Youth of Year to advocate for 'those in the shadows'


About the author: John Straubel of Menlo Park has been a board member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula for 20 years.

By John Straubel

Clarisa Ontiveros once thought "The American Dream" was indeed a dream, unreachable to many kids in the Peninsula's low-income neighborhoods. High school dropout rates of 70 percent in those areas testify to the opportunity gap that often discourages Clarisa's peers.

Today this 18-year-old is beating the odds. She has been recognized by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula as its 2010 Youth of the Year. The award, given at the local, state, regional and national level, acknowledges efforts to overcome personal challenges and contribute to other club members and to school and community.

Clarisa graduated on the honor roll from Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City. At Sequoia High School, she found herself one of the few Latinas at the advanced levels. She struggled to maintain good grades and soon was interacting with students at the top.

It was when she was a still a high school freshman that she began volunteering at the Boys & Girls Clubs at its Redwood City clubhouse. Tutoring fourth-graders there, facilitating the club's teen programs, and organizing special events, she piled up 200 hours of volunteer work and eventually earned a spot on the club's teen staff.

Clarisa is now managing the club's Success Maker department, responsible for helping young members improve their math and reading skills and developing study plans with parents -- all while persevering in her own high school effort and planning her entry into college.

Her plan is clear: she'll major in communication studies so she can return to her challenged Peninsula community as an advocate for those seeking to overcome the opportunity gap and succeed as productive citizens. Clarisa so far has one college acceptance but has not yet decided where in the country she will study.

"I want to be an example and break the cycle of my community's stereotype," she said in her speech as a Youth of the Year finalist. "Poverty, violence and drug abuse are all consequences of living in the shadows."

Drawing on author Sandra Cisnero's "House on Mango Street," Clarisa concluded: "One day I will pack up my bags, and people will say, 'What happened to Clarisa? Where did she go with all those books and papers? Why did she march so far away?'

"They will not know that I have left to come back, for those who cannot get out."

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