Soccer talent and good grades spell difference for students

PORTERVILLE , Calif. -- On a soccer field surrounded by miles of sprawling farm land in California 's Central Valley, I ask 9-year-old Fabian Mendoza where he wants to go to college. "New Jersey!" Fabian says before racing back to his playmate and a soccer ball.

Fabian has never been outside California, but sight unseen, he wants to be just like his big brother, Noel, who is a sophomore almost 3,000 miles away at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J.

The Sequoia Gateway is a non-profit scholastic-based soccer program designed to usher under-represented students into four-year universities. It gave Noel the opportunity to visit college campuses and apply to universities when he was in high school. It was through the guidance of the program's director, Marvin Lopez, that Noel and his parents came to consider his combination of soccer skills and good grades as a means above and beyond the education expectations long-ingrained in their agricultural community culture.

"In high school, I really didn't think I could go to college," Noel says by phone from St. Peter's College. "I applied to a few, but I didn't think I'd be accepted. Marvin was constantly checking up on my school work and my grades, so it wasn't that, but I just didn't think I'd get in. Now I'm here going to college and playing soccer. I love it."

As a high school senior, Noel accepted a soccer scholarship to St. Peter's -- a Division-1 program in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). With that, he became the first in his family to go to college.

At the soccer field in Porterville, Noel's mom says it was difficult to send him so far away from home.

"I miss him, but we are so proud," she tells Marvin's wife, Amalia Lopez, who conveys the words in English to me. " …
And someday I will go visit!"

Maria's beaming smile needs no translation.

The whole family is riding Noel's achievement. His three younger brothers Diego, Jonathon and Fabian, now aspire to higher education. Their parents, Maria and Miguel Mendoza, serve as role models to other immigrant families in the community.

It seems that while so many families like the Mendozas are living in the United States because they believe it can give their children a better life, many are still unsure how to help their children in a world where so much is still so foreign.

What these families needed was someone to teach them about opportunities outside the farming communities -- someone to show them that sending their children to college is a real possibility and to help them devise a plan to do it.

What these families needed was someone like Marvin Lopez to develop a scholastic soccer program like the Sequoia Gateway.

Marvin Lopez was born in Guatemala in 1976 and moved to the United States with his family at age 14. Lopez acknowledges he never dreamed of going to college until soccer coaches began recruiting him in high school.

"I was just like these kids," Lopez says. "I had no clue."

Coaches aggressively courted Lopez's talents, but he didn't know the first thing about the overwhelming application process. That didn't matter, though. His abilities were the kind that college coaches are willing to walk by hand from living room to admissions office if it means a signature from a future star. And this is exactly how he ended up at Drew University, a small private school in Madison, N.J., with a top-notch soccer program and a coach willing to take a chance on a good kid.

"Coach Lenny Armuth came right to our house," Lopez recalls. "He sat down and explained everything to me and my parents. That meant so much to us. That's what got me there."

Lopez became the first person in his family to graduate from college and although he was scouted by professional soccer teams and offered opportunities to play abroad, he decided to put his education degree to work. He became an administrator in the school district -- a profession that presented him with the chance to work in areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, but as fate would have it, he and his wife settled into the sticks of California 's Central Valley where they live and work today.

There are many privileged and prosperous cities in California, places like San Diego, Santa Monica, Sunnyvale and San Jose, where choice education yields a white-collar crust so thick, you forget that there are still towns in the Golden State where tractors outnumber Range Rovers.

There are still towns where work days begin in fields before sunrise because the American dream is still a work in progress. There are still regions like Tulare County, where it is estimated that almost 40 percent of the populace has no education beyond high school. There are still towns like Porterville, Terra Bella, Farmersville and Poplar-Cotton Center.

Head north on Interstate 5 through Los Angeles and you enter the stretch of highway known as The Grapevine -- a curvy freeway pass through the mountains. Merge off I-5 onto old Route 99 and head up past Bakersfield, then further off the beaten path to Tulare County -- home of the Sierra Nevadas and Sequoia National Park. In the valley of these majestic mountains lie fertile fields. Roughly the size of my home state of Connecticut, Tulare County contains the most intensive agricultural production in the United States.

