By Elysse James
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Capistrano Valley have been a life-changer for Mario Lopez.
He joined the club as a sixth-grader and quickly grew to be one of the club’s leaders. So much so that the club’s employees nominated him two years in a row for the Orange County Youth of the Year award.
“I didn’t have much guidance and felt like no one else is in my position. I felt lost,” Mario recalls. “The club really provides resources and a family bond and friendships… you could have the worst day of your life or the best day of your life and the club will be there for you.”
Though he didn’t win last year, he grew from the experience and this year received the local, county and statewide Youth of the Year awards, and about $9,000 in scholarships that accompany the titles.
“He’s one of the best we’ve ever had,” said James Littlejohn, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Capistrano Valley (which includes San Juan Capistrano, Aliso Viejo, and Rancho Santa Margarita). “Mario was picked because of his dedication… He’s always there to give back to the community, be part of the community, and help the community be better.”
Mario, a Dana Hills High student, is an officer in the Keystone Club, a group that fosters leadership and gives students a voice. Capistrano Valley’s Keystone Club has 16 members.
“The biggest thing (the Boys & Girls Clubs) has done for me is give me guidance,” Mario said.
As a child, he was witness to individuals who began using drugs, and was witness to the consequences of those decisions.
“I wanted to be the opposite of that,” the aspiring physician said. “I want to help others and continue the path of drug prevention in my community.”
Last year, he worked with leadership at the club to partner with Mission Hospital and hold an event educating about 60 parents and teens on drug use.
He credits his success to his mom.
“She came to this country as an immigrant 30 years ago seeking a life for her children and her future,” he said. “I always wanted to make my mom proud… The little things she says keep me going in my academic success.”
Mario now will compete for the regional Youth of the Year award. If he wins, he will be a candidate for the national title. Mario went through a rigorous process that involved an application, providing school transcripts and letters of recommendation, essays, and a speech and interviews at each level.
The interviews, he said, focus on leadership, club experience, academic interests, community service and advocacy. Involvement in Toastmasters — through the club — has helped him hone his skills over the past year.
“I remember I couldn’t sleep the night before (the state interview),” Mario recalls. “I forgot to eat breakfast but thankfully one of the staff members brought me a bagel. I remember feeling excited to share my life story with the judges, and what the club has meant to me.”
Mario spends about 4-5 hours each weekday at the club, sometimes also visiting in the morning before school.
“We spend a lot of time with these kids on a regular basis to make sure they have a path they choose, and it’s a positive path,” Littlejohn said.
Mario says many of his favorite memories come from the club, including his first trip out of the state, first ride on an airplane (both to the national conference in Georgia) and his first ride on a roller-coaster (at the Six Flags Over Georgia theme park).
“The club is always there for the kids and their families,” Littlejohn said.
Though the buildings are closed, the clubs are providing virtual programs to about 100 members per day. “The kids are still learning and getting help with homework and getting tutoring. We’re still providing service to the kids and we’d love to make sure the community knows that they can still join up and become members.”