Commentary: SOY director put me on the path to future

In the 10th grade, after school and cross country practice, I would walk two miles past my home, the neighborhood market and my best friend's house.

My destination was a center called Save Our Youth in Costa Mesa. This center was a break from my busy home. My home was always too crowded, and I didn't have a place to focus and do my homework. Even though I would come home after dinner, my mother understood and would serve me dinner after she had served dinner to my six siblings and my father. My mother knew the time spent at SOY was beneficial and that it provided me with a place and space that she and my father could not.

Concerned parents in the community, afraid that their youth could get involved in rising gang violence, founded the center in 1999. Now, it serves as a place where at-risk teenagers can receive help on homework and participate in alternative recreational activities.

One day I noticed that something had changed at the center. A new executive director stepped in to take over the nonprofit. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was doing my homework when he came up and introduced himself.

In a community where the majority is Hispanic and Latino, I was stunned that this guy was blond and blue-eyed. As I walked the two miles home, I thought, "Why would a non-Hispanic want to run a center like SOY?" Could he relate to our culture? Does he know that we have posadas for the community during Christmas? As I processed this person's decision and desire to work at the center, I didn't realize that this new director would change my entire life.

That summer he took the position and asked me if I wanted to be part of a group of nine other girls to climb Mt. Whitney. He would lead the group and said it would be a good opportunity to get out of the smoggy city and my crowded home. I accepted his offer.

This was the first time in my life that I backpacked and camped. I was only 15 years old when I conquered the tallest mountain, 14,505 feet, in the continental United States. Climbing Mt. Whitney opened a new world that I didn't know existed.

Every day that we climbed, I observed critically, noticing that as we increased elevation, the vegetation changed. Trevor Murphy, our director, led the center in a way that got me more involved, and I enjoyed it even more. In the winter, he took us on a road trip to San Francisco and Santa Cruz to check out universities. I was so intrigued by the cities and how different they were from my own. They had a different transportation system and long bridges like the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was a lot colder than my hometown.

When it was time to go to college, my plan was to major in history, at least for the two years I was enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. When I picked my classes, I was really interested in a regional geography class, so I signed up for it. It reminded me of the experience I had backpacking the Sierras with Trevor and visiting the cities up north.

Soon I realized I had taken enough geography classes that I could major in it. I made sure I transferred to a university where they offered history and geography as majors. Once I transferred to San Diego State University and took a few more classes, I was convinced and made the decision to major in geography.

Just recently I found out that Trevor had been guiding me to major in geography. The epiphany happened when I received an email from him explaining that he would no longer serve as SOY executive director.

I fell to my bed and cried to my roommates. They didn't understand why I was so upset. All I could say between gasps was that he was responsible for any success I have accomplished. He not only shaped me but produced the independent women inside me. He taught me to love nature, to explore the world and everything in it.

He taught me to observe people and how they interact with their surroundings. He was the reason I ever strapped on hiking shoes and explored a trail. As I cried I thought that I never got the chance to tell him what a great influence he was to me. It was this moment I had realized that he had even helped me with my career choice. He facilitated the journey to pursue my passion in a career in geography.

Being part of this nonprofit and under Trevor's supervision helped me think as a geographer, in the human and physical aspect. While taking courses in geography I soon learned that the center was in the west side of Costa Mesa and also understood that my community served as an enclave mainly occupied by Hispanics and Latinos. And that's why seeing blond-haired Trevor made me question his purpose in the community. Going backpacking and exploring the cultural and physical geography of the United States made me think critically about the importance of nature to humans. Most importantly, I learned that I love nature and that it provides me with a sense of security.

Majoring in geography was the right choice for many reasons. One, I am learning the skills to protect the environment. Two, I have been following a track that focuses on environmental policy at the state and national levels. Third, I am acquiring other skills such as geographic information systems, and I can create maps for any project or a special study. I would like to get a career either working with a government agency or with a private environmental firm. Once I graduate, I also plan to give back to SOY and volunteer my time with the teenagers and perhaps even take them out of the city to see nature.

One important message that I learned from this experience is that sometimes we don't always know what exactly we want to do as careers, but somehow the universe presents us with opportunities and people who guide us to the right direction. I owe my present and future success to everyone at SOY. Without them, I would not be about to graduate from San Diego State.

San Diego State University student ELIZABETH MORENO is from Costa Mesa.

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