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And in this corner… | June 8, 2018

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I am just about to complete my second go-round as a mentor with Operation Jump Start. I had been reluctant to do it the first time a few years ago since I believed my schedule was already far too overcommitted. I wasn’t sure if I could really contribute anything and meet the obligations in the role as a mentor. It would bother me if I could not do it right.

To get you more up to speed, the mission of Operation Jump Start states:

“We help low-resourced, high-potential first-generation students get in, stay in and graduate from a four-year college. We do this by providing academic support, mentoring and exposure to a broader world.”

And on the role of being a mentor:

“Being a mentor to a young person is one of the kindest and most rewarding things an adult can do. It is a special opportunity to share your knowledge and experience as well as watch your student grow and develop into a successful adult. Donating your time is the highest form of charitable giving. Our mentors are community volunteers, over the age of 24 with a college degree. OJS students are individually matched with a volunteer of the same gender for a long-term relationship of guidance (1 to 3 years) and coaching, leading to eventual college entrance. Our mentors spend four to six hours a month with their mentee. These required hours are satisfied by attending OJS events, phone and/or communicating via text and email. This mentorship provides our young people with guidance and assistance to help them achieve their educational, social and personal goals.”

OK, so I thought this might be doable. It was nice to be asked to participate in something like this, and I warmed to the idea. I had actually tried to sign up with Big Brothers right after graduating college but didn’t received a response until a whole year later and by then I had moved on to other things.

So, five years ago, I signed on to be a mentor for a student at Wilson High School. He lived not far from Bixby Knolls, which was convenient enough to see each other and meet up for activities. He was a quiet and polite guy, already a good student in his junior year, fully focused on college and studying engineering, and had a very supportive family. I didn’t think he needed me at all, and I wondered, “What could I teach him that he didn’t already know?”

I spent time with my mentee and saw him through his graduation. It was satisfying, and I thanked OJS for the experience but said that I wouldn’t sign up again because of my overcommitted schedule and other clichés.

Two years ago, the director of OJS came into my office and asked if I would be willing to be a mentor again. I stared at him blankly. He laughed and knew what my concerns were but stressed the importance for community members to take on this role and be a positive influence and role model to a student. He went on with the sales pitch as I stared blankly at him until I relented. The director said he had a perfect match for me and that we should get along very well. He said the student is an outgoing nice guy, good student and wants to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. That in itself sounded very impressive.

Photo by Justin Rudd
From left: Blair Cohn and Antony Alvarado

I was reluctant to do this again for all the same reasons: time, the actual commitment to the role and the concern about what I could possibly offer to a kid once or twice a month. If I commit to something, I want to be all-in.
In October of 2016, I was introduced to Antony Alvarado and his family in their home in Wilmington. With Antony not being from Long Beach, I was concerned about my ability to see him often enough to make an impact. Actually, it was a selfish concern, because it’s easy for me to get caught up in my daily grind and responsibilities. I like to have things close by to manage them and didn’t want to be negligent to my mentee based on geography.

Over the last two years, Antony and I have attended OJS events together, and I’ve tried my best to woo him to apply to the University of Southern California. We’ve had lunches and dinners together and communicated through texting. I saw him perform with his school chorus and been to his house a few times. We always have good conversations about family, life and school.

He’s come to many First Fridays and our BKBIA holiday party. He has hung out with me to see behind the scenes of planning and managing our events and all the little details that go into them. And, if anything, Antony is always a good sport. He came to my 50th birthday party alone and was not shy at all about hanging out with strangers, or my friends, or my strange friends.

But here’s the real stuff you need to know:

Antony Alvarado was born in Torrance and has grown up in Wilmington with his mom and sister. His loving, doting mother is from Guatemala City, Guatemala, and works three jobs to support the family. His older sister attends L.A. Harbor College in the nursing program. Antony’s interests and hobbies (beyond neuroscience) include gardening (with a love for succulents) and just spending time with his family.

On Jan. 7, 2010, at age 9, Antony was diagnosed with brain cancer. He went through surgery and then had therapy to regain memory and be able to return to school. He attended Wilmington Middle School then CAMS (California Academy for Mathematics and Science) focusing on biochemistry and neuroscience.

Yes, Antony wants to be a pediatric neurosurgeon and is completely focused on the path to get him there. Prior to his senior year, he carried eight classes a semester, which is an enormous work load on top of any health concerns and family obligations. Talk about being overcommitted. He never complained about it; he just remained focused and took it all in stride.

While participating in the Youth Leadership Long Beach program from 2015 to 2016, a classmate told Antony about Operation Jump Start. Once he looked into it and learned about the college prep and financial aid, the mentor/mentee opportunity, and the college counseling, it sounded worth pursuing. Thus began our relationship.

Among all this school work, school chorus, mentor/mentee time, tutorials and family time, Antony was diagnosed on Jan. 6, 2017, with metastatic brain cancer. He has recently finished his chemotherapy treatments, and now his doctors keep a watchful eye on him.

In spite of his health issue, Antony completed an internship last summer through the Latino and African American Health Internship Program at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where he did immunotherapy research on medulloblastoma brain cancer. He rode the Blue Line alone each day up and back eagerly getting to the lab to participate in the research projects.

Now the fruits of his labors are paying off. Antony was accepted to nearly all 18 of the universities to which he applied, including USC and UCLA. Antony has accepted a full-ride scholarship offer from the University of Rochester, where in the fall he will be studying biochemistry in pursuit of his dream to be a neurosurgeon. He will be close enough to University of Rochester Medical Center if necessary.

His mother may feel anxious about the long distance from Wilmington to Rochester, and her heartstrings are being pulled, but she knows this is a wonderful opportunity for Antony to pursue his dreams.

Antony considers his cancer just a passenger on his daily routine. He adapts how he lives and moves around the world with the hand he was dealt. He didn’t ask for the cancer but keeps his focus and positive attitude. There is not a pity party nor “woe is me” in his character. And he always has a smile when you meet him. In fact, he’s always polite, caring, outgoing, sincerely interested and shows an exemplary character.

Having spent time with Antony, it occurred to me that I have been fooled twice by the major “bait and switch” program at OJS.

You see, it really turns out that the mentee is the mentor and not the other way around. By being a mentor to Antony, I have learned more from him than he has from me. No question about it. He cleared the haze from my eyes with lessons on persistence, patience, pursuit, gratitude and appreciation of all the little, yet significant, things. The student is the master. I didn’t have any of these issues while growing up and trying to get through high school. Antony has given me many reasons to pause, to stop and think, consider life and its many challenges and rewards, to keep all things in perspective. I see a guy who has his eye on the prize and doesn’t get distracted no matter what. If only I was that focused at his age.

I can only graciously and humbly thank Antony for the opportunity to be around him and his family. I thank him for his positive energy to counter my often hyper-mania, sweat-the-details, workaholic nature. I am his mentee and cheerleader and have no doubt in my mind that he will achieve his goal of being a pediatric neurosurgeon, or any other goal he sets for himself.

I also have to give a happy and knowing smirk to OJS for bringing this reluctant mentor back into its family.

1 Comment

One Response to “And in this corner… | June 8, 2018”

  1. Grace orpilla on June 30th, 2018 6:14 am

    You are spot on the lessons learned from a mentee!.
    I’m on my 2nd mentorship program. My first mentee went on to Smith College on Smith scholarship and Bill Gates Grant. The time spent with each of them gratifying knowing you are one piece of character building for the mentee and have fun along the way with them. Thanks OJS.

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And in this corner… | June 8, 2018