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Lompoc High School sophomore Ricardo Guadarrama said it was last year that he was first approached about potentially taking part in a new character-development program at the school.

Manuela Venegas, Lompoc High’s dropout prevention specialist, was the person making the pitch to Guadarrama to try out El Joven Noble, a program developed 22 years ago that aims to support and enhance the typical “rites of passage” process for Chicano/Latino youth and young adults.

“I was like, ‘Sure, why not? I want to try to be a better person,’” Guadarrama recalled of that 2017 conversation.

On Wednesday evening, Guadarrama and seven of his schoolmates who also chose to participate in El Joven Noble — which translates from Spanish to “The Noble Youth” — were celebrated in front of their friends and family members during a ceremony marking their successful completion of the 12-week program. The ceremony, which wrapped up the first offering of the program at Lompoc High, took place in the school’s on-campus library.

“One of the things we told all of our students who are here is that we’re not expecting them to turn overnight and be 100-percent perfect,” Venegas said to the audience, which also included community leaders and school board members. “We’re asking them to make those changes with baby steps, and we have noticed baby steps within each one of them.”

New approach

Venegas and Cesar Jimenez, an instructional assistant for special education at Lompoc High, attended a training last fall to prepare to introduce El Joven Noble in Lompoc.

The program was developed in 1996 by a Los Angeles-based Chicano/Latino mental health training group with the philosophy that youth need other men and women, their families and their communities to successfully prepare them for adulthood. The program aims to help Hispanic youth overcome personal and generational traumas that can affect cultures that begin to assimilate into another.

The program focuses on four core areas: positive cultural identity development, understanding of one’s “sacred purpose,” integrating bilingual/bicultural values and overcoming fear through safety, security and interconnected trust.

During Wednesday’s ceremony, Venegas shared some of the activities in which the students participated during the sessions, which all took place outside of regular school hours. She noted that some kids had trouble expressing their identities or how they see themselves, which can be greatly affected by stereotypes perpetuated by peers, the media and others.

“We try to tell them that you are better than other people say you are,” she said.

In one exercise, the students were each given stickers and told to write down words that they had been called.

“You’d be really surprised at some of the words we saw there,” Venegas said. “We discussed those words with the kids and asked them, ‘Is there something better you can call someone?’”

She said that helped with overcoming stereotypes and understanding the effects of language.

During the sessions, the participants also looked at healthy relationships and what it means to have a “good man” or “good woman” in one’s life, Venegas said, as well as how to identify when relationships become abusive.

Other topics covered included sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy.

Seeing a difference

While introducing the teens on Wednesday, Venegas shared ways in which she had seen them grow over the past several months.

Some didn’t like her during their early days at Lompoc High, she said, and others were simply quiet or standoffish around adults. She said that all changed as they progressed through the program, and she described how several of them call and/or text her or each other now whenever they need someone.

Guadarrama said he was one of those students who didn’t like to talk to others. He noted that he would often avoid asking for help when he needed it, in part because he felt like it made him seem weak or reliant on others.

“Now I ask my teachers and other people for help when I need to,” he said.

In addition to Guadarrama, the graduating class included Osvaldo Garcia Mendez, Daniel Inocencio Mendez, Freddy Ochoa, Star Pacheco, Julio Preciado and twin sisters Veronica and Victoria Dominguez.

Guadarrama said he knew of the other students in the program mostly from just seeing them around school. After going through El Joven Noble together, though, he said they now share a strong bond.

“After this, we became a family,” he said. “Like, if someone was in trouble, we’d all be there with them. Or if someone needed help, we’d all pick them up. We stick together pretty much.”

Venegas said she was thrilled with how involved the students became in the new program.

The goal at the start was to hold the graduation ceremony at the end of January. Due to time constraints, they were behind schedule with their after-school sessions, so they ended up holding three meetings on Saturdays.

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“The first thing we thought was they would not come,” Venegas said of the students. “But they did.”

The school lost the final week of its fall semester after Lompoc Unified School District officials decided to cancel classes due to poor air quality brought on by the Thomas fire, which was still burning strong in Ventura County in early December. When school resumed this month, Venegas said the first thing she was asked by the students was how they’d make up the time they missed together.

“They were ready to come on another Saturday and we told them no,” she said.

Moving forward

Wednesday’s ceremony wasn’t just for the students to receive certificates, but was actually the final session of the program.

The students had each made an Ojo de Dios, a craft in which a wooden cross is adorned with yarn. The name translates to “God’s Eye” and they are traditionally placed on baby cribs by some cultures so that God can look over and protect the baby.

The students each presented their creations to the person or people who they felt like provided protection for them as they grew up. Most of them chose to give it to a parent or sibling.

Following that, the students passed through a group of parents who formed a metaphorical bridge as they accepted their certificates of completion.

Before concluding, Lompoc High Principal Paul Bommersbach thanked Venegas and Jimenez for their work.

“They did not have to go through this program; they did not have to get trained,” he said, noting that the educators went “above and beyond” for their students.

Bommersbach said he’d like to have the program continue at the school.

Guadarrama said he’s already tried to recruit some of his classmates to give it a chance. When asked if he felt like he and the other participants in the inaugural offering would remain close, he said, “Hopefully.”

“It was a fun experience,” he said. “We’re a big family now. We all got connected.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.