Jose Sanchez Uribe couldn't help but get emotional as he recalled opening the envelope containing his first college acceptance letter.
"My mom, my dad and I, we hugged in the kitchen," he said, his voice breaking. "The first time anyone in my parents' family had gone to college; it was a huge milestone for all of us."
Now the Estancia High School alumnus holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in sports medicine from Cal State Long Beach.
In his mind, he may not have gotten to that point without the services and support of Save Our Youth, a Costa Mesa-based nonprofit.
Last week he joined about 200 other people at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity at South Coast Collection for SOY's annual Fiesta fundraiser, which this year doubled as the organization's 25th-anniversary celebration.
"I'm grateful for what SOY has done for me, provided for me," Sanchez Uribe, now a SOY board member, told the crowd. "I'm grateful for everything you have provided to SOY and that we've been able to keep SOY afloat even during its hard times. It definitely has changed some lives.
"Here's to another 25 years."
Tools for success
In 1993, a group of parents and residents fed up with escalating gang violence in Costa Mesa's Westside banded together to establish SOY.
The goal was to give teenagers in the area — many of whom come from lower-income households or are the children of recent immigrants — the tutoring, mentorship, support and resources to make them successful in middle school, high school and beyond.
Today, operating out of its center in the heart of the Westside, SOY provides a bevy of academic, health, arts, dance and music programs to roughly 400 students each year.
Officials estimate the organization has served more than 10,000 youths in the past quarter-century.
SOY has sought to "level the playing field" and ensure Westside children have "the same opportunities that all other kids had," said Cesar Cappellini, the organization's longtime board chairman.
Cappellini said SOY gives students a safe place to study and socialize and provides access to the internet and other technology that may otherwise not be not readily available to them.
"They treat SOY as a second home," he said. "It's part of their living room."
‘Wide range of opportunities’
While many of SOY's efforts tend toward the academic side, the organization also focuses on fitness, offering an array of classes and equipment at its center.
Regular hiking trips get students into nature and enable them to explore areas they may have never been before.
SOY also has a Girls Program aimed at empowering young women to tackle the challenges they face growing up.
"It gives the students a wide range of opportunities," said Silvia Rosales, the organization's operations manager. "You have students from the entire spectrum — from those who are really struggling in their academics to those that excel in their academics but probably never have been able to take a music lesson. So the actual center gives them the opportunity to be able to do a wealth of things."
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener for students is the college tour. Each year, SOY takes a group on a whirlwind trip to several campuses throughout the state.
Angela Garcia, 18, a senior at Estancia High in Costa Mesa, went on the trip as a sophomore. As a result, she's considering heading north — possibly to San Francisco — for college.
She said SOY helped her navigate the college application process.
"I had a place to ask questions," she said. "Especially as a first-generation student, it's kind of hard when even your parents don't know what the heck a college application is. So I'm very grateful for the fact that I had SOY to lean on when I had really tough questions."
Newport Harbor High School senior Kevin Castaneda, 17, has been attending SOY regularly for about two years. Now, he said, he feels like part of a community.
"This place is where we can all unite as a group and get along with everybody," he said. "I have friends in eighth grade because of SOY. I have friends from Estancia, all these schools."
‘Spirit and joy’
SOY officials don't deny that things are different than they were 25 years ago. The changes include the organization's address — it moved to a new facility at 2045 Meyer Place in 2016 after 23 years at what is now Rea Elementary School.
However, they say the community's need and support for SOY have been constant.
"The one thing that hasn't changed is the spirit and joy and wonderful warmth of all the supporters that we had through the years — all the volunteers and all the people who have made SOY what it really is," Jean Forbath, one of SOY's founders, said during last Friday's Fiesta.
"Soy," she pointed out, means "I am" in Spanish, as in, "I am a wonderful group of people who continue to show their love and support of young teens who desperately need what they have received from SOY for all these years."