Paying it Forward on the Open Ocean: How a Child of Immigrants is Helping At-Risk Youth Embrace Opportunities
When Julian Martinez-Prado’s parents immigrated to the United States from Argentina, they envisioned a better life for themselves and their children. It’s safe to say, though, that they never dreamed their son would wind up racing yachts in regattas.
“Santa Cruz is a pretty affluent area and a lot of my friends grew up with sailing,” says Julian. “They convinced me that I should try it.”
Soon enough, he was hooked.
“Being on the water is freeing in a romantic way,” he says. “It can go from completely therapeutic to almost survival conditions.”
Looking for younger members, the local yacht club offered to grant Julian membership privileges at a severely discounted rate. Now Julian, 19, is a freshman at the California Maritime Academy, pursuing a goal of becoming a merchant captain.
Meanwhile, he has committed himself to helping other disadvantaged kids enjoy the same opportunities by volunteering to teach sailing to students who have enrolled in a boat-building class at Ponderosa High School. Each semester, approximately 60 students learn how to build, repair and restore vessels as part of the school’s Alternative Education Green Technology program, which is designed to prepare teenagers for maritime careers in the area. After several weeks learning carpentry skills and how to safely handle power tools in the workshop, they take to the seas.
Because many of the students come from poor backgrounds or broken homes, they have had a hard time in traditional high school settings, struggling with grades or exhibiting behavioral problems. Getting their feet wet, literally and figuratively, in the sailing school can help them overcome these disadvantages.
“Sailing is a hobby that you can become obsessed with,” says Julian. “It requires a lot of time and focus — and that’s something I feel that a lot of these kids need.”
They may act tough when on terra firma, he says, but once out on the ocean, they reveal how scared of the water they are.
“Seeing how they overcome that fear and their progress in controlling their vessels is really great,” says Julian. “These are huge steps that will apply to anything they do in life.”
Julian has also mentored at Santa Cruz’ Barrios Unidos Youth Violence Prevention, a local organization dedicated to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. The nonprofit provides individual and group counseling to Santa Cruz high school students, emphasizing the importance of staying in school. It offers a variety of programs, from educational outreach to a tee-shirt printing facility that teaches at-risk youth job-readiness skills.
Here, Julian uses his native Spanish-speaking skills to tutor elementary and middle school children after their regular school day has ended.
“Having that Spanish-speaking connection is really important because they could see where I had come from and what I’ve accomplished,” he says. “They needed someone to let them know that they can apply to a charter school just like I did, or to move on to higher education like I have. A lot of it is about just knowing what opportunities are out there.”
As he continues his college education and then embarks on a career, Julian says volunteering will always be a part of his life. Passionate about sailing and working with children, he looks forward to connecting the two once he has the means.
For those looking for ways to give back to their community, his advice is simple: go with what you love.
“Finding a cause that is in some way connected to the thing you’re passionate about makes it that much easier to help.”