Throughout time, a community has often determined the success or failure of its members. A youth’s environment shapes the adult they will become, so it is critical that young people are surrounded by positive role models and caring adults in a nurturing community.
Five years ago, I -- like many lacking a steady home life in a tough neighborhood -- took to the streets. Violence became my code, and a stint in jail followed. I emerged from the system looking for a way to make a change, and I was fortunate to find organizations and mentors who believed they could improve communities by being unwavering champions for the development of young people like myself.
It was community–based programs like YouthBuild and Public Allies, which are fueled in part by AmeriCorps that gave me the chance to turn my life around. Through these programs, I earned my GED and gained invaluable job skills. They helped me become the man I am today.
During my time at YouthBuild, program director Alejandro Covarrubias spoke to us on our level. He became our friend as well as our mentor. Alejandro was never the “director” or the decision-maker. He was a human being connecting with us.
I now live life encouraging others to learn from their mistakes and approach situations with the same solution-oriented spirit.
As I said on a panel for the White House Council for Community Solutions in October 2011, “Disconnected youth are continuing to be disconnected because the solutions are disconnected from the issues. And so we as young people see very quickly through the smoke, very quickly.” I know the adversity that troubled youth face, and I saw the shortcomings of a community firsthand. Tempered with my experiences, I am doing my part to ensure that the conversation continues to address the true issues to provide straightforward solutions and real change.
To strengthen and build communities, everyone must play a role in helping Opportunity Youth reach their potential. Part of my contribution was founding LEAD (Leadership through Empowerment, Action and Dialogue) in Los Angeles, Calif., which has trained more than 200 Opportunity Youth in legal education, social justice, and community activism. Community building is at the heart of this conversation, and I continue to speak out for Opportunity Youth.
My story is not an anomaly. Youth want to be part of a community and contribute in positive ways. They just need the opportunity. Do your part by volunteering, speaking up, mentoring, or taking a chance on a young person who wants to change. They can turn their life around and reach their full potential. I am living proof.
Ely Flores is a young social entrepreneur who believes in empowering individuals to transform their lives and become agents of social change.