No one in Juan Miguel's family had ever gone to college, but he knew he would. He just needed outside help with learning how to apply and which classes to take to get into college.
As a sophomore at Estancia High School, he joined the academic program at Save Our Youth (SOY) and received the guidance and encouragement he needed to push himself to excel and take advanced classes.
SOY even helped him financially by rewarding him for good grades, which also made him a more competitive college applicant.
"For me, getting paid money for grades made me feel good," said Miguel, now 22 and studying architectural engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "If I got a lot of money, I got better grades.
"It motivated me to take more advanced classes ... just because I wanted to get more money for college and get more college credit."
SOY was created in 1993 in response escalating gang problems at the time on Costa Mesa's Westside. Over the years the organization, which maintains a center on the Rea Elementary School campus, has evolved to steer hundreds of first-generation students toward college.
But now the local nonprofit is scrambling to stay afloat after a longtime anonymous donor had to withdraw financial support in September, according to sources in the organization.
In response, SOY has cut deep to stay open this year, slashing nearly half of its small staff, significantly paring down its monthly financial incentive program, and halting some of its most beloved activities.
"This is a major blow because [the loss] was so much and so sudden," said Trevor Murphy, SOY's executive director. "It wasn't a gradual withdraw where we could adjust. You know you get $600,000 [one year] and the next, you get $30,000. That's a really difficult blow because you're basically going back to square one."
Those involved are still optimistic that SOY's nearly 20-year tradition of giving junior and high school students a safe place to go after school, along with the resources and incentives to graduate and go to college, won't come to an end.
Still, SOY needs to find at least $150,000 to $200,000 to keep itself running next year — at least in its current bare-bones form.
"These kids are our future," said SOY board member Jean Forbath, who helped start SOY and is the co-founder of another Costa Mesa-based nonprofit, Share Our Shelves (SOS). "If we want a safe, vibrant community, we need to invest in these kids who have so much to offer and just need a little extra push, a little extra care, to become vibrant members, and productive members, of their own community.
"These are kids who have tremendous potential, and they just need to get a sense of themselves as being valuable and empowered."
It pays to go to school
SOY's after-school program serves about 400 students, about 125 of whom are in its academic program.
The nonprofit accepts children from all backgrounds, though it primarily helps students from the low-income Westside neighborhoods, said Academic Coordinator Silvia Rosales.
"For most of them, you have the parents who work multiple jobs who are rarely home, just to try to be able to provide for their kids," she said. "Then there are the parents who try to help them through school and want them to go to college, but they don't know any of the ins and outs of what to do.
"For most of the students who are first generation, that's what they need guidance in."
The parents of Estancia junior Erik Cerros, a straight-A student in Advanced Placement classes, have impressed on him the importance of higher education. The 17-year-old has set his sights on Harvard, and SOY is helping him get there with tutoring and a quiet place to study.
Next year, Erik will rely on SOY to revise his college applications and essays.
"I've always wanted to go to college," he said. "It's always been my dream since my parents weren't very educated. I wanted to step up and be something in life."
But like the parents of many of SOY students, Erik's can't help him in his education.
SOY steps in to educate parents on the tools their children need to succeed, said Maria Barragan, Estancia's school community liaison. That's a big aspect of SOY's mission, she said.
Over the last decade, SOY has been a resource for students who don't get involved in sports or other extracurricular activities, or those who need more guidance than they get at their school.
"The resources are so limited here, and we have counselors and they are amazing, but they have 300 to 400 students to meet with, and sometimes you need someone else educating the students about what steps they need to take to go to college and what programs are out there," Barragan said.
SOY's academic model matched the amount students earn — an amount based on a complex model that factors course difficulty with grades — for college tuition.
It was impossible to know exactly how much would be given out in SOY scholarships from year to year because it all depended on how well the students performed, Murphy said.
SOY student Kristina Villegas, 16, said knowing she would receive a scholarship made her think she had to go to college.
The monthly payments Kristina received gave her independence to buy school supplies, such as pencils and binders.
From the time she joined SOY in middle school to today, her motivation has shifted from money to college. She stuck with SOY and sees why others have, too.
"They know they can count on Trevor if they really needed something, or if they need help with their homework," Kristina said. "For other kids, when they have problems at home, it's another getaway."