Although farms in California 's Central Valley generate enormous wealth revenues for some, the majority of citizens bear the miserable distinction as the state's most impoverished. That is because the majority of those working in this labor-intensive industry are relegated to tending the fields.

"Pickers" are predominately Mexican immigrant workers who earn bleak wages for long tedious hours. The most recent Census asserts the median income for an entire family in Tulare County to be about $35,000 which explains why over one-fourth of the county's population lives below the poverty line.

It is here in Tulare County where Lopez once came home with an idea. A true educator, he was not satisfied with the negligible expectations that the underprivileged community held for its youth. He was disappointed with the struggling system and was eager to make a change.

Marvin's wife, Amalia, explains the situation as they saw it: "The demographic of this community is very clear. Walk around Porterville and it's mostly -- I mean, you rarely see anybody who is not Hispanic. Billboards are in Spanish here because just about everybody speaks Spanish here. It's an immigrant agricultural town where most people work in the fields. That's what parents expect their kids to do, and that's why most kids who grow up here assume that's all there is for them. They will go to high school and then they will work in the fields or maybe work construction. Nobody is saying, 'Wait a minute, you can do something different.' But that's all it takes. The idea. That's what we want to give these kids. We want to show them that there is more out there. Otherwise, they have no idea."

As of the 2000 Census, Hispanics of any race made up 54.45 percent of Tulare County's population, and that number likely is higher, as the Central Valley has one of the highest numbers of migrant and undocumented farm workers in the state. Within this demographic lies a life cycle yielding generations of minimally educated farm workers who surrender to a system where few flourish and most submit to low-income subsistence.

It is a cycle that Sequoia Gateway coach Pedro Gonzalez and directors Marvin and Amalia Lopez and are eager to break.

Three years ago, the Lopezes took action trying to spread the idea of alternative opportunity, and while it might seem like they simply started a traveling soccer team, the couple actually founded an ambitious initiative designed to allocate educational opportunities to Hispanic farm kids.

Through soccer, the boys on the Sequoia Gateway roster can step outside the stagnant community confines, but the real secret to the revolution is the off-the-field support system.

"We do not travel to a tournament that isn't connected to a college campus visit," Marvin Lopez says. "We are not just a soccer team. If we are making the trip to San Diego for a tournament, then we are also going to look at San Diego State, and UCSD and USD. We go and take tours and the kids sit in seminars and listen to current students speak about the college experience. I can tell them what it was like for me to go to college, but until they are there walking around a campus and seeing regular kids just like them, they just have no idea what to imagine. They've never seen anything like that."

The Lopezes offer tutors and advisers who assess transcripts and tell them what courses to take. They invite the boys to their house to use their computer, fill out forms and write and re-write college essays. Marvin Lopez makes checklists detailing what to bring and what to wear -- and what not to wear -- on campus visits. Sometimes they teach the boys how to tie a tie, and at night coach Gonzalez rounds up room keys and cell phones so the boys are focused and well-rested.

This is what they do to send boys off to four-year universities.

"I was kind of nervous in the beginning," says Noel Mendoza. "I had never really been away from home for any stretch of time. I was only on the East Coast when a few of us from the program flew out with Marvin to visit schools. But once I got here and I got into soccer and school, I started to adapt. It's great to be here. And coach Pedro's son Robert is at school on Staten Island. When we have time, we meet up in the city. We love it out here."

In their first year of operating Sequoia Gateway, the Lopezes and Gonzalez sent six student-athletes to college. In the second year, five more. This year they have four seniors and next year they will have 12 aspiring to institutions. As the program gains momentum and credibility through success rates, they have higher hopes of ushering more boys each year onward and upward. Already, they have successfully developed the first generation of college students their community has seen, and they've even won their league (CYSA North District 7) two years in a row. But the championships are barely a side story. They're more eager to tell you about the team's GPA and the players' improving progress reports.

At practice, junior Romel Velarde's mother Vickie wipes tears from her cheeks as she talks of Romel's improvements in school since being accepted into the Sequoia Gateway program.

