As local community leaders honored Marco Garcia last week for his work with Mountain View youth, he thanked many of them by name for never giving up on him, for helping him to finish middle school, graduate from high school and eventually serve as a police officer in his home town.
Back in 1992, as a senior at Los Altos High School, Garcia faced expulsion for fighting. But board members at that time decided to give him another chance.
Some of those same school leaders, including Judy Hannemann, president of the Mountain View-Los Altos school board, came together again last week to talk about Marco Garcia. But this time it was to recognize him as one of their 2009 "Champions for Youth."
Every year the Challenge Team -- a group of local community leaders who meet monthly to work on issues facing at-risk youth -- picks one or more people to honor for their good work as role models and mentors to local youth. This year the group recognized Garcia, 34, and fellow police Officer Katherine Comesana during a breakfast on May 13. The two officers join dozens of other community leaders, including Hannemann and Garcia's brother Oscar, as Champions for Youth.
"How I graduated, I do not know. It was miracle," Garcia told the Challenge Team last week.
Then, looking directly at Hannemann, he added, "Thank you for allowing me to stay here."
Garcia said his experiences growing up in Mountain View allow him to relate to the youth he works with every day. He always knew he had to eventually return home to work with them, he said.
"I see me in some of these kids, and I know they can make it," he said.
Community leaders said they wanted to recognize Garcia for his work with Mesa de la Comunidad, a nonprofit Garcia started with his brother Oscar in 2005 to give the Latino community a voice. Garcia also worked as at-risk-intervention supervisor at Graham Middle School before training to become a police officer. He just finished his training this week.
He still serves as vice president of Mesa, volunteers with the YMCA and is involved in the Police Activities League, in which officers organize and play sports with at-risk youth.
"His dedication to troubled youth is unparalleled," police Chief Scott Vermeer said during the Challenge Team event.
Garcia lives with his wife, daughters and extended family on the same property where he grew up. The Garcias built a new, bigger house there, he said, and living and working in Mountain View allows him to stay connected.
"It is unique to have the background I have," he said. "I grew up here. I am part of the system."
Garcia told Challenge Team members that he first started getting into trouble at Castro Elementary School, and was suspended as a third grader for bringing a switchblade to class. By the time he graduated he had had several run-ins with authority, and had fathered a child at age 18.
"I needed people to give me an opportunity," he said. "I had to be at the right place at the right time."
After graduation, Garcia joined the Marines and was stationed in Japan. When he returned to the states, he sold air conditioners. But he knew he was meant to work with kids.
"I was making some decent money, but that is not what I wanted to do," he said.
While still in sales, Garcia began planning a camp for at-risk youth, and he realized that working with these kids was his true calling. He quit his job and started volunteering at Graham and the YMCA.
"It is only a thought if you never put it to action," he said.
His volunteering at Graham turned into a job as at-risk coordinator for the school district. Even now, nearly a year after he left the middle school, parents and students are still turning to him for help.
He said he tries to help the families and students as much as he can. After all, he said, he still sees himself in most of those students.
"I am just a little punk kid," Garcia said. "And my name is going to be printed up forever as a Champion of Youth with people like Judy Hannemann."