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From Cuba to Columbia University: How My Local Club Helped Me Fulfill My Dreams

By Jorge Hernandez-Perez, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties alum and 2021 National Finalist for Boys & Girls Clubs Of America Youth Of The Year.

As seen on bgca.org

Columbia University. Stage appearances with First Lady Jill Biden. One of six top teens representing Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide as a youth leader and ambassador.

I was always determined to bring my ambitions to life, but none of them would be possible if I hadn’t found my Boys & Girls Clubs.

I was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and I lived there until I was seven years old. My grandmother won the visa lottery, and by some stroke of luck, she was able to invite my mother and me to join her.

We arrived in the United States with little money. My mom was a civil engineer in Cuba, but her degree wasn’t recognized in the U.S., so she had to start all over. She took a job at the airport until she decided to return to school and become a nurse.

Seeing how determined my mother was to succeed despite a system stacked against her gave me strength and inspired me to set my sights on great goals. I decided from a young age that I wouldn’t let my circumstances keep me from reaching my dreams — and I understood that the best path towards a fulfilling future was a good education.

How $25 Changed My Life

When I started elementary school, I found faults within our public education system. As an immigrant from a low-income household, I found various economic barriers to entry, particularly in my attempts to join student organizations. Once I was in high school, I did not have transportation to and from school and, since it was my goal to join clubs, I heavily relied on public transportation after school.

From this, I directly saw how important it was to make public services accessible to all, mainly due to the fact that I spent 7 hours a week on the Sarasota SCAT bus. However, I also came to the realization that I needed to expand my horizons to mentorship organizations that could guide me in my future pursuits. When summer break rolled around, I wanted to make sure I was taking strategic steps toward expanding my opportunities. I was already thinking about my college applications and feeling overwhelmed at this point.

I started researching summer programs I could participate in, and I found a program called mm(Students Taking Active Roles) Leadership through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties. My mom told me that she couldn’t afford to pay for anything extra that summer, so when I saw that the program fee could be waived for students from low-income households if they paid the $25 Club membership, I decided to fill out the application. I got into STAR, so I went to my mom and said, “Mom, can I have $25?”

That $25 changed the course of my life.

Newfound Confidence, Thanks to My Club

I’ll never forget when I was in the 4th grade, I packed my lunch for school — a very standard Cuban lunch of rice, beans, chicken and plantains. As I sat down to eat it, one of my friends looked at my lunch and said: “That’s so disgusting.” It’s a moment many children from immigrant families have experienced, and a comment that is mainly employed to undermine our powerful identities and experiences. After all, it was my culture he was mocking. I started losing confidence in myself and tried to assimilate to what people wanted me to be.

But as a teen at the Club, staff didn’t want me to alter who I am, or to sacrifice key aspects of my identity in order to gain acceptance from others. And I realized that’s what I had been doing for a large part of my life. I thought I was assimilating, but really, I was erasing those key facets of my identity.

The Club was a safe place for me to express all aspects of who I am. Whether it was being accepted as a gay man or even being able to voice the fact that I couldn’t afford certain things, I always felt that level of comfort at my Club. And of course, now I eat rice and beans all the time — and do so proudly!

Discovering a Passion For Advocacy to Better My Community

The STAR Leadership and PYE (Perlman-Price Young Entrepreneurs) programs at my Club helped me build necessary skills outside of school — such as public speaking and resilience. These programs also taught me about organization, finance and leadership, which helped foster my passion for advocacy, and ultimately led me to create a Youth Council at my Club.

Being a member of the Youth Council taught me how to use my voice to advocate for change in the public-school system. Throughout my schooling, I never read a Latinx author. It was always a rare foot in Sarasota County public schools when authors of color and authors from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds were included in literature classrooms.

So, I met with members of the school board in Sarasota County, and I raised this issue. Inspired by the sense of belonging I found at the Club, I shared stories of attending an underfunded, under-resourced elementary school with, not surprisingly, the second highest population of economically disadvantaged and Latinx students in Sarasota County elementary schools. I challenged the county and school board to address issues of racial injustice and economic disparity by supporting cultural inclusivity in the classroom and a funding formula that distributes resources equitably.

That’s when I was invited to join the Sarasota County Schools Equity Commission. How could I not say “Yes!”?

As a member of the Equity Committee, I partnered with local stakeholders to address issues like school funding, education equity, tracing income levels to housing inequality and inclusivity in the classroom. Without the Club, I never would have had the pride in my culture or the confidence to speak up for what I believe in.

The Mentor Who Helped Me Reach My Full Potential

My junior year of high school, I met the second woman who changed my life — my mentor, Suriya — one of the most intelligent, independent and powerful women I’ve ever met. We met through the Youth of the Year, a youth leadership program that empowers Club kids to become youth ambassadors for their Club, state, region and the nation. We both have a reputation for being very strong-willed, determined and particular, so it was a great match!

Suriya devoted so much of her free time — evenings, weekends — to help me prepare for Youth of the Year. We practiced interviews together, and she helped me write and rehearse my speech for countless hours (and all that work paid off – I was a top 6 finalist in the nation!). I have never seen anyone put that much energy into me my entire life.

She was the first person since my mother who I felt looked at me and said, “I believe in you, and I’m going to dedicate my energy to helping you succeed.”

Working with Suriya on Youth of the Year and throughout my time at the Club was a transformative experience. It helped boost my confidence, and helped me reach my goal of getting into a good school and furthering my education, so I can have a better life.

Today, I’m 19 years old and a sophomore at Columbia University, and I can confidently say my path has been guided by everything I learned through the Club.

Originally, I wanted to study neuroscience. I love STEM classes, thanks to my mom and my Club mentor, Suriya. When I enrolled, I knew I wanted to study pre-med, but because of my experience with the STAR Leadership program and the Equity Committee, I also realized I wanted to ensure that kids like me always feel represented. Ultimately, I switched my focus from neuroscience to a combination of Human Rights and Public Health, while staying the course with pre-med.

The classes at Columbia University are challenging and, at times, overwhelming. But, when I need somewhere to turn, I call Suriya. She always picks up the phone and never fails to give me sage advice. Truly, she is and will continue to be a friend and a mentor for a lifetime.  I carry all that I’ve learned from her with me every day.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Now that I’ve completed my first year of college, I’ve learned a few important things outside of the classroom. No one will dedicate as much energy into your future as you, so don’t overlook your college opportunities, especially if you’re a student from a low-income background. You’ll likely have different needs than other students, but Boys & Girls Clubs are here to help support you on this journey. From leadership programs that help you build critical skills, to mentors that offer guidance and support, to help filling out applications and financial assistance forms, the Club helped open so many doors for me, and they have all been worth the effort.

Support Kids on the Path to Their Dreams

Starting as early as age 6, Boys & Girls Clubs help kids like Jorge explore their passions and interests, develop hard and soft skills and apply knowledge in real-world settings so they can become anything they can dream.

When you make a donation to support programs at Boys & Girls Clubs, you help more youth like Jorge develop the confidence, courage and critical life skills necessary to change the world for the better.

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