HISPANIC HERITAGE MONTH: Southeast Alumnus rises to the occasion

Orlando Valdez, Southeast Alumnus, standing in front of lockers
The first night we found out we wouldn’t have school the next day, my friends and I did what any high school seniors would do – we celebrated!

In our minds, we were getting a day off of school and we took the opportunity to get together at a friend’s house to order pizza and play video games. It started raining hard that night and the poor pizza guy went through a lot to get to us. When he got to the house, he was not happy with us at all.

Throughout the night, as we watched the rain continue to pour and the water in the streets rise, reality hit us that maybe we just weren’t into a day off from school. This was more serious than we had thought.

Stranded

I was stranded at my friend’s house for the night and was in constant communication with my family and classmates. I was so worried about my family and our home. I was incredibly grateful to find out that our home stayed dry. I wish I could say the same for many of my school friends. As the texts and messages rolled in, I realized that so many in my community were losing their homes, belongings, and transportation.

When I finally made it home, I couldn’t bear it. I knew I had to take action. I couldn’t just hang out at home, off from school, while I knew the needs in my community were great. This is where I grew up, my neighborhood, my people. I knew I had to do something!

Helping others

I found a shelter close by and showed up to help. The manager of the shelter gave me a task of sorting clothes, and I tried to find the most efficient way of doing it. He noticed my sense of urgency and gave me a team of people in one section of the shelter. We were working long hours, but my resolve was strong as I saw family after family come in to the shelter seeking support.

It turned out that the manager of the shelter had to go to work, so he and the chief of police approached me and asked me to captain the shelter. Even though I was hesitant for a moment, I knew I had to do what was right. I decided to accept. I had several ideas of how we could run the shelter more efficiently, in order to serve families better and at a higher rate.

As soon as I took the position, I got to work. I put in long hours. Seeing the families and children distraught and in desperation was what got me to work even harder.

Rising to the occasion

One day the mayor of the City of Pasadena and the sheriff visited our shelter. They were really pleased with how well we ran the shelter and how many families were finding the support they needed. Impressed with how well I managed our team, the mayor asked me, “Orlando, what organization do you work for?” I looked at him and answered, “Oh, I don’t work for anyone. I’m a senior.” The sheriff looks at me and asks, “A senior in college?” I looked at them both and said, “No, I’m a senior in high school. I’m still 18” They looked at me in disbelief.

That day we served hundreds of families and worked hard to serve just about every family that came through our doors.

Prior to Harvey

You may hear my story and think that I am a leader, a brave young man who took the storm head on. But no, the truth is I am just a high school student. However, I am a YES Prep student who saw the destruction of his own community.

I might look like the perfect student, but I should share that for the majority of my time at YES Prep, I didn’t really believe that college was for me. At times I felt disengaged, especially since I didn’t see opportunities for me to use my voice as a student.

What my future holds

In my junior year, I got passionate about politics and decided that the only way I could pursue my dreams of impacting my community is to get a higher education. That realization woke me up and I worked hard to get into the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), with a strong recommendation from the mayor and others at YES Prep.

My goal is to become an attorney and lead with my values of equity and social justice. I know I can do it and rise above any challenge because I have the support of my family and my community. I know that when I choose to act, good things follow. And my experience with Harvey showed me just that. One individual can make a difference.


About the Author:

Orlando Valdez is an alumnus of YES Prep Southeast Campus, Class of 2018. He is currently attending the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) where he is majoring in political science. Valdez is the first member of his family to attend college.

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