Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Evelynn Santiago, 18, a freshman at Sonoma State University, tutors Veronica Arvizo, 11, in math and history at the Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro. Evelynn credits the club's College Bound program with helping her fulfill a dream of college.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

by Steve Lopez from the Los Angeles Times

January 16, 2008 She was headed down the wrong path and moving fast.

A 1.0 GPA in her first year of high school.

Zero ambition.

No role model.

No time for anything but taking care of younger siblings for an overworked mother who wasn't always around.

This story is about how Evelynn Santiago finally found her smile, a broad, lit-from-within glow that came from jumping all those hurdles.

The story begins, actually, with Mike Lansing looking out the window in San Pedro a few years back and seeing members of his Boys & Girls Club goofing off in the street when the nearby high school was in session.

"What's the dropout rate?" the former L.A. Unified school board member asked an aide.

About 50% of the kids attending the club don't finish high school, he was told.

"Then we're doing something wrong," said Lansing, who started the College Bound program in 2002.

"We had four seniors in the program the first year," says director Yesenia Aguilar. "And then eight the following year. And then 28. And then 44, and now it's just exploded. We have over 130 seniors this year."

The walls of College Bound's study room are plastered with college pennants. After-school tutoring and guidance are free, and the kids keep coming -- now about 500 of them in sixth through 12th grades. When kids get their college acceptance letters, their names and photos go up on a wall of fame.

Kids who go through College Bound are much more likely to finish high school. Their SAT scores are 78 points higher on average than non-participants'. And 86% of the seniors in the program have gone on to two- or four-year colleges.

Like Evelynn Santiago.

Evelynn was encouraged to forget about school so she could help out more at home, according to the grandmother who eventually took her in.

"I pretty much gave up," says Evelynn. Then she heard about College Bound.

"All we did was give her a path," Aguilar says.

This meant telling Evelynn she was intelligent and capable and free to decide for herself whether she wanted to graduate from high school and do something with her life other than settle for disappointment.

Aguilar drew up a list of the courses Evelynn needed in her last three years of high school and kept her on track. Evelynn feared that when her family moved to Harbor City, she'd have to drop out of the program. But the Boys & Girls Club athletic director, who had known her since she began hanging around the club as a 10-year-old, volunteered to drive her to and from College Bound each day.

"I had a similar family situation growing up," says Justin Owens, whose parents split up when he was young. "I think when she first had someone believe in her, that's when she started to turn it around."

As her 15th birthday approached, Evelynn had no doubt who should be her quinceaƱera godfather.

"I was kind of surprised because I didn't know I had meant that much to her," says Owens, who is African American.

He admits to having been nervous, because he didn't speak a word of Spanish, let alone know anything about the coming-of-age celebration. But he picked up enough of the language to get through the ceremony and be there for Evelynn.

"I felt like it was a responsibility I wanted, and it has helped me tremendously," says Owens, 25. "Until then in my life, it was always about me."

Evelynn says she worked harder than she ever had in school, and in 11th grade at Narbonne High in Harbor City, she began believing she might make it.

"I said, 'I'm going to do it. I'm going to go to college.' "

Five of the six schools she applied to last year were hours from Los Angeles. Evelynn wanted no family distractions.

But the days and weeks went by without a response from any of the colleges.

She waited, nervously, and waited some more. And finally she had a hunch.

Someone was tossing her mail before she could see it. Perhaps someone who wanted her to forgo college and stay home to help raise her younger siblings.

Evelynn asked the colleges to please send all correspondence to Aguilar's home, and last spring, the letters began arriving from college admissions offices in the California State University system.

Accepted. Accepted. Accepted. Accepted. Accepted. Accepted.

She was six for six.

Before making up her mind, she enrolled in a pre-college course at Sonoma State. Aguilar took her to catch the bus, and when they realized they had missed a connection, Justin Owens and another Boys & Girls Club employee, Johnny Walter, drove Evelynn all the way up north, just beating the clock to get her there in time.

Sonoma State was one of the schools that had accepted Evelynn, and she liked the feel of the place during that weeklong summer program.

This was it, she told herself. Nice campus, safe distance from home.

She chose Sonoma State over the other schools and began her freshman year in September, planning to major in criminal justice and dreaming of one day going on to law school.

"I absolutely love it," says Evelynn, who is home now on holiday break. She's spent her vacation working at a job where she's a natural.

She's a tutor in the College Bound program.

"I'm very proud of her," Owens says. "She's accomplished so much in a short time, and it proves that no matter what you have going on in your life, you can make it if you work hard and stay focused."

Bob DiPietro, principal of San Pedro High, says he has "nothing but positive things to say" about College Bound and its effect on his students. He'd like to be providing the service himself, but with more than 400 students per high school counselor, "and more education cuts looming," he needs help.

So does Lansing, whose fundraising mission never ends. He's trying to get College Bound expanded to the 26 other Boys & Girls Clubs that serve about 100,000 youths in the Los Angeles area, and anyone who wants to know more can see a video at

One day last week, before the high school kids began crowding into the room with all the college pennants, Evelynn and I drove over to see the grandmother she's now staying with near the Boys & Girls Club.

Maria Rivas had a stroke several years ago, but she couldn't afford to let it keep her down. She rides a bike every day to a physically demanding, low-paying job as a caretaker at a mental health center. As we sat in her kitchen, she talked about her move up from Mexico many years ago in search of a better life, and about the much-too-early pregnancy that put Evelynn's mother in a lifelong bind.

Evelynn will do better, Rivas said as afternoon light poured through the window. And a lot of the thanks, she said, goes to those good people who gave her granddaughter a push at the Boys & Girls Club. She said they have an open invitation any time they want a home-cooked meal.

Thank you Steve Lopez for telling this story. Thank you Mike Lansing and Yesenia Aguilar and Justin Owens and Johnnie Walter and Bob DiPietro; you are that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that Margaret Mead never doubted could change the world. And to Evelynn Santaigo and Maria Rivas: Thank you for dreaming the American Dream and daring to live it.

And to Veronica Arvizo ...dream onward!

- smf

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