As a sophomore at Herndon High School, Andhy Retamal understands the struggles of adjusting to a new culture and knows it's easy to get caught up in negative peer pressure.
Retamal also knows that if it weren't for the Quantum Opportunities Program, he would still be getting bad grades and possibly be out on the streets or with friends goofing off, instead of working three days a week after school for a local business.
"People would start doing bad things if they weren't working, they would try to hang out more because they have nowhere to go," said Retamal about why Quantum is a good program. "It keeps me out of trouble — there's a lot of bad stuff out there."
Retamal, 15, moved to America from Chile with his parents when he was 12 years old.
He explained his dad works all day as a contractor for Direct TV and the daycare his mother runs out of their home makes it hard for him to do homework after school because of the young children running around.
He said he first discovered the Quantum Opportunities Program, an after-school homework assistance program offered in conjunction with Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United, on his way home from school with friends.
"I was on my way to the barber shop, walking with my friends who were going to the program," said Retamal. "The barber wasn't there, so I just went with them."
Retamal said that he liked the program so much he kept coming back.
"When I am at home I don't feel like studying," he said about why he kept returning. "I've been getting better grades since I started going there, and it's free food and help."
The program started almost two years ago through a four-year grant from the Eisenhower Foundation with the intentions to provide intervention for at-risk high school students, to help them avoid negative peer pressure and offer them adult tutoring and mentoring in academic and life skills with the hopes that they will graduate and continue with a secondary education.
"We live in an individualist society," said Nicola Seidell, program coordinator for Quantum. "They're learning now, with the program, that it's OK to ask for help and that they don't have to do things on their own."
The program, which is run out of the Elden Terrace Apartments used by Vecinos Unidos, took 40 students who were in the lower two-thirds academically of their class. Twenty of the at-risk students were selected randomly by the Eisenhower Foundation and placed in the assistance program.
The other 20 were left as the control group and offered no assistance.
"Those in the program ... are more likely to graduate and go on to secondary schools," said Seidell based on other Quantum programs run across the country. "They are more likely to receive honors and awards and are less likely to become pregnant or end up in the criminal justice system."
Chris Griffin, president of Vecinos Unidos, said the program is funded for four years by the Eisenhower Foundation, but the long-term goal is for the success of the program to prompt the community to want to fund it if Eisenhower does not renew the grant.
Griffin said the program not only helps students with school work and provides a safe place for them to hang out, it also teaches them skills they can't get from school.
"They are taught things that the average middle-class kids are accustomed to," she said. "But some of these kids are not accustomed to them, and are uncomfortable when they are put in those situations."
Seidell explained students are required to accomplish 250-hours of service in three core areas, education, human development and community service projects.
As a new part of the program, this summer students had to complete a job shadow for two weeks with local businesses.
"This is so beneficial to the greater good of the community," said Griffin, adding they hope to get more local businesses involved for next summer's job shadowing.
For Retamal, the job shadow provided more than the chance to experience a professional working environment, it offered him a job.
"He's been really involved with us, he was here not only learning, but helping," said Carlos Rojas, IT director for Cascades Technologies, Inc., adding that after his two weeks were done, Retamal kept coming in to help out.
"We want to share with the community that we're living with," said Rojas, about why they offered the job shadow. "If we give them an opportunity to be off the streets, that's one kid less exposed to so many of the bad things that are out there."
Retamal said although his schedule is more hectic now that he works three days a week, the pay checks he's saving for a car help motivate him, as well as the fact that he's learning something he can't learn in school.
"I think I learn a little bit everyday," said Retamal of the job. "I am still not sure what I want to do when I grow up, but this helps ... if it's not boring and I don't get tired, I'll keep doing it."
Retamal said once he graduates he hopes to take some computer courses at Northern Virginia Community College for two years to save money and then hopefully transfer to George Mason University.