One spring day in 2006, Eder Gaona-Macedo picked up a crumpled envelope that had been lying for three days in the hallway of his rundown Westside apartment. It was his acceptance letter to UCLA.
He was in disbelief. A high school counselor initially told Gaona-Macedo he could not go to college, because he lacked legal status. A Mexican immigrant who came to California when he was just four years old, Gaona-Macedo did not know he was undocumented until a decade later when he went through an immigration checkpoint on Milpas Street. “I realized I had to live two lives,” he said. “One at home, fearful, and one at school.”
But he eventually found role models at Future Leaders of America, which was founded in Oxnard and Santa Barbara to empower Latino youth. It will celebrate its 35th anniversary in January. At his first Future Leaders camp, Gaona-Macedo learned to be assertive and polished his public-speaking skills. “I found my voice,” he said. “It was mind-blowing.” They were also “one of the first people I told I was undocumented,” he recalled. “They said, ‘You can still go to college. You can still do anything you want to do. It’s going to be a little harder.’ That was really life-changing.”
Now, after earning a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s degree from Columbia, Gaona-Macedo, 28, is the executive director at Future Leaders. “Our goal is to build a college-going culture,” he said. The region’s fastest-growing population, Latinos make up nearly two out of every three kids in Santa Barbara. In December, they hosted a three-day conference at Camp Whittier in the Los Padres National Forest, where 90 participants attended. Kids practiced personal-development skills while parents learned how to navigate the school system. “A lot of our families come from low-income backgrounds,” Gaona-Macedo said. “They don’t have the know-how to help their kids get to college.”
The year 2017 will be crucial for Future Leaders. In early December, Gaona-Macedo and outreach organizer Vicente Garcia turned out about 40 people to the Santa Barbara school board meeting, where trustees adopted a resolution proclaiming all campuses as safe zones for undocumented students. And next year, Gaona-Macedo plans to bring some of the roughly 8,000 alumni back to the program so they can share stories about “what they went through.”