| YOUTH BEAT
By Ethan Solorio
Ruben Pizarro grew up in Salinas under difficult circumstances. Neither of his parents had much education and life was tough. Spending a lot of time alone with his two sisters, his upbringing gave him an appreciation for family while teaching him to be independent. Pizarro went on to college, earned a law degree and became a teacher.
In 2008, Mr. Pizarro was teaching AP Government at Alisal High School when the question came up about what students wanted to do after high school. Many students told him they wanted to become leaders, or at least have a leadership aspect in their careers.
From that conversation, Pizarro had the idea of sending students to witness a presidential inauguration. His original thought was to expose his students to the government and see history in action. In 2009, after raising more than $60,000, almost three dozen students were able to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
In 2014, Pizarro’s “Dream Academy” took things step further by sending students on trips overseas and on visits to colleges and universities. It also hosted guest speakers to motivate students.
From those beginnings, it evolved into what it looks like today, an organization that empowers students and teaches them leadership skills.
The Salinas Valley Dream Academy is a non-profit organization that takes part in numerous community national events to expose members to the world and inspire them to reach their goals. Not only does the SVDA benefit its members in a life-changing way, but it also makes a positive impact in the community.
The Dream Academy emphasizes individual responsibility based on what students have learned from their experiences. Pizarro said he believes that every student is different and has their own goals, whether it is growing socially, setting higher expectations for themselves, or gaining knowledge.
Pizarro said he spends a lot of time and effort with students every year to help them become the best they can be, and it’s a lot of work. “Trying to meet the needs of each kind of a student when there are 100-plus students is hard to manage,” he said.
Pizarro said he loves what he does and always advocates to do more. He also stays in touch with many of his former students. With help from many volunteer team leaders, Pizarro acknowledges everyone’s hard work and dedication. Like Pizarro, the team leaders are inspiring role models for their students.
“The Dream Academy influenced me to dream and do beyond what I think is possible,” said Maria Cuentas, a former Dream Academy member. “After traveling halfway across the world with Dream Academy I know that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”
A student at Hartnell College, Cuentas continues to serve her community by advocating for voting registration, encouraging Indigenous communities to fill out this year’s 2020 census, and volunteering with the League of United Latin American Citizens youth council in North Monterey County. She said her Dream Academy experience has been the inspiration for her continuing commitment to community service.
COVID-19 has posed difficult challenges to the Dream Academy’s work in the community. A planned trip to London and Paris in April had to be postponed because of the pandemic.
Though the Dream Academy continues to strive toward its goals and they have had a presence at some events, including local marches, the organization has been learning to adapt.
The Dream Academy vision is “a community where youth are inspired and empowered to act,” which are goals that Pizarro said will lead students to contribute to a better world.
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