Germain Castellanos is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.
The work of Cesar Chavez has given me an example of an American who has dedicated his life to service. I feel that the spirit of service has been cultivated in me much like it was in Cesar Chavez. To serve is to seek the prosperity and well-being of your community before your own.
Growing up amidst gang-related violence and drugs, I had a front-row view of poverty in the U.S. As a youth hanging out with the wrong crowd, I found myself on the wrong side of the law, but at the age of 21 had cleaned up my act—I was a part-time college student with a full-time manufacturing job and had a 1-year-old daughter. I understood that, along with the bad choices that I had made as a youth, poverty was the common denominator in my case and those of other youth with my background across the U.S.
I wanted to start a program that could help connect at-risk youth with the resources that they need. I discovered the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) and became a YCC AmeriCorps member. I worked as a Youth Developer during my time with YCC, conducting life skills workshops, providing case management services, and leading conservation projects. It was a time of great personal growth and transformation. My time as an AmeriCorps member at YCC resulted in me being granted the 2004 Corpsmember of the Year Award.
In June 2008, I set out to do what I had envisioned four years earlier: create my own program to assist at-risk youth. I designed the program curriculum, applied for and received grants, and established the SHINE Educational Leadership Program at Waukegan High School—the same school that I had been kicked out of when I was a teenager.
The SHINE Program is a workforce development program that helps low-income high school seniors transition into college and supports them in a career plan. Well over 90% of the students are first generation college-bound students. In addition to the in-school SHINE program, I have facilitated a partnership with Walgreens to provide pharmacy technician training and job placement for recent high school graduates. Every day I am proud to be connecting at-risk youth with resources. It is an honor to call this “my job”.
My transition from being a recipient of services to a provider of services for at-risk youth also earned me the Illinois Governor’s Journey Award in 2008. Running two youth workforce development programs and serving nearly 200 current and former program participants is just the tip of the iceberg; my work is not done. My community is over 30% foreign born and well over 55% of the households speak another language besides English at home. The community that I serve in is like many cities across the U.S.—it is an immigrant community. Whether their decedents came from Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, or Armenia generations ago or more recently from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Colombia or Belize, the stories of my community members are all similar.
Immigrants come here for an opportunity to fulfill the promise of the American dream, to prosper and provide for their families in a way that was not possible in their home country. Knowing that my parents made sacrifices to get to the U.S. in search of a better life for their family motivates me to give back every day. In the words of Cesar Chavez, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community.” We are all destined to serve.
Germain Castellanos is Program Director for the SHINE Educational Leadership Program, a Workforce Development program serving over 300 at-risk youth at Waukegan High School since 2008 where the student population is over 70% Latino.