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Eric Sondheimer

Abril Draws a Plan for Bright Future

October 25, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Jesse Abril has every excuse to fail.

His mother is a high school dropout. His father, a gang member, is in prison.

Abril lives with his grandparents and two younger brothers in El Sereno, a working class community in East Los Angeles where gang members reside in almost every neighborhood.

He has a shaved head and pierced tongue, making strangers wonder if he belongs to a gang.

He doesn't. Instead, Abril is a shining example of what can be achieved when a teenager is devoted to school and sports.

He's captain for the Wilson High football team, a three-year starter at linebacker, an honors student, vice president of the senior class -- and already winner of a $16,000 college scholarship.

"He's probably the heart and soul of our team," Coach Eddie Martinez said. "He's a tough kid but one of the hardest working kids out there."

Life hasn't been always fair to Abril, whose parents divorced when he was in sixth grade. He had to take on a leadership role for three younger brothers.

In junior high, he hung out with a group that didn't appreciate good grades.

"Back then, it wasn't OK to be called a bookworm," he said.

Something changed in high school. He started playing football, and to play he needed good grades. By his sophomore year, he was thinking of college.

He was awarded a Warren Christopher Scholarship, named for the former secretary of state and chairman of the O'Melveny & Myers law firm. Abril, the second recipient from his school, is one of 61 Christopher Scholars. None has dropped out of high school or college. All come from economically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles.

Abril wrote an essay explaining how he wanted to become the first member of his family to attend college.

"I wrote how the scholarship was going to open so many doors for me and set an example for my younger brothers," he said.

College advisor Elsa Gutierrez-Avilas remembers the day Abril learned of his selection. She pulled him out of class.

"He looked at me, took a big breath, sat down, his eyes got watery and he called his mom," she said.

No one has been more influential than his mother, Brenda. She was married at 15 and gave up her educational options to raise a family. She has since gained her real estate license and lives in Ontario with her youngest son, Andrew, 9.

"He's seen me as a single parent struggle," she said. "I have two jobs trying to support four boys. I've always tried to emphasize if you get an education, you won't have to work as hard as I have. He's done a lot to overcome obstacles. I have a lot of faith he's going to do it."

With $16,000 promised to him if he graduates from high school and attends college, Abril's motivation to succeed is strong.

"I figured there are so many opportunities out there and I should take advantage," he said.

He saw how another Wilson student and Christopher Scholarship winner, Emanuel Pleitez, had been accepted to Stanford.

"He was that bookworm, getting good grades, high test scores, an all-around athlete," Abril said. "He was an inspiration for me. I saw everything he did, all the AP classes he took. I figured if he could do it, why can't I?"

Abril is a friendly, open-minded communicator. Everyone on the Wilson football team, from the tough guys to the shy reserves, feels comfortable seeking advice from him.

"He's just cool," said younger brother Anthony, 14, a freshman football player at Wilson. "People can relate to him. He understands people."

If only Abril could get through to his other teenage brother, who has been hanging out with the wrong crowd and flirting with trouble.

"I sat down with my brother, 'Why did you choose this route?' " Abril said. "He says, 'It was meant to be. You knew me all my life.' I look at him, 'What's my excuse for not getting into gangs?' We hung out with the same friends. Our father was in a gang himself. 'Oh, we're different people.' Obviously, he wanted to go into gangs. I'm sorry I couldn't stop him. Every day I hear a siren or helicopter, I get nervous. I'm scared something might happen to him.

"He's a smart kid. He's just confused. At one point in his life, he wasn't able to see the right path, but I think he can achieve something in life."

Abril has made the right choices because he listens to people around him.

"Anyone and everyone influences me," he said. "My father sat me down and said, 'Take me as an example. I got into gangs. Look at me now.' My mother talked to me. She didn't finish high school. She tells me she wants me to accomplish so much more.

"My grandfather works every day of the week. He comes home and he's tired and sits down and talks to me. 'Do me a favor, stay in school and go to college.' He's worked all his life for our family to give us opportunities."

Abril's father, Jesus, is finishing up a 16-month prison sentence at the Calipatria State Prison near Palm Springs for possession of a controlled substance for sale.

He's adamant about not wanting his sons to join him.

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