'That was the spark that started this'
With gang violence bubbling, a drive-by shooting in the early 1990s near Hamilton Street was the final straw for a group of Westside Latino parents.
Forbath, then director of SOS who's now a SOY board member, helped a core group of parents write up a proposal; she also offered up her space for the first meeting.
SOY began under SOS' umbrella until it could gain its own nonprofit status, when parents and volunteers could put their plan into motion.
The organization started as a place to keep kids off the streets; it provided athletic equipment and a boxing ring.
But it quickly became apparent that the kids needed more, namely academic help and encouragement to go to college, said SOY Chairman Cesar Cappellini.
Tutors were brought in, and by the late '90s, the idea for the academic incentive program was implemented, he said.
Furthermore, as funding from the donor increased, so did SOY's services: SOY Girls to give its female participants a place to talk about topics like health and sex, art and music programs, and health and fitness classes.
A big eye-opener for the students — many of whom have never traveled beyond Orange or Los Angeles counties — was the biannual college visits, said Rosales, SOY's academic coordinator.
During the trips, students traveled to visit four-year campuses. They took private tours and met up with SOY alumni.
"It was an opportunity for me to know what's out there, discover new schools," Miguel said. "It was kind of like the moment I discovered I wanted to go to [Cal Poly San Luis Obispo]. It kind of really opened up my eyes."
Meanwhile, the organization's original mission slipped into the background.
"It started as a gang-prevention program to provide a safe place for teenagers and to give them an alternative to street life," Forbath said. "That was our original thing, but we have really grown from that because we see the needs are not just for kids in danger of joining gangs, but for all the kids that are in danger, or at risk of not fulfilling their potential."
'We're still in intensive care'
It was in SOY's first couple years that a donor came forward to give the budding organization financial security — a gift that allowed them to take risks, Forbath said.
The donor increased his giving over the years, allowing the organization to add programs, Cappellini said.
By last year, SOY was receiving $600,000 — 75% of it going toward scholarships, Executive Director Murphy said, adding that they take no public money.
But while the big donation provided growth and safety, it made it harder to garner additional community contributions, Forbath said.
"I think it's been one of our failures that we haven't really been successful in making the community aware of the value of SOY," Forbath said. "It's really hard to get people to think you are in need when they see in your financial report that you have all this money, but it's reserved for scholarships."
When the donor had to withdraw his support, the academic incentive model became unaffordable and was adapted to a points model that cut out the monthly payments. Classes earn points used to calculate what percentage of the reserved scholarship money students will receive.
Other cuts included three of the seven employees, the college trips and hiking trips to Mt. Whitney.
Murphy and Rosales met with each student to explain what the situation was and asked him or her to stay.
"It was devastating," Rosales said. "My first [priority] is the kids, and to kind of take that in and have to explain that to them — I cried."
But SOY didn't lose any students with the change.
"I think that they've realized that the advantage of staying with us was more than just money," Murphy said. "It was the access to all the resources, too. We've really been part of transforming this community to be more college-ready than it was."
Without SOY, there are few places to refer students and their parents to in the community, Barragan said.
"They have the academic support the kids need, so at this point, if the SOY Center closes, especially for the Westside ... I don't know where we would send our kids to," Barragan said. "I feel like if SOY closes, the kids are going to be roaming the streets — what are we going to get them involved in?"
Karla Andrade, a 2004 SOY alumna, said the organization kept her out of trouble, gave her a place to go as her parents divorced, and then provided her with $3,000 to attend UC Irvine.
She knows students need a safe place where people care and will tell them that life will get better, even when they believe it sucks.
"I think it would be such a detriment to the whole community," Andrade said. "This is help they can get nowhere else but here."
After SOY put out a crisis call, the community responded with $35,000 in donations; that made the situation a little less dire, Forbath said.
"I'm telling people: 'Our health is improving — we're no longer on life support, but we're still in intensive care,'" Forbath said.
Still, to keep SOY running at its current bare-bones level, more money is needed.
The idea that SOY could close its doors isn't even a possibility for Cappellini — he remembers where the organization came from.
"We started with nothing," he said. "We started with a group of volunteers. Even if we have zero funds, we'll continue opening the center with a group of volunteers."
Editor's note: Essays from Save Our Youth alumni will appear online and in print in the coming weeks. To read the first essay and view a photo gallery, visit http://www.dailypilot.com.