Watching Out for Herndon's Youth

Watching Out for Herndon's Youth

With a new foundation behind it, local group Vecinos Unidos looks to mentor children through high school.

For seven years Irma Ayala has turned to Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United to help her with her school work and just "making it through the tough days." Now Irma, and 19 other at-risk Herndon High School freshman, can continue with the program through high school thanks to a recent foundation grant.

"They help me a lot here," said Irma, looking around the brightly lit room in the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC) on Friday. Irma has been coming to the center since she was a second-grader — when it was located in a local three-bedroom Herndon apartment. "I haven't repeated a grade," she said. "My parents like it because it doesn't take me down the wrong path. I think I'll stick with it."

The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation and Vecinos Unidos Inc. opened the doors to local dignitaries for the new Quantum Opportunities Program site at the NRC on Friday, May 16.

U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) joined Herndon Mayor Richard Thoesen and foundation president Lynn A. Curtis along with Herndon town officials, police department representatives and community leaders at the afternoon event.

Wolf said it is important for groups like Vecinos Unidos to reach out to all children in the community. "It's tough to be a young person today. The pressures on these kids and their families are incredible," Wolf said. "Is this program the answer? I don't know, but I am here to find out what does work. I do know that mentoring is very, very important."

HERNDON HIGH School freshman who took part in the Quantum program this year were on hand to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Vecinos Unidos organization. "I just wish all the youth in this area could take part," said Sandra Sweazie, the Quantum coordinator.

Herndon High principal Janice Leslie counts herself as a fan. "Any program that helps our students helps all of us," she said. "As a community, we are only as healthy as the weakest among us."

Justin Celinski, a 16-year-old freshman, is very happy that he is taking part in the program. He doesn't want to think where he would be without the afternoon program. "I wanted to do it. It helps me focus. At home there are too many distractions," he said. "But here, I need to sit down and get my work done. They can be tough when they need to be, but I need that."

SINCE 1996 and in response to the increasingly diverse and multi-cultural makeup of the town, Vecinos Unidos has offered homework assistance to Herndon youth and it has sponsored Boy and Girl Scout troops and recreational sports teams.

Now, with the support of the Eisenhower Foundation, Vecinos Unidos will be able to add the foundation's computer based Quantum Opportunities Program to its arsenal. The program, according to a release from the foundation, is "designed to instill in teens greater education achievement and life-management skills with a community service component."

Curtis, the foundation president, told the crowd that the Quantum program has a proven track record. "Kids in the program do better in school and they are less likely to get in trouble," he said. "Nothing less than the 'American Dream' is at stake here. We want all the high-school kids to have access. We don't want that dream deferred."

Thoesen applauded the work of Vecinos Unidos and said that volunteerism is extremely important for the community. "Volunteering makes such a difference," Thoesen said. "Without it, Herndon would not be as viable."

Police Chief Toussaint Summers Jr. agreed with the mayor. "The Herndon Police Department is proud to partner with Vecinos Unidos to offer additional role models," the chief said. "I believe building strong confident youths is the way to go. The Quantum program is going to be a great benefit to our whole community."