Jimmy Figueroa grew up headed straight for a life of violence, the broken life of a gang member. The son of immigrant parents, Jimmy grew up in a neighborhood where the only people to look up to were involved in gangs, drug deals and death.

Jimmy was first arrested in the second grade, while he spent his time hanging around older kids. He struggled in school and was kicked out of high school junior year.

Looking around at the wreckage of gang involvement and the deaths of close friends Jimmy made a monumental choice. He began to work with kids who inspired him to reach for a better life. He enrolled in community college and took 20 remedial units to catch up for lost time and habitual truancy throughout his education.

For one of his courses, Jimmy needed to volunteer, so he turned to Encuentros Leadership, a nonprofit focusing on helping young Latinos succeed and lowering drop-out rates. There Jimmy met board member Lisa Montes and other members of Encuentros who encouraged and mentored students like Jimmy, helping young adults realize their potential and influence in the world. Watch this video to hear Jimmy’s story:

Encuentros Leadership has seen success since 2003, when it was founded to meet the needs of Latino males in North County San Diego. They saw a void of male role models for young men in the K-12 school system, with many male students dropping out.

The program aims to inspire Latino boys to recognize their full potential, and steer them in the direction of higher education.

Montes has been on the board of Encuentros since 2004 and has 22 years of experience in college event planning at MiraCosta College. She shows young students college campus life to expose them to the possibilities. Her involvement with Encuentros Leadership allows her to continue her work with students, inspiring them in different aspects of life.

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One of the ways Encuentros Leadership inspires young men is through its annual STEM Career Exploration Conference, focusing on careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields.

The conference has been around for more than a decade, focused on providing impactful career information in higher-paying STEM careers for Latino boys middle and high school-aged in North County San Diego.

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Students attend workshops and experience 18 breakout sessions, learning through interactive activities about engineering, science, technology and math.

Exhibition booths inform students about STEM careers like nursing, computer science, biochemistry, engineering and architecture.

“If a student comes in with dreams of going to college and then they leave saying they want to be a chemist or this or that, that’s a success for us because they’ve been exposed to that profession,” Montes said. “The fact that they choose to go to college, that’s a measure for success.”

Encuentros Leadership expects 300 to 400 boys to attend the conference this year, with workshops taught by local Latino professionals who will share their career experiences and talk about how to be successful.

Parents can attend workshops too. Workshops were specially designed to assist parents in helping their children succeed by training them on how to become better advocates for their children in education, and how to ensure their children are on track toward a higher education. Parents can learn about SATs and A-G requirements, the college course requirements needed to attend universities.

“Children and youth are the future and if we don’t invest in them and take the time to work with them and help them stay on a positive path, what will happen to our community? What will happen to corporate America?” Montes said.

Roberto Rivas, the executive director and founder of Encuentros Leadership, hopes the conference will move to a larger facility next year so that more Latinos from throughout San Diego County can attend.

Rivas says being part of Encuentros Leadership means he can “turn around the negative trend that basically says Latinos don’t care about education.”

“There’s a real effort to get boys to understand they are part of turning around the poor, long-term history of underachieving,” he said.

For Jimmy Figueroa, Encuentros was a guiding force in his push to achieve. He turned around his life and with determination, found himself at UC Berkeley with a full-ride scholarship. Jimmy graduated in 2012 with a degree in political science.

This year’s annual STEM conference will be hosted from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24 at MiraCosta College.

Learn more about Encuentros Leadership’s sponsor, SDG&E.

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