Paying it Forward


April 22, 2016

Many parents and students look up to Juan Carlos Lugo – well, actually, few people don’t. At 6’10, Lugo towers over most crowds. But it is not his height that people are drawn to; it is his unique ability to connect with the individuals who surround him.

As coordinator for one of the 33 sites across the state hosting the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program, Lugo’s passion for children and education is apparent in all he does.

“JC is why I am here,” said 15-year-old Zerrick Davis. “JC made a big difference in my life.”

Zerrick was 13 when he started coming to the CDF Freedom Schools at Hellen Keller Elementary in Lynwood. It was JC’s first year participating in the summer enrichment program as well. The purpose of the CDF Freedom Schools program is to boost students’ motivation to read and increase their self-esteem. Zerrick, a reluctant young man who often kept to himself, could use a little more confidence. He admitted that he hated reading aloud, especially in class, and he often kept his head down.

He credits JC, who was then a first year CDF Freedom Schools servant leader intern, with helping him overcome his fears and “pumping me up to do things that I didn’t want to do.” Now two years later, when Zerrick could be at home playing video games, at a park, or watching TV, he chooses to donate his time as a helper at the Lynwood site to make an impact on someone’s life like JC did on his.

Being a mentor to kids, particularly at a summer camp focused on reading, is not what JC ever expected for himself. Growing up in Bell Gardens in Southeast Los Angeles, JC described himself as a quiet, reserved student whose best subjects were math and science. He fondly recalls and often tells kids about winning his 8th grade science fair.

As for English, he said, he hated the subject. In fact, JC ditched his sophomore English class so often that he had to retake it. “It was just something I struggled with,” he said.

This insecurity with English started at an early age. With both of his parents from Mexico, JC’s first language was Spanish. It wasn’t until years later when he realized his ability to communicate in both languages was not something to be ashamed of; it was an asset.

After graduating from high school, JC began working at Rowdy Ridge summer camp in Lake Arrowhead for kids who came from homes with domestic violence and substance abuse.

“I had to put aside all my insecurities and self-doubt,” he said. “Being there made me realize whatever I had going on, I had to set it aside because these kids needed me.” It was during his four summers at the Rowdy Ridge camp when he realized his unique gift.

“I found that people, kids particularly, really like to talk to me,” he said. “They don’t feel like they are talking to an adult or a teacher.”

It’s not only the kids who love JC, parents also easily become attached. At one of the weekly parent meetings at the CDF Freedom Schools Lynwood site, it was announced that JC would be temporarily moved to another site. Parents erupted.

“No, you can’t take JC!” one parent yelled. “Find somebody else!”

“How long will he be gone?” another asked.

JC has come a long way from that timid, insecure kid who didn’t know his worth and hated English. He received his bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2013 and his experience with the CDF Freedom Schools program has solidified his plans to become a high school English teacher and later, an administrator.