"His grades were low but he's so quiet he never really talked to me about anything. People at school would tell us he was unmotivated but I knew he loved playing on the school soccer team. Then he joined this program and now he has the best grades he's ever had," she says, trying to hold back tears. "It's because Marvin and Amalia work with the boys. They help them with their school and have them over to tell them what they need to do if they want to play soccer. They push these boys in ways they've never been pushed by teachers or coaches before."

Indeed, while so many students -- especially Hispanic boys -- are falling through the cracks, the Lopezes and Gonzalez offer these boys a life of something better.

"We want to teach them to be better people. We put them through the 'Character Counts' program. We teach them to be the bigger person on and off the field and walk away from conflict and violence. We have them involved in the community, giving clinics to kids. We give them responsibilities that they've never had before. We really test their leadership skills for the first time," Marvin Lopez says.

To make sure the team is receiving the same message that Marvin Lopez is aiming for, I ask the players after practice to tell me the lessons that their coaches stress most often. The boys say grades, respect, hard work, being on time, tucking in their shirts, working out, running, doing push-ups and doing sit-ups.

Marvin later tells me his secret to keeping them out of trouble.

"I brainwash them into any activity that might tire them out. Why do you think I tell them to do push-ups and sit-ups when they wake up in the morning and go for a good run whenever they have time at night? So they're exhausted! Hopefully they're too tired to go out at night and get into trouble!"

Gonzalez leaves for his job about 4 a.m. every day and volunteers to run practice two nights a week during season. On the weekends he drives kids to the tournaments. In the evenings on school nights and before road trips, he's learned how to tell if the boys are up late online or "MySpacing."

"If I see them online or on MySpace, I send them a message or I call them right up," he says. "What are you doing online?' I say, 'We have a game tomorrow, shut it off and go to bed.' 'Awww Co-oach' they say to me."

But it's the extra effort and care that make a difference. And Marvin Lopez doesn't know what he would do without Gonzalez.

"Pedro volunteered to help coach because his son Robert was on the team the first year," Marvin Lopez says. "He saw that I couldn't do everything and offered to help. I figured that he would leave us when Robert went on to college, I didn't think I'd have a program, but he came back. There are teams paying the coaches in our league thousands of dollars. We don't have the funds to pay Pedro a cent but he does it anyway. He puts in his time after a long day of work, he spends hours away from his family and contributes money out his own pocket into this program. I don't know what we would do without him. Of course we'd love to start a pipeline with a younger team, but we don't have another coach who is willing to do what Pedro does.

"All of our fundraising goes directly to our travel expenses and tournament registration fees and uniforms and meals. We don't see any of it, so we can't give Pedro anything -- unless you count rice and beans and some cold Coronas."

In the end, the responsibility for success rests with the boys. They must maintain academic achievement, they must have the strength of character to stand out and the motivation to excel. They must become more than talented California soccer players.

With the Sequoia Gateway program three years in the works, the Lopezes still are breaking down outdated ideals -- walls that have stood in the way of generations of progress.

"Unfortunately, here in Central Valley there is this image of Hispanics not moving on into higher education. That's just the culture of a place. They don't see the long term benefits of a college degree," Marvin Lopez says. "Parents value a quick paycheck even if it comes to their boys from the fields or maybe working construction. I have to sit them down and we do the math. So maybe their son will get this much for soccer, and this much financial aid, and maybe they'll need a loan for this much but that degree will have them making so much more and doing so much more than they ever could if they just stayed here like everybody else. That's something I have to prove to parents who are still very resistant about sending their boys to college."

Through their constant guidance and exposure, Sequoia Gateway is providing and entrance through college education to a life beyond rural immigrant agricultural living. In two years, Sequoia Gateway will graduate its first batch of students with college degrees.

Now a sophomore, Noel Mendoza is a walking example of true evolution.

"I didn't know anybody who had ever gone to college. None of my friends -- well except for Robert, but he was in the [Sequoia Gateway] program, too. When I go home to Porterville and I see kids from high school they ask me what I'm doing and I tell them I am going to college and I live in New Jersey and they are so surprised. Why? No one really goes away to college, especially out of state. That's just not what kids do in the valley. They can't believe it, but it feels good to tell them what I'm doing. I'm glad I didn't stay there."

Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.