Before 18-year-old Menzin Echols arrived at Back Bay High School in September, he had already attended 10 different schools and at one point had lived in a youth shelter with as many as 20 other kids.
Growing up, family members told him he wouldn’t graduate, that he was too much of a troublemaker.
“When I was younger, I had a bad attitude … I’d argue with the teachers and talk back,” Menzin said. “I feel like because people told me I wouldn’t graduate or they didn’t expect me to, it was more rewarding that I actually did it and proved to myself I could.”
Now he’s preparing to walk in Back Bay’s graduation ceremony Thursday at the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College.
During his one year at Back Bay in Costa Mesa, Menzin had near perfect attendance and got all A’s in his classes, despite having gotten D’s and F’s at his previous schools.
In May, he earned the Superintendent Character Trait Award for Responsibility.
Character awards are given to six high school seniors in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District for responsibility, respect, citizenship, trustworthiness, fairness and caring.
When the district was accepting nominations for the awards, Back Bay administrator Kelly Davis wrote up Menzin’s nomination.
“He’s had a tough life, but he’s dependable and the teachers raved about him,” Davis said. “He had the desire to get on track. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have done so well.”
Menzin’s family life has been marked by a series of moves among various locales, including Atlanta and Northern California.
Sometime after his parents separated in 2004, he moved to Orange County with his mother, Delicia, and his now-14-year-old brother, Donavan.
While Delicia Echols worked from 9 to 5 and commuted an hour between her job in Newport Beach and the family’s home in Anaheim, a preteen Menzin took charge of taking home his younger brother after school and making sure he did his homework.
Donavan grew up idolizing Menzin, according to their mother.
“I did it so that my brother would have a positive role model,” Menzin said. “I didn’t have that male role model.”
I did it so that my brother would have a positive role model ... I didn’t have that male role model.
In 2012, Menzin and Donavan moved to Sunnyvale in Northern California to live with their father, along with a half sibling, the dad’s girlfriend and her two kids.
But Menzin said he and his father were “constantly butting heads,” mostly over grades he said weren’t good enough.
Menzin said the troubles at home sent him to the Bill Wilson Center group home in Santa Clara in October 2014. He had just turned 17.
He spent Thanksgiving and Christmas Day at the shelter, where children stayed two to a room and spent their time in the game room or counseling offices.
“At one point, I was the oldest person there because kids were constantly cycling out,” Menzin said. “It can really break you down, and it got to me a few times. … But it was my first time being alone, so I looked at it as my ‘practice run’ for the real world.”
While staying at the Bill Wilson Center and attending Fremont High School, Menzin attained two jobs — one doing clerical work for a youth services organization and another as a receptionist at a cosmetology school.
Though he wanted to try out for school sports, he chose work to afford his own clothes, food and his first cellphone.
After spending six months in the group home, Menzin was picked up by his mother and went to live with her in Costa Mesa.
Donavan is still at their father’s home in Sunnyvale. Menzin recently attended his eighth-grade graduation.
Menzin could have attended Newport Harbor or Costa Mesa high schools. But he chose Back Bay, an alternative education school.
He liked the small classes sizes — 15 to 20 students — and the hours of instruction spent with just two teachers during the school year.
Menzin’s time in the group home helped him decide what he wants to become after graduation — a social worker.
“I’d look at these kids and they’d tell me what was going on at home, then I’d think of Donavan and how I’d never want him to be in those situations,” Menzin said. “There was one boy who reminded me a lot of my brother, and if he needed a shirt or shoes, I’d go out and get it for him.
“That’s something that I wouldn’t mind doing for the rest of my life — helping people, making them feel better and being there if somebody needs a shoulder to cry on.”
Alex Chan, email@example.com