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Geoffrey Mcallister, Deseret News
Jose Gomez is traveling to California today to vie for the regional youth of the year honors.

If kids today make you worry for the future, Jose Gomez provides some relief.

The 18-year-old is Utah's State Youth of the Year for Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake, a selection that has so far garnered him $3,000 in college scholarships.

Earlier this spring, he became the first one in his family to graduate from high school, and he now is taking nine hours of college credit at the University of Utah in preparation for studies at Weber State University this fall that he hopes culminate in a degree in criminal justice. He's also starting an internship as a translator at a local hospital.

And this morning, he's heading to California. Disneyland is part of the trip, but mainly he's going to vie for national youth of the year honors to be awarded Thursday to just five youths representing the five U.S. geographic regions served by Boys & Girls Clubs. He will go up against winners from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California.

Should he win, his summer plans will have to make room for a trip to Washington, D.C., where a fuss will be made over the group by President George W. Bush and Congress.

Late Monday afternoon, Gomez wasn't thinking about winning or of the lofty or long-term. Cramming a suitcase and shoring up class work well enough to withstand a three-day absence was foremost on his mind. Get done today so you can get through tomorrow is his mode of operation. That didn't include taking time to sit down for an interview with a newspaper, but he did it anyway.

Doing things anyway or in spite of or in service to is just how he is and has always been: He started going to the Boy's & Girls Club after school in the fifth grade, in part to escape the near-constant arguing at home between his Nicaraguan immigrant parents who struggled to blend with American culture.

His two older brothers responded by finding a home away from home with gangs. That resulted in one being seriously hurt and both going to jail and one being deported. His parents divorced, and his father faded from the picture completely, leaving Gomez as man of the house for his two younger sisters and his mother.

The situation turned Gomez' compass toward responsibility. He took a job to help his mother make ends meet. He also filled in the gaps in household duties when his mother's shift work went long or kept her away many mornings and evenings. The family also lost their home because the household received no financial support from the father and they have been forced to move several times.

He would get his sisters ready for school, help with homework, prepare meals and pretty much keep the household seams from coming completely apart, according to accounts from club staff members. Rising to meet the struggles has matured him well beyond his age but his smile and cheerful-in-all-weathers outlook are deeper in him because of the experience, documents submitted to the udging committee state.

His teachers and the club staff members say Gomez is a kid who has always looked like he knows a secret — kind of shy and a half-smile that easily turns full-blown and lights up a room.

"He's really never needed any of the regular prodding from adults — 'get to class, do your homework' — he just sees what needs to be done and does it," said Allison Barclay, director of operations for Boys &Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake. "He's the ultimate self-starter," she said, whether it's taking a job to help out the family or seeing the value of an education when his circumstances would be pushing him down a path that would have a lot of years to come but no real future.

"I can't say where I'd be if I wouldn't have been able to come here," Gomez said. "I could come here to do my homework, and I came here to play sports. I guess wherever I would be, it wouldn't be where I'd want to be."

Gomez has an awareness of what's going on around him, and an outlook that his life is his responsibility, no matter what.

The past few years have also made him a little wary of the world when he has to be, and he's learned that sometimes the way things work doesn't work out for the best. He believes, and has personal observation to back it up, that the criminal justice system needs to be recalibrated back toward more fairness. He said he feels "kind of called" to a career in the field, although he's not sure yet what the exact job might be.

Gomez is a born leader that the younger kids at the club eagerly follow, Barclay said. He's one of those rare kids who is cool without trying, and is twice as cool because he doesn't know it, she said. The club was a constant that probably helped him have some fun and some outside adult praise and guidance that helped him keep his bearings along the way. But he's helped out the club equally by just being who he is, she added.

When asked what sets him apart from the other candidates — a question the judges in California will be sure to ask — he smiles, his standard reaction when heading into uncomfortable territory. The grin seems to widen more as he realizes he can't avoid the first person pronoun in his answer. (Teachers and club staffers say he has a serious case of "I" trouble, but it's opposite of the type afflicting most young people his age — he uses it as little as possible because to him it sounds like bragging.)

"I had the same goals as everyone, but I didn't have any role models at home to show me how to achieve them," he said finally. "The club helped me a lot. And It's great to be chosen for what I've been through and how I got through it. And I'm just as willing to move on into the future."


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com