ConnectOC Blog

Helping the Next Generation Find Purpose and Passion

Posted by: Shelley Hoss on 8/4/2014

By Shelley Hoss

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below

The Encuentros Leadership Academy connects middle- and high school-aged boys with much-needed role models.

Salvador Martinez is ready to be a leader. 

The Anaheim High School junior has dodged gang life and avoided the temptations of drugs and alcohol. He knows the ramifications of poverty all too well, yet he is grateful for his parents’ sacrifice to carve out a better life for their three children. Living paycheck to paycheck, the Martinez family has relocated frequently, making home—and the sense of grounding and stability it can provide—a moving target.

But Salvador doesn’t see these hurdles as an excuse to give up on his education or his future. In fact, you could say they have had the opposite effect.

“The secret to my success is being confident in my abilities,” Salvador said. “With two younger siblings in elementary school, I feel like I have to be a role model for them to graduate from high school and go on to college.” 

Salvador learned early on the value of mentorship. He credits his involvement in a mentoring program in junior high as the catalyst for his confidence. Yet he lacked a similar experience in high school —until he learned of the Encuentros Leadership Academy, held this June on the campus of Vanguard University. 

“The experience motivated me to be a better person and a better leader so I can lead one day,” Salvador said. 

The Encuentros Leadership Academy was a one-week residential program for approximately 50 middle- and high school-aged Latino boys who applied to participate. Formed in response to the alarming high-school dropout rates among Latino students, Encuentros Leadership is tackling critical educational, social and economic issues that can rob an entire generation of a quality education and life opportunities.  

“There is no greater problem facing education today than dealing with the needs of boys and young men of color,” stated Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares, who also serves as board chairperson of Encuentros Leadership Orange County. “We have a hemorrhage in our society in which these young men are dropping out of high school. We are losing the potential to have them go on to college and contribute as professionals to the work force.”

According to the Orange County Department of Education, of the 501,801 students in the Orange County K-12 public school system, 68 percent are students of color and 90 percent of these students live at the poverty level. Among the students of color, 68 percent are young boys and men. 

Encuentros Leadership is trying to bridge this gap with its academy by connecting male students with mentors and teaching them skills to graduate from high school and navigate the college system successfully.

“I was forced out of my comfort zone, which is something I respect,” Salvador said of his experience. “Everyone was lost at the beginning, but found their purpose as each day continued.”

And that’s the idea. Ariel Meza, who is board chairperson-elect for Encuentros Leadership Orange County, believes that purpose and passion set Salvador and the other Encuentros Leadership Academy participants apart.

“We have some very passionate young men in Orange County,” he said. “They are passionate about their education and their families. They want to improve their lives. These kids have great futures. If we invest in them, even in a small way like the Academy, the future returns are unlimited.”

If you’re interested in investing in youth like Salvador, visit Nonprofit Central at to find organizations working to improve the future for Orange County’s youth.

Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at

We invite you to comment on the blog below or use the social media icons to share on your networks.


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