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Pep talk for college bound

Freshmen helped by grass-roots group are told to 'never give up'

August 20, 2013|SANDY BANKS
  • Tracie Smith, left, hugs her daughter DeJanee Smith, a student who received a college scholarship from Neighborhood Youth Achievers.
Tracie Smith, left, hugs her daughter DeJanee Smith, a student who received… (Alton Arnold III )

They lured him with Clippers tickets and the promise of money for college. The deal required Eric Antuche to give up years of Saturday mornings.

But it all paid off for the graduate of Verbum Dei High School in Watts.

His family drove him up to Humboldt State University last weekend, where he'll begin his freshman year classes Monday. He owes the opportunity to Neighborhood Youth Achievers and a handful of generous donors.

Neighborhood Youth Achievers is one of those grass-roots groups we don't hear much about. It's basically one man, Michael Wainwright, working from a cramped office in Watts. Funds sometimes run so short, he has trouble keeping the lights on.

But with financial help from a loose-knit network of Catholic businessmen, the group has in the last four years helped send almost 50 students from low-income families to college.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 23, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Neighborhood Youth Achievers: In the Aug. 20 Section A, a column about a college scholarship program in Watts gave the wrong first name for a donor who funded a scholarship in memory of her late son. Her name is Velma Walker Union, not Thelma.

The scholarships the group gives aren't big. Enough for a laptop, books, winter clothes -- a couple thousand dollars at most.

But that and the classes the organization provides -- weekly workshops on public speaking, money management, networking, study skills -- is helping turn even middling high school students into college grads.

Eric never really saw himself leaving home for college. "I was really shy," he said.

Weeks of Toastmasters classes improved his communication skills, which he'll probably use a lot this year to reassure his worried parents.

"This will be my first time being away from my family," said Eric, 17. "They've been very supportive; I know it's hard on them. But it's time I learn to be responsible and mature. And getting a better education? That kind of heals their hurt."

::

I wrote about Neighborhood Youth Achievers three years ago when the group was just getting started.

It grew through an unplanned collaboration between Wainwright, who ran a jobs program in Watts, and retired businessman John Martin, who'd been arranging scholarships to New York's Marist College for Catholic school graduates.

Martin wanted to get public school students into his pipeline. Wainwright needed an entree to big-hearted donors. The two men had little in common beyond a passion for kids and their Catholic faith.

The group's scholarship luncheon on Saturday was an inspiring window into a private world of personal generosity.

There were donors whose gifts connected the students to where they're coming from: Like Thelma Walker Union, a minister who provides a scholarship in memory of her murdered son. Juan Walker, a Claremont College graduate who worked with troubled teens, was shot to death 16 years ago at his Baldwin Hills home. "We don't know who," his mother said. "And we don't know why."

There were benefactors who reminded the students of where they want to go. Like Rich Meehan, a retired dentist from Rolling Hills Estates who spent every Friday for 18 years treating skid row patients for free. Each year he funds several scholarships for Neighborhood Youth Achievers.

Meehan's roots were not so different from the students'. He was born during the Depression and worked his way through school on construction sites, laying concrete blocks.

His family was poor but always stressed that education was the way out of poverty. He was the first person on either side of his family to graduate from college.

The message his generosity delivers is as important as the money.

"We want these young people to graduate and give back to their community," Wainwright said. "It's an intergenerational thing; someone rises and they reach back and lift up the group behind them."

::

Sha'Ron Berry was in Eric Antuche's shoes in 2009. She was one of the first scholarship kids.

Raised in the Nickerson Garden projects, she earned her bachelor's degree in finance from Marist College this spring. In her college application essay four years ago, she described her family as "a welfare mother, a jailbird brother and a missing father."

"We couldn't even afford the minimum payment for college," she told the students on Saturday.

Wainwright and Martin had to persuade her mother to let her go to New York. Marist had given her a full scholarship, but Martin had to pay her airfare.

"I couldn't afford a plane ticket," she said. "And I didn't have any luggage. They gave me suitcases from their own family closets. They wouldn't let anything stop me."

She and two other grads from that first year came to the luncheon to share their stories:

Christopher Lewis just graduated from Amherst with a chemistry degree. Zindy Valdovinos went from Jordan High to UCLA, where she earned a bachelor's in history this spring.

Of the 12 original scholarship students, five have graduated from college, two will receive their degrees in December and another is on track to graduate next spring. Two others went to vocational schools and are working steadily.

"That's not a bad track record," Wainwright said. "They didn't just get there, they finished."

The graduates made sure the college-bound students know that nothing important is easy.

"Wainwright made me feel that I could be successful," Berry said. "And successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don't quit. So just keep going forward."

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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