Why do I do what I do? That’s a really good question. To be honest, about 5 years ago, I had no answer. Today, I can tell you, I am here because I want to create opportunities. I want to give hope in a student’s life. I am here because I know I can help any youth who are struggling. I am here because I believe in the power of effective youth development. I am here because I believe that after school programs help students achieve anything. I am here because I believe in who I am and who I represent as youth advocate and youth empowered leader. I have worked for my beacon program for 7 years. I have met many youth throughout all of San Francisco and after 7 years, the youth that I once was in the counseling office advocating for, are now graduating high school. My experience working in the youth development field has been amazing, I have met students who are excelling in all areas, I have met students who are struggling in areas and I have met students who were just like me when I was in school. Youth like a once 6th grader who thought she was funny, intimidating and serious all at the same time.
My first interaction with this particular student she didn’t even introduce herself, rather she boldly stated “I am the best soccer player in the world.” I thought to myself those are pretty powerful words and that message is coming from someone I don’t even know and who isn’t participating in our soccer program. I kept walking and she then proceeded to yell out “your team sucks.” I stopped and looked at her with a confused face. She said, “oh no I don’t mean it like that, you’re just missing a player like me.” I laughed, nodded and kept walking down the hallway at Francisco MS. That was the first encounter I had with Jay. Jay was a little 6th grader, who had recently come from Redding Elementary School in the Western Addition District. I had no idea who she was, what class she was going to or even her name, all I knew in that moment was she was not afraid to speak her mind. Days passed, until one day, I got called into the 6th grade counseling office. As I am approaching the office, I hear a little girl screaming about a fight. I felt like I was in the right place at the right time. I walk in and it’s Jay. I see her pacing herself back and forth in Mr. K’s office. That’s when I was formally introduced to her and she was introduced to me and where our relationship started.
I grew up in El Salvador and moved to the United States when I was 10. I attended 4th grade as an ELD student and needed support throughout the day to be able to understand the material being taught. I graduated middle school, went to high school and eventually made it to college. In the beginning of my first college year, a class required me to do volunteer work. I chose to do my hours at an after school program which led me to this moment. When I met Jay, I was still in college and wondering what my calling was. Beacon gave me an answer and Jay gave me an answer. As months passed, Jay was in and out of the office every day, she was involved in fights, rumors, drama and conflict was coming from left and right. Her mom was called non stop almost everyday about her behavior. As worked to get to know her more, I started to realize that Jay was portraying to be something that she was not. How did I know that? Because Jay during Beacon after school was a night and day different girl. In the school day, teachers were completely intimidated by her, students were scared of her, and her mom didn’t know what to do. In Beacon, it was a different story, she enjoyed sports, she enjoyed art, Jay was able to be Jay. Time passed, 6th grade passed and I knew everyday coming into work was going to be a different challenge. At the end of 6th grade, Jay was told that she was not going to graduate because of her behavior during the school day. To me this was a surprise because I knew “Beacon” Jay, in after school and on the Beacon girls soccer team, she seemed to be doing great . Beacon was not only an after school space for Jay, it was a safe space where she could be who she really was. We offered so many programs and opportunities for her. She was part of the girls soccer team, she joined the Arts & Crafts Club, and she even did gardening once a week. The most interesting part was, at school she was not into anything and after school she was into everything. As time went on an our relationship grew, the relationship that we had compared to ones she had at school was surreal. I was constantly in the office advocating for her and she was on the field playing some of the best soccer games she ever had. I believe that Beacon programs can do so much for youth. They have a unique ability to create a safe haven where youth can be themselves, advocate for themselves, promote healthy relationships, teach life skills and so much more. I can definitely say and truly believe that Beacon programs are one of a kind. The lives of youth get changed everyday and all they have to do is show up to their local Beacon program and have the opportunity to grow to be the best they can be.
Today, Jay is in the 10th grade and although she had a rough start in high school, she still comes to Beacon to check in. She tells me that things are not so easy as they were in middle school, but that they are getting better. She says that she has her rough moments but always remembers, WWED (what would Erika do?) and that so far has helped her many times. Recently, her high school social worker and case manager, reached out to me. They needed to have a meeting with Jay and the one person that Jay requested to be there was me. If it wouldn’t have been for Beacon, I don’t think I would of ever met Jay. I would of never heard her counselor tell me that Jay stated that when she grows up, she wants to be an after school soccer coach like Erika. This reminds me that Beacon programs have such a great opportunity to create and maintain positive relationships with youth that continue to grow as time passes. I truly believe and share with my staff very often that we are not just a afterschool program or a Beacon but we are in the business of saving and changing lives.