Jair Betanzos remembers the day in sixth grade when his KidWorks teachers made a presentation about the importance of a college education.

Now a high school senior, Jair remembers that at first he wasn’t exactly tuned in to that day’s message.

“My sixth grade buddies and I were goofing around and not taking it seriously at all,” Jair recalls. “Then, the presentation evolved into a talk by some older students who shared about how having a college or university degree would change our lives. Suddenly, I started paying attention. From that day on, I knew college was in my future.”

Indeed, it was. As of April, Jair has acceptance letters from 10 universities or colleges, with more potentially forthcoming. He’ll be heading to UC Santa Cruz this fall, with plans to major in social work and/or business/economics.

Jair will be first in his immediate family to attend a college or university. He’s also made it his mission to encourage his siblings to follow his footsteps, Keisha, 15; Melanie, 14; Brithany; 11 and Carlos, eight. Each of them also attends KidWorks.

Jair’s pursuit of higher education aligns with KidWorks College Success Initiative™, which serves students from “Pre-K to B.A.” This represents our 18-year commitment to each student at KidWorks. Because of CSI, our students are on the path not only to graduate from high school—but also to enroll and graduate from college or university and go on to meaningful careers.

Jair is the first to say that his successful academic and life path was far from a given.

“I grew up in a neighborhood with a heavy gang presence that still persists,” he says. “I could have easily succumbed to pressure and fallen into a dead end trap. Once, I was even confronted by a gang member who held a loaded gun to my head while returning from my grandmother’s home.” He was able to diffuse the situation and returned home safely.

The KidWorks team has high praise for the person Jair has grown to be.

“Jair is definitely a go-getter,” says Jessica Ellis, Site Director for our Dan Donahue Center. “Anytime a door closes, he’s not a student that will sit back and be sad, stress out or give up in a bad situation. He’ll continue to test the waters, try a new door and fight for what he wants. Jair is a very strong leader and is definitely someone that will lead by example before asking a teammate to do something he wouldn’t be willing to do.”

“I remember Jair as a younger student being somewhat timid, yet playful,” says Noemi Juarez, our Director of After School Programs.  “He’s grown into a very respectful and responsible individual.”

Jair says KidWorks has provided a better path since he first enrolled in our after school programs as a second grader.

“KidWorks has always looked out for me and my family,” Jair says. “It’s a safe and welcoming environment compared to what I encountered on the streets.”

Jair has fully immersed himself in KidWorks. In addition to our after school programs, he’s been part of Campus Crash (which introduces high school students to college and universities), youth lock-in (a night of fun and fellowship), plus spring and summer programs.

One of Jair’s fondest memories is taking part in a weeklong camping trip to Yosemite when he was 12-years-old.

“I’d never spent so much time in nature,” Jair recalls. “I dipped my toes in the lake, went ziplining, kayaking, banana boating and hiking.”

Starting in elementary school, Jair has also volunteered helping younger students enrolled in our after school programs. His specialty is math. That’s not surprising since this talented student has been selected for advanced high school placement courses; he’s tackled trigonometry, algebra and geometry.

Jair has also received high school scholarships for youth financial literacy programs at the University of California, Irvine. One was called LIFEvest, a week-long summer program for eighth and ninth graders from underserved communities. KidWorks helped sponsor his participation.

This inspiring KidWorks’ student is also well on his way to career success, even as he finishes up his senior year in high school and prepares to attend a university.

Jair is now a manager at the Tustin location for The Halal Guys, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant. It’s his first entry into the work world.

He says he was motivated to pursue a job so he could help his parents by earning money for food, purchase a car and pay for insurance.

“Here, KidWorks also was so helpful,” Jair says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but what KidWorks taught me since second grade about time management and being responsible for completing homework on time are life skills that directly apply to being a reliable employee and good leader.”

Another example of how KidWorks taught Jair leadership skills was his time as a student ambassador during his freshman and sophomore years.

“I and several of the other ambassadors had a chance to give a tour to several Santa Ana Unified School District board members while the Dan Donahue Center was undergoing major restoration several years ago,” Jair says. “It helped me develop confidence to take on such an important role with these executives.”

While Jair doesn’t have much spare time as he manages his schoolwork and job, he does use days off to occasionally join in on KidWorks’ online sessions with other students. He also appreciates how the KidWorks team regularly checks in on his family.

What would life be like for students like Jair without a resource like KidWorks? He says it best:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic and during other times, it’s gotten bumpy for me, my family and so many others. With KidWorks, I’ve always felt guided to a better option, a safer route, the right way to go.”

By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer