From an early age Melisa Castillo had a passion for learning and her sights set on college.  She joined KidWorks in seventh grade along with her brothers.

“While I always did well academically, KidWorks played a big role in my social and emotional growth,” Melisa says. “They also taught me to be a leader and to have a servant’s heart.”

KidWorks also helped Melisa develop confidence and a sense of self. Those are skills she needed while attending Duke University, where she graduated in 2020 with a double major in classical civilizations and history. 

Our KidWorks alumni is now on a path to becoming an attorney specializing in trademark and intellectual property law. She’s subsequently taken law classes at Santa Ana college and has applied to law schools, planning to start at one of them next Fall.

“Melisa is unstoppable,” says Noemi Juarez, our Director of K-12 Programs. “She’s a determined and spirited young lady. There are no limits to her success in life and career.”

Melisa recently shared the story of her KidWorks’ journey with attendees at our recent fourth annual Rose’ on the Bay event led by our KidWorks Women (KWW) auxiliary service group.

“KidWorks believed in me and that I would go far in life,” Melisa told the attendees. “They’ve been such a big part of my life. During those years, more of my waking hours were probably spent at KidWorks than anywhere else, except home and school.”

Always an excellent student, Melisa thanks her parents and KidWorks for giving her the solid foundation upon which to build not only academically, but also spiritually, creatively and as a leader.

“From a very young age, my parents, Maria and Abel, told both me and my brothers, ‘You’re going to college; it’s just a matter of where,’” Melisa recalls.

Melisa says KidWorks’ faith-based approach helped her develop the desire to serve others that Jesus teaches.

“At KidWorks, I was part of the youth service club during my middle and high school years that focused on making Santa Ana better and serving members of the community,” Melisa said.

What was then known at KidWorks as the Youth Empowerment Network, focused on issues such as safe bike lanes, a community garden, healthy nutritional choices in school cafeterias, bike safety advocacy, the KidWorks’ Christmas toy drive and more.

“While our youth program operated under KidWorks’ umbrella, they really made sure it was youth-led in order to develop our leadership skills,” Melisa says.

That meant she and her youth colleagues participated in such activities as speaking before the Santa Ana City Council, legislators in Sacramento and other key influencers.

The youth also helped organize, promote and fundraise for local street fairs where valuable information was shared with neighborhood residents.

“We connected existing services and resources to people who did not know where to find them,” Melisa says.

“When the opportunity to attend Duke became available, I doubted myself and wondered if I really belonged there,” Melisa recalls. “Maybe one in 30 students looked like me.”

But KidWorks walked alongside Melisa and helped dispel that self-doubt.

Years before, Melisa was also encouraged to attend Mater Dei high school by Xitlaly Sanchez, another successful KidWorks and Mater Dei graduate, who is now a middle school history teacher in Anaheim.

“I met Xitlaly when I was in middle school and we both attended KidWorks summer camp in Yosemite,” Melisa says. “Xitlaly was older than me and saw that I was very uncertain about applying to Mater Dei. ‘It’s not a mistake; you are supposed to attend that high school; God is sending you there,’ Xitlally told me. I was motivated and graduated in 2016.”

As she awaits acceptance to law school, Melisa works 35 hours a week at PTS Marketing, a full-service printing and marketing group located in Tustin, California. They are a longtime KidWorks partner, who also employ two other KidWorks grads and founder Pat Merrell sits on our board.

Melisa says she’s attracted to a career in law because to succeed in that profession, a person must use skills such as creativity, intelligence, problem-solving, persuasion and understanding nuance.

She is particularly focused on the risks Artificial Intelligence (AI) poses to creative people and others if left unchecked.

“The law is not just black and white; I like the fact that you use persuasion and logical arguments within the context of rules,” she says. “KidWorks helped me develop a wide range of skills that I can apply to my chosen profession.”

At PTS Marketing, Melisa is an administrative assistant to Elizabeth Carroll, the company’s Director of Operations, and also helps support the finance team.

In her spare time, she enjoys reading, acrylic painting, jigsaw puzzles and video games.

As KidWorks celebrates our 30-year anniversary, we are inspired that our vision—“We unleash youth potential”—is being realized in such inspiring examples as Melisa Castillo.

By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer