SAN LUIS, Ariz. — His efforts to help high school dropouts reclaim their futures and to impress upon them the value of community service have earned Jesse Lopez honors from the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization.

The Yuma County resident is recipient of the John Arnold Humanitarian and Community Service Award. Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, presented the award to Lopez last month at the league’s national convention in Milwaukee.

Lopez has served the past 16 years as coordinator in San Luis of YouthBuild, a nationwide non-profit program that helps youths from 16 to 24 to earn GED high school equivalency certificates while learning construction skills and working in community service projects. In that time, YouthBuild has graduated 16 classes of students who, besides being participants in the program, are members of LULAC’s Council 1097 in San Luis.

With Lopez directing them, the participants have undertaken such service projects as renovating senior citizens’ housing in San Luis, collecting food for the Yuma Community Food Bank and picking up trash along roads and at public parks.

“For me one of the quotations that has caught my attention and influenced me is, ‘He who does not live to serve does not deserve to live,’ by Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” Lopez said. “In that the importance of community service is reflected.”

A native of Guamuchil, a city of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, Lopez was raised in San Luis Rio Colorado, Son., and immigrated to the United States in 1972 at age 17.

“I (entered the country) May 11, 1972 and I went director to the San Joaquin Valley (in California) to work in the strawberry harvest,” he said. “That was not my plan, My plan was to study at a university, but several things happened in my family that obligated me to take care of my siblings. But I also liked to have money and other things that were not very good.”

A foreman who supervised him during those years once asked him why he wasn’t trying to do something more with his life, Lopez said, and that question continued to nag him until he went back to school. In 1993, he earned an associate’s degree in accounting from Arizona Western College.

He had already been a volunteer with Housing America Corp., a Somerton-based non-profit organization that helps low-income families acquire homes, and having graduated from AWC, he went to work full-time for the agency.

In 2003, he was recruited by Project PPEP, a Tucson education and vocational training organization, to start up the San Luis YouthBuild program to be supervised by PPEP. The LULAC award presented last month to Lopez is named for PPEP’s founder, John Arnold.

“The greatest satisfaction that I have had these 16 years of the program is seeing youths retrain and make positive decisions that are going to help them have better lives in the future. I have always believed in young people and I am convinced of the need to take care of them and give them realistic opportunities.”

In many cases, youths came into the YouthBuild program having given up their educations to help their families. In other cases, they made bad choices that led to their failures to continue their educations.

“People tend to label a lot youths as lazy and sheltered, without taking into account they face a very big cultural shock,being migrants, and that a lot of them are going through very tough family and personal problems,” he said.

“When youths take part in community service, they are filled with an internal strength, and they see that they are useful to society. That was what led me to formulate the structure of the program with all those elements — to expose them to the experience of serving the community, from picking up trash to collecting food for the needy.”

He said communities need to do more to help their young people overcome barriers.

“If youths don’t apply themselves, it’s going to difficult for us to have a future generation that is prepared. We have to go further, go directly to the root, to work more close with the family nucleus, which is where young people learn that education is key to the future.”

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