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EDUCATION / SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

From a Garage Home to His College Dreams

March 14, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His father left his mother when he was in third grade, and for the next six years, David Olivos, his mom and two sisters lived in a converted garage in Santa Ana. Health problems prevented his mother from working and the family survived on welfare. But just barely.

Now an 18-year-old senior at Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, David looks back fondly at the times his mother would walk to an office-supply store to buy him construction paper for a school project and how she always encouraged him to study hard and pursue his dream of going to college.

As a recipient of a Horatio Alger Assn. college scholarship, David is now $10,000 closer to achieving his dream.

"It feels like it's a blessing from God, because I don't know how I would raise that money," he said.

The Cypress resident is one of 105 U.S. high school seniors and the only Orange County student selected for the scholarship. He will join the other recipients at the association's National Scholars Conference in Washington from April 4 to 8. The association is paying all expenses for the conference, during which students will attend a congressional briefing, visit the Supreme Court and be honored at a ceremony.

The scholarships are awarded to college-bound high school seniors who show exceptional promise and perseverance despite personal adversity or financial challenges.

The trip will mark David's first time on an airplane and his first time out of the state. He even had to send in his measurements for another first: a tuxedo for the awards ceremony.

David was a Santa Ana fifth-grader when he first thought about attending college. Participating in a UC Irvine outreach program aimed at students from disadvantaged backgrounds, he remembers going on a field trip to UC Irvine where, he said, "I just got interested. I thought college is a good way to climb up the ladder, so why not?"

Now he's on the football and track teams, and taking a selection of advanced academic classes.

A discus thrower and occasional shot putter, he's easy to spot. At 6-foot-4 and 320 pounds, he is, as one of the coaches said, "the biggest guy on the track team." His size belies the shy, gentle nature of the soft-spoken senior. But his bulk--he can bench press 375 pounds--illustrates his hard work and drive.

"He's such a model kid," said football coach Bill Craven, who wrote David a letter of recommendation for the Alger scholarship. "His work ethics are unbelievable. He studies late at night, and he's one of the first ones at school. If he's not in the weight room at 6:30 in the morning, he's studying in the cafeteria, library or somewhere."

Said Pacifica guidance counselor Regina Taylor: "He's a hard-working young man whom I think will most likely reach whatever goal he sets for himself."

David remembers his mother, Sandra, telling him when he was growing up, "Don't get into trouble, and study. Hard work will pay off later." He listened.

While living in Santa Ana, he avoided the influence of gangs. Once, as he walked home from a late-evening football practice in ninth grade, his head shaved because of the heat, a group of gang members called out to him from a dark alley. He ignored them. Then, hearing what may have been a gun shot, he ran home.

Home has always been a refuge. David said he hasn't seen his father since he was 9. "I don't really care," he said, "because my mom's been my father at the same time."

When David was in ninth grade, the city informed his family they could no longer live in the illegally converted garage in which they made their home. Two of his mother's friends--volunteers at a Santa Ana community center--invited the family to their Cypress home, where they now live.

At Pacifica High School, David has pushed himself in academics as well as in sports. "I try to take the hardest classes I can," he said, listing this semester's class load: economics honors, advanced placement chemistry, English honors, AP Spanish, pre-calculus and art.

The hard work is paying off. He has applied to UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Chapman University, and has already received an acceptance letter from Cal State Fullerton. He's interested in studying medicine.

David said he usually gets home from practice at 5 or 6 p.m., eats, takes an hourlong nap, then starts doing homework. Depending on how much homework he has, he's sometimes up until 2 or 3 in the morning.

His mother stays up with him. "She makes sure I don't go to sleep," he said. And she makes sure he's well-fed, even at 1 a.m.

"I'm proud of David," his mother said, "because he's a good son, a good student, and he thinks all the time about having a good education."

David's 14-year-old sister, Ruth, is a freshman at Pacifica and his 19-year-old sister, Naomie, is a student at Cypress College.

Does her brother study hard?

"Oh, my gosh," said Naomie. "He doesn't sleep sometimes."

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