By Linda Greenstein
“Summer Search gave me the opportunity to discover life beyond my neighborhood,” said Judith Garcia, 25, the youngest Chelsea city councilor.
Currently serving 1,027 students in Chelsea, Malden, Cambridge, and Boston, the free program helps students get to college, graduate, and then give back to the community.
“It is about equity,” said Hermese Velasquez, Summer Search Boston executive director. “We take high-potential students from low-income communities and provide them with the kinds of resources that kids from higher–income families take for granted.”
The median household income for families of students in the program is $23,230, and 95 percent of participants are minorities.
Teachers and guidance counselors nominate students for the program. Prospective students go through a screening and interview process and those accepted make a minimum six-year commitment.
All students participate in weekly mentoring sessions and take two summer trips designed to increase their self-sufficiency.
The national youth development nonprofit is funded by a combination of donations and endowments — mostly from corporate partners such as the Yawkey Foundation and the Amelia Peabody Foundation — along with fund-raising events. Since it began in 1998, it has a track record of success.
According to Velasquez, a Summer Search grad herself, 88 percent of students are the first among their siblings to attend college, yet 70 percent graduate with degrees.
Garcia, who joined as a high school sophomore, graduated from Chelsea High and remained with her mentor until she graduated from Wheaton College with a bachelor’s degree in urban studies.
“I was fortunate to embark on two trips, a wilderness expedition in Maine and a 56-day trip overseas to India,” she said. “Both became defining moments for me. I learned to see obstacles as opportunities and that an effective leader often wonders what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes. These experiences have helped guide me as an elected official.”
Following in Garcia’s footsteps, Elsy Sanchez, 18, graduated from Chelsea High in June. With a goal to become a pediatrician, she will study biology at Salem State University this fall.
“Summer Search taught me there are different ways to overcome problems,” said Sanchez. “I am more confident getting out of my comfort zone and taking on new challenges. I now advocate for myself. ”
President of his class at Malden High, Manuel Quesada Nylen, 17, was unsure if he wanted to accept the long-term commitment to Summer Search.
“My story is unique. I am the youngest of four. All three of my siblings were in Summer Search,” said Nylen, who will be a senior at Malden High this fall. “I thought I would be the black sheep of the family and skip the program, but I am so glad that I did not.
“Summer Search has been important to my whole family. My oldest sister graduated from Wheaton. I have a brother at Colby-Sawyer and a sister at Merrimack College.”
Between his sophomore and junior years at Malden High, Nylen took a character-challenging Summer Search trip to the Colorado Rockies.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “I had never been on a trip alone. I didn’t know anybody. I remember flying over Denver and seeing all this green and thinking, ‘What kind of city was this?’ Then I got out on the trail and it was brutally challenging.”
Nylen’s mentor, Claire Marian, knows the experience improved his self-reliance and will help him in college, where he will face a very different environment without the support of family.
During her wilderness trip to Minnesota, Sanchez remembers “breaking down in tears” after trying to carry a canoe.
“My instructor told me, ‘I know you got this’ and showed me how I could learn to carry the canoe in three steps,” she said. “At that moment, I saw I was capable of overcoming obstacles. After I came out of the wilderness, I challenged myself more academically by signing up for six AP classes, including physics. The experience helped me decide to be a doctor and to know I can be doctor.”
Summer Search is unique because there are 14 full-time, professional mentors working with as many as 35 Greater Boston students at a time.
“My role is to listen and ask questions,” said Marian, mentor to Sanchez and Nylen. “I help students create a plan and stay accountable to the plan.”
“Claire doesn’t ask questions about grades,” said Nylen. “She asks how am I doing with my busy schedule. She helps me understand what I need to do to stay on track with schoolwork, three sports, and being class president.”
Marian helped Sanchez navigate the college application process. “Claire showed me how to sign up for the SATs, how to research colleges, and we talked about deadlines,” Sanchez said. I did the work and made the decisions, but Claire was there when I needed her.”
On her other summer trip, Sanchez went to Mexico, lived with a family, and performed community service. Nylen, with a dream of working in film, is attending a performing arts program at Ithaca College this summer.
Summer Search students and alumni give back to the community in several ways. Sanchez is a mentor at Chelsea Bridge Academy, where she works with English-language learners. Her goal is to provide medical care for kids in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Garcia is determined to make Chelsea a better place to live for its approximately 37,000 residents,62 percent of whom are Latino.
“I owe much of my success as a public servant to the Summer Search network for believing in me and for teaching me that anything is possible,” she said.