Paloma Bautista wanted to go to college, but she didn't think it was possible until she started going to Save Our Youth her freshman year in high school.
Now, the 2007 Costa Mesa High School graduate has a bachelor's degree from UC Irvine and begins her master's degree in social work at USC this summer.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version incorrectly reported Bautista graduated in 1997.
"I'm the only one in my immediate, and my entire family, to go to school," she said.
Bautista's story is what Save Our Youth is about: helping students succeed by raising their self-esteem, keeping them out of trouble and helping them get on the path toward college. That's why she was chosen as the keynote speaker for SOY's fourth annual Fiesta on Thursday night to celebrate 19 years of helping students.
When Bautista was growing up, her counselors and teachers weren't interested in her, her parents didn't have much education and a high school diploma was the end of the line for her older siblings, she said.
It was at SOY that she found the encouragement she needed.
"They really guided me when I felt lost and didn't know who to lean on," she said.
SOY was created in 1993 in response to escalating gang problems on the Westside. Over the years, the organization — which maintains a center on the Rea Elementary School campus — has evolved to include a successful academic scholarship program.
"The population SOY serves has a lot of difficulties and a lot of hardships," said Jean Forbath, one of SOY's founders, "but also a lot of ability and a lot of potential."
In September, the nonprofit was hit hard after its longtime anonymous donor had to withdraw financial support.
The organization had to cut deep to keep its doors open, cutting nearly half of its small staff, axing its college road trips, Mt. Whitney trips and, most significantly for the students, slashing the financial support it can offer.
The Fiesta is SOY's largest fundraiser, which last year brought in about $30,000. This year's event raised a record $42,000, said event coordinator Mary Cappellini in an email, adding the amount is preliminary.
The event featured a silent auction, opportunity drawing and a live auction, where guests pledged to give $100 to $1,000 to help support the program.
Supporters dined on fare by Taco Rosa owner Ivan Calderon, who whipped up cheese enchiladas, chicken and steak fajitas, and homemade churros with warm chocolate dipping sauce.
Newport Beach resident Roberta Feurstein's children are already grown, but she came out to support SOY because she believes underprivileged kids need to see what else is out there.
"It's a wonderful program they have going on," she said.