This eighth grader has earned the respect of his peers and coach for proactively mentoring, teaching, and coaching elementary aged youth in the Ignite Youth Leadership Programs.

Diego has been attending KidWorks since he was in first grade. When the Ignite Youth Leadership program opened applications at KidWorks in September 2021, Diego was not, at first glance, the ideal candidate for this program. Ignite was targeting high school students who would coach and mentor their younger peers through character-infused soccer games and activities.  

Anthony Cummings, KidWorks honorary staff member and UHSM’s Director of Youth Leadership & Fireside Ministry, kept noticing this young man’s character standing out among other students at KidWorks. And although younger, Diego was invited to apply and interview for one of the leadership positions.  

“What immediately caught my attention was Diego’s tenacity and courage,” Anthony says. “On Thursday’s, during free time, there would often be a pickup soccer game which consisted of mostly high school boys. This game was not for the faint of heart as it was fast-paced, rough and filled with intense action.”

Adds Anthony, “Diego, although not as skilled as the rest, would always engage. He would get knocked down, fall over, make a mistake, but continue to get up, dust himself off and play. Over and over, this would occur. And yet he stayed with it. There was no doubt this young man had something special inside of him. And God was making it clear to me to pay attention to him.”  

Each Tuesday, Diego and the other Ignite leaders lead elementary school youth through character-infused soccer games and activities.  As a leader, Diego’s role is to help make sure the students are ready to begin that day’s program. He helps set program expectations, explains the rules of the days game and or activity, leads them through the soccer activity and leads a small prayer to end the day.  

It’s not always an easy job, but Diego is set on improving his leadership skills. He’s learned that being a leader isn’t just about giving orders. He tries to understand where each player’s mindset is and adapts when correction and instruction are needed.

“One time, a kid was acting up a bit asking if certain game behaviors, like pushing or grabbing were OK,” Diego recalls. “I knew he wasn’t serious and was only testing me. So, I just spoke in a calm tone and helped him see he’d have fun playing under the rules we explained to everyone.”

Diego is also inspired how Anthony grows leadership skills in those enrolled in the Ignite Youth Leadership program and sees how it’s helped him grow in confidence and ability when helping lead a group. “We learn a new word each time to help us be leaders,” Diego says. “Recently it was the S.T.A.R. acronym, which stands for Stop, Think, Act, Reflect.”

Diego says he’s even applied some of the lessons learned in Ignite at home with his own family. “Sometimes when we go for walks, I can tell that we’re taking a longer way to get to where we’re going than a different route that I know is shorter,” he says. “I can tell they’re not listening to me. Instead of getting mad, I wait until we get to where we are going and they realize that the best way home is the one I suggested. Then, we go that way.”

Diego says that he’s learned a vital leadership lesson from these family walks: Speak up when you’re not being heard and let others come to their own understanding that an idea is a good one even if that means having patience.

Diego says he’s also learned that a leader has to be organized and manage time and priorities.

“KidWorks teachers taught me how to do that, starting in first grade,” Diego says. “Even in first grade, I had a busy schedule and it was overwhelming. I was always trying to balance schoolwork, ballet, violin lessons and even time at KidWorks after-school programs.”

He says his parents, Lourdes and Jaime, helped him with time management. He also thanks our teachers, including Rachel Cervantes, now our Volunteer Coordinator, and Jacky Hernandez, Program Assist/Program Leader, as well as former KidWorks teachers from years past.

Diego also realizes that a leader’s role is to give back. 

To that end, in addition to helping out with the Ignite Youth Leadership Program, he’s assisting our staff and student youth interns prepared for the youth lock-in event, rescheduled for March. The lock-in is a night of fun and fellowship held at our Dan Donahue Center.

Diego is grateful for how our after-school programs have helped him master his homework. He’s also enjoyed our spring break events.

“Two years ago, when the event was in-person, I really enjoyed the science theme,” Diego says. “We did experiments like making ice cream.”

Diego plans to graduate high school, attend a college or university and then pursue a career helping children in one way or another. “I don’t know what the job will be yet, but it will definitely involve kids,” Diego says.

We’re also 100 percent sure it will include being a leader, something Diego role models so well each day.

By Glenn Leibowitz, volunteer writer