Growing up in East L.A., Jeremy Estrada had a fire burning inside of him.

It was his mother's drug use, his father's absence, the responsibility dumped on him to find a way to pay the bills before he was in his teens. There was no one in the community, no one in the church or his school who he felt cared.But his friends loved him, and if society called them a gang, it didn't matter. They were all he had.

The fire in Estrada raged hotter when his friend Glen was stabbed to death in front of him; when his friend Anthony was shot in the head; when he went time and time again for a stay in juvenile hall.

The only thing that doused the fire was going after his enemies, punching and hitting until the fire faded just a little.

He wasn't a bad kid, he says, but no one could see past his bad behavior, past the probation and the crimes, until a judge sent him to a program called Rite of Passage instead of the California Youth Authority.

Today, at 21, Estrada is a high school graduate and a former junior college student body president. He is studying science at the conservative, affluent Pep-per-dine University, where every year he earns $32,000 in scholarships and grants to stay in college. He wants to go to medical school.

But Estrada says his story is not incredible. There are youths in every county in Utah who could tell similar stories, he says. At the 19th annual Conference of Agencies and Organizations Serv-ing Troubled Youth, Es-tra-da, the keynote speaker, urged those who work with youth to keep giving, to keep loving.

"It's up to each and every one of you not to give up on a kid," Estrada told the 800-member audience. "I challenge you, I ask you, I beg you to please not stop working for our kids."

Estrada said it was the chance given him by a judge and then the counselors and teachers at Rite of Passage, a wilderness camp for troubled youth in the Nevada desert, that saved him. There were compliments day after day, help with the fractions and essays he thought were impossible for someone like him.

He soon found that politics, history and math created a new and different fire in him. He fed it, was addicted to it, thrived on it and soon got a high school diploma. That feat was so incredible he compared it to Bill Clin-ton asking you to be his vice president: It's just not something that you'd imagine could ever happen.

He urged the crowd to remember that troubled youth need them.

"God has blessed me, that's why I'm here. But my story is nothing special. There are stories like mine in each one of your counties, your cities, your states. . . . All a kid needs is some love."