Estancia High senior helps war veterans

Daily Pilot

Nicole Irigoyen, a senior at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa, has been spending quite a bit of time in a different sort of place for her senior class project.

It's depressing but at times uplifting. The sad stories come at her full force, but so do the encouraging ones.

The sight of the number of wheelchairs can be daunting, and yet they serve as testimony to survival.

In short, it's the Living Community Center at the Long Beach VA Medical Center, and Irigoyen has caught the volunteer bug there.

She's even managed to log a few of her experiences along the way in a photo album fit for any family living room.

After all, the 18-year-old Irigoyen has put in 15 hours there, wheeling some of the veterans to and from their doctor's appointments and listening to their countless stories along the route.

Some of the men have served as far back as World War II, while others have just gotten back from the U.S.-backed Afghanistan and Iraq occupations.

"You just meet so many people there, and then you realize how lucky you are after hearing what they've been through," said Irigoyen, a Costa Mesa resident who just spent Memorial Day helping some of the veterans. "I remember meeting one guy who'd been to Afghanistan, and I said, 'How ya doing today?' and he said, 'I'm doing just great considering I was in Afghanistan a year ago.' "

Irigoyen's senior class project came about after she and her Regional Occupational Program teacher, Michael DeLao, a Vietnam veteran, were brainstorming one day on what sort of idea would suit her.

According to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, all seniors must choose a subject that they are interested in, then get out into the community and explore the various aspects of it.

Because DeLao, 58, was an Army sergeant who served in the Vietnam War along the Laos-Cambodia border between September 1971 and December 1972, he's always had a special place in his heart for all veterans, having himself been in combat for a short period of time.

As the ROP computer teacher for the past nine years at Estancia, his students would create various greetings cards off the computer. But then, no sooner were they done, they would have to discard them, something that gave DeLao great pain to see.

That's when he came up with the idea of sending the cards to the some 200 veterans who reside at the Living Community Center.

"After that, I started bringing my kids there on yearly field trips," he said. "We're talking about people who really need a little help and attention. Veterans are so overlooked. They're underappreciated. Some of them have no families and no visitors, especially at the hospital.

"It's just my way of giving back to the community."

As an ROP teacher at the school, DeLao, originally from Los Angeles, deals with 180 students a day — not an easy task.

"He goes out of his way to help people," said Erika Soto, 18, whose senior project was hanging out with Costa Mesa police and observing various police officers on the job in what she called "Criminal Investigations."

She even got to watch a DUI checkpoint in action, she said.

But none of it, she said, would have been possible were it not for the inspiration that DeLao lends to the class and his teaching — day in and day out.

Soto hopes to attend Long Beach City College while Irigoyen said she will attend Cal State Monterey Bay.

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