Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez brought a message of hope and warning Wednesday to the 1,700 students of Loara High School.
Art teacher Shelley Sasaki, who coordinates the Anaheim Union High School District's drug-prevention program, said the school had been trying for years to arrange a visit from Vasquez as a role model for Latino students.
"It's just that he's so busy and we could never coordinate the schedule," she said.
During his 20-minute speech in the Saxon gym, Vasquez told of his own rise from a poor neighborhood to become the first in his family to graduate from high school and the first Latino to serve on the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
He also told of friends from his old neighborhood who weren't so fortunate.
He once spotted a former neighbor behind bars while touring the Orange County Jail.
"I said, 'What are you doing here?' " Vasquez, a former Orange police sergeant, recalled asking. His old neighbor replied: "I'm still doing heroin. Now I'm in here for doing a robbery. I needed to support my habit."
That same man died in an alley about a month ago from a heroin overdose, Vasquez said.
"He doesn't exist anymore. He started clean. He was a good student. He went downhill. He hung around with the wrong people."
Vasquez urged the students to avoid becoming a statistic, citing the 74 Orange County youths killed in gang violence last year.
"Don't be deceived and don't be tricked," he said.
"You are blessed. You live in a great county where there's great opportunity."