In the community

Ontario youth clinches top statewide honor

Omar Vera, a senior at Four Rivers Community School, secured top honors in statewide contest sponsored by the Boys & Girls Club of Oregon. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

ONTARIO – As soon as Omar Vera walked into an activity room at the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley last week, a chorus of young, gleeful voices erupted.

“Hey, it’s Omar!”

The loud greetings from the youth are familiar to Vera but he still gets as jolt of enthusiasm when he hears them.

Vera, 19, is sort of a big deal at the local club. Especially to the youth.

His work in Ontario earned him selection recently as Oregon’s Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year.

Vera will move onto a regional contest in Los Angeles on May 11. If he wins in California, Vera can earn a trip to the National Youth of the Year Competition in Los Angeles in October.

As part of the state competition, Vera wrote three essays – one outlining his experience at the local Boys & Girls club, one on his own personal growth and one on what issues he feels strongly about. He also had to give a three-minute speech.

The state victory comes with a $2,500 scholarship for Vera.

Competing is demanding, said Dana Catellani, chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley.

“He had to submit letters of recommendation, transcripts, work history, time and attendance at the club,” said Castellani.

Vera said the win is a reflection on the local club.

“I was over-the-top excited but I competed because it is a way to reflect what the club has done for me,” he said.

Vera, the son of immigrants, began to attend the local club when he was in kindergarten.

Now a senior at Four Rivers Community School, Vera said the club helped him mature.

“The club showed me I have a voice and can use it,” said Vera.

By the time he reached high school, Vera wanted to contribute and give back to the club and began to work with the youth who arrived every day after school.

That experience fit Vera perfectly.

“He just has an energy that rubs off on people,” said Serene Hooper, the director of the Ontario club.

The Boys & Girls Club at 573 S.W. 3rd Ave. in Ontario provides a variety of after-school activities for youth. From providing help with homework to tutoring and other learning activities, the club serves more than 100 youth a day.

Vera said the fact he is bilingual pays dividends, especially when he explains the benefits of the local club to parents.

“I let parents know we are not a day care. I let them know this is a place where kids will have fun and learn,” he said.

Vera believes in the club ethos of academic success, healthy lifestyles and character and leadership.

“We strive to make sure our kids have a plan after school. This is an amazing opportunity,” he said.

He also leads by example. Twice a week, Vera teaches a Zumba class at Four Rivers Cultural Center.

“I have always loved dancing and it helps me to promote a healthy lifestyle,” he said.

Vera plans to earn a degree in sociology and then enter law school and, eventually, work in family law.

“I want to make changes with the foster system,” he said.

That interest was stirred by the the number of foster children who attend the local club.

Hooper said she isn’t surprised by Vera’s success.

“It is really awesome and I am proud of Omar,” said Hooper. “I think it proves we are a light for a lot of kids. Omar is an ideal club member.”

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