Some faces may come and go and some kids might leave the nest, but there are others who stay with their neighborhoods despite the changes happening around them.

What keeps people around? 

In Santa Ana, a 17-year-old high school senior named Selina Mendez holds one answer, winning various “Youth of the Year” titles with the Boys & Girls Club of Central Orange Coast this year while viewing her place of upbringing not as a mere stepping stone to her future, but as central to figuring it out.

Let her tell you herself:

When you think of leaders, “your mind may go to presidents, politicians or generals,” she says in a filmed speech for a regional youth leadership competition put on by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the 163-year-old philanthropic group providing after-school programs all over the U.S. 

“But when I think of leadership, my mind goes to the youth around me.”

Mendez, a senior at the Nova Academy Early College High School between downtown and the civic center, won the first part of that competition in January, up against six different candidates in her club chapter’s “College Bound” program.

There, she earned a local “Youth of the Year” honor for an individual between 14-18 years old, one who demonstrates academic achievement and leadership skills.

More importantly, one who demonstrates their role as a model for younger kids in the program. 

The process involved essays, letters of recommendation and interviews before a panel of judges.

And there were higher phases to this competition.


Residents line up for a weekly food distribution site outside the Boys & Girls Club’s teen center in the Pico-Lowell Neighborhood of Santa Ana. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

On March 8, Mendez won a larger, countywide “Youth of the Year” title, up against three other club locations in Costa Mesa, Irvine and Huntington Beach. 

She did not win the next phase, which was the statewide title, but reflected on Thursday that it’s all about the experience.

“Making it all the way to the state level of the competition was a big accomplishment for myself, and my performance at that competition was one that I wouldn’t change anything about.”

She explained why she took on the contest back in February, during an interview at the teen center she’s come to call home, a limb of the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Ana building.

“I’m Latina, and I come from a Latino community, and … those opportunities aren’t really given to a lot of those communities, I didn’t grow up seeing people looking or talking like me in the media,” said Mendez.

This idea of “transformational leadership” – Mendez’s speech defines it “as someone who approaches the people around them and causes change in individuals and social systems.”

“Other people – no matter what they go through, all the adversities that they face, we can count on our success. The small things in life, the big things in life, you don’t have to be the CEO,” Mendez said in February. 

“If your goal is to be a kind person and you’re able to accomplish that” – she threw her hands up – “you’re successful in life.”


Some things about Selina: 

She’s a multi-instrumentalist and the youngest of three in her family, who once helped install a traditional dancing club at her school. And as far as college, for which she would be first generation, she’s eyeing the University of California, Berkeley.

Her parents left Michoacán in their twenties and made their home five minutes away from the Boys & Girls Club in Pico-Lowell, where every Sunday there was cleaning and on her mom’s radio the Havana-born “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz.

Also, Los Bukis: “My mom played a lot of that when we were growing up, but I love more of the rhythmics – Salsa, Cumbia. And once I started learning how to dance, the rhythms just came more natural to me.”

Naturally, through five instruments. 

“I’m learning cello right now. I know guitar, piano, marimbas, and Alto saxophone,” she said. “I write and compose music.”

It’s her passion.

“Everything about it, learning how to read it, all the different components, it’s multiple skills that you have to have to be reading and playing and moving, everything at the same time. And from there, I still wanted to write my own music, to write my own songs.”

One thing she says goes unnoticed in K-12 schools is that as kids grow older and face new aspects of life, especially in low-income areas, that truly special kind of talent can get left behind in a locker.

“They think, ‘That’s not a profession.’ And a lot of people do not have the support in their household to continue, to say, ‘Mom, Dad, I want to be a musician – an artist.’ Luckily, I’ve had the support from my parents from the very beginning. Above all, they want to see me happy.”

For Mendez, the competition wasn’t about a title as much as it was an effort to pay something back to the people who brought her to this point. 

More prestigious than a title:

Recognition from the community.

The corner store is an icon for immigrant communities like Santa Ana. Near the Boys & Girls Club, J&N Market on Flower Street sells beer and groceries. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

Opening Doors to Great Futures – that’s one saying you’ll see associated with the Boys & Girls club organization, whose chapters across the country interact with what are often underserved kids in low-income and disadvantaged metropolitan areas. 

By the club-run Joe MacPherson Center for Opportunity on West Highland Street in Santa Ana, you’ll find apartments with “FOR LEASE” signs advertising 24-hour surveillance, children unloading at Pio Pico and Lowell Elementary schools, and a weekly food distribution site outside the building’s east wing.

The big sign above its wide-window facade reads Joe’s GARAGE / Teen Center, converted from a literal garage.

Its former owner: A car culture symbol and local auto dealer pioneer named Joe MacPherson, whose relationship with the Boys & Girls Club’s 65-year-old Santa Ana chapter has been immortalized on a center wall plaque. 

There, the club staff aim to give kids a college-lounge environment to persuade them on a college-bound life. There’s a main lounge with TV and video games, board games, and a kitchen. There’s a tech lounge for homework, as well as activities like painting and physical sports.

There’s access to the Internet.

“A lot of the families in this area don’t have Wi Fi,” said Maggie Valenzuela, the center’s marketing manager, in a February interview at the center.

And in a city falling short on much-needed parks and recreational spaces, the center has a gym and outdoor recreation field. 

Still, private philanthropy can only go so far. 

In February, Valenzuela said roughly 100 children were signed up with the center, which has a waitlist and caps it to accommodate levels of staff, some of whom went through the program themselves.

“I used to live around the corner from here,” said Osvaldo Palacios, a teen coordinator at the center who now watches kids grow up between math problems and basketball games. “Most of the families that are brothers and sisters from here, I’ve known for generations. I’ve been here for 18 years, working for the club.”

Meet another: Verenice Gomez, a 23-year-old Cal State Dominguez Hills student and teen enrichment specialist who works with the center’s eighth graders.

But you’ll also find her and Palacios behind the kitchen counter, preparing meals for kids as often as they transition them from “tweens to teens” through enrichment programs.

“It’s recipes that we know,” said Gomez, who added she was born and raised in Santa Ana herself. 

Osvaldo Palacios, a teen coordinator at the Joe MacPherson Center for Opportunity on West Highland Street in Santa Ana, said he’s worked there for 18 years. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC
Verenice Gomez, a 23-year-old Cal State Dominguez Hills student and teen enrichment specialist who works with the center’s eighth graders, prepares meals in the teen center kitchen. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

A prime example: Tostilocos — “that was something easy for us. A lot of times I’ll have it at home, or I already know how to make it at home. My mom taught me how to make it at home.”

“I can relate to a lot of them, because I’m like a lot of them. We’ve gone to the same school. We grew up in the same community,” Gomez said. “Whatever they tell us, we try to make it come to life.”

Somewhere in her adult life, after college and everything else, Mendez said she plans to help other young Latinos pursue music. 

“I want to give others that same opportunity. You’re not going to find someone on the street that will do musical accompaniment or record your song for free. I want to be able to give students and kids the opportunity.”

To achieve that? 

For Mendez, like Palacios and Gomez, it’s about coming back to the place that made you, and building it up for someone else.

“I would love to stay here,” she said in February. “My biggest goal overall is to come back.”

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