leaders and peers, bonds are strong.
"They're my family now. I met a kid in the program -- I didn't even know his name, but now he's my family," Trujillo said. "I look up to Marisol. I don't ever want to let her down, and all of (the students) feel the same way; we know we have to step it up. I can make it; I know that now."
The annual Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund drive has a goal of raising and giving away $250,000 to local nonprofits serving children and families. People may donate at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/holidayfund. One hundred percent of donations go to the selected organizations, which will be chosen in April. The campaign runs through early January 2012.