Group seeks to honor Hispanic teen leaders
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 7, 2005 12:00 AM
Mel MelÚndez

The Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation is looking for a dozen leaders: Latino teens committed to academic excellence with a solid track record of community service.

Students like Lorenzo Stirk, of Phoenix.

Stirk emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, at 13. Four years later, he was honored by the foundation for his 3.7 grade-point average, artistic abilities and good works, including helping with clothing and food drives, neighborhood cleanups and volunteering at local schools.

That dedication earned Stirk a $3,000 scholarship, which he's using to study architecture at Paradise Valley Community College.

This year, a dozen other Valley students will snare Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards, an honor that comes with $2,000 to $3,000 scholarships and a bid at six national awards netting additional $5,000 scholarships, laptops and trips to Miami and Washington, D.C.

"I never could've gone to college without this scholarship, which helped me pay for tuition and books," said 18-year-old Stirk. "But it was also great to meet other Latino kids, like me, from struggling families, that were attaining their goals. That was very inspiring."

Inspiring Hispanic youths to attend college is precisely the point, because of the nation's alarming Latino dropout rate, organizers said. Using teen leaders to get the message across could help slash the high school dropout rate because youths often respond best to peer role models, said Frank Granillo, a counselor with Arizona State University's Educational Opportunity Center.

Hispanics drop out at nearly double the rate of Anglos and Asian Americans, which hovers at about 25 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. What's more, the Kids Count 2003 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Arizona 50th among states for the worst dropout rate.

Phoenix has "a very alarming Latino dropout rate that needs to be addressed," Granillo said. "But we also have Latino teens doing great, which often goes unnoticed."

To qualify for the program, now in its eighth year, students must be of Hispanic descent, have U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residency, and graduate in 2005.

Students apply in six categories: journalism, health and science, sports, academic excellence, community service, and engineering and math, and write an essay outlining how their Hispanic ancestry impacted their lives.

"How you feel about your heritage could indicate how willing you are to give back to your community later," said Mary Lou Valenzuela, a Phoenix region volunteer. "That's pertinent, since our mission is to find those willing to continue serving as role models."

Those who make it to the national winners' circle travel, all expenses paid, to Miami to receive their award. They're then feted at the Hispanic Heritage Awards at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The star-studded event airs on NBC and Spanish-language network Telemundo.

Ultimately, the goal is to show Hispanic children that postsecondary degrees are attainable, because families with limited resources often discard college as an option for their kids, said Gerald Vukas, who produces Phoenix's awards program at ASU.

"We want kids to know that that they can aspire to succeed, regardless of their backgrounds and economic situations, by showing them examples of kids already doing just that," he said.

Applications are due Friday and are available online at www.hispanicheritage and at participating Subway restaurants.