Grad returns home to Merced and rallies youth voice

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comDecember 17, 2012 

Writer Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again" was published in 1940, but the expression hasn't lost its profundity 70-plus years later.

The flip side of that expression, however, is sometimes home is where you're most needed.

Case in point: Andres Reyes, a 26-year-old native Mercedian who recently returned home after working for an independent music label in Los Angeles. After the label he worked for had financial difficulties, however, the University of California at San Diego grad had to put some of his musical ambitions on hold in 2010, and returned back to Merced.

But coming home didn't mean stagnation for Reyes, and a once closing door opened new opportunities in his hometown. Reyes looked at his options and was eventually hired as the youth media coordinator of We'Ced Youth Media, a magazine written and produced by high school students.

For the past year, Reyes worked as a one-man show in directing the students who produce We'Ced. Reyes' job, funded by the California Endowment, is a mélange of journalism instructor, mentor and editor.

Most of all, the job requires Reyes to be a good listener -- particularly because the stories told by the students are often extremely personal. Some students have tackled tough issues such as sexual abuse and growing up poor. Others have written about discrimination against gay and lesbian teens. The experience for Reyes, working with the youth, has been emotional and transformative.

Issue arriving soon

As he intermittently typed away on his Mac, putting some finishing touches on We'Ced's upcoming issue, Reyes described how returning home has proved an important lesson in giving back.

"The process of it has really kind of made me realize that there is a need for people to reinvest, especially in a community like Merced," he said. "It's definitely been the connection with the young people that has kept me here."

The hard work of Reyes and We'Ced's student staff will come to fruition this Friday, as the group holds a public reading and preview of their upcoming issue. The event is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. at Coffee Bandits. Reyes expects the new issue will be released before Jan. 1. The issue is free to the public and will be available at Coffee Bandits, United Way and a variety of Merced businesses.

Currently, there are 13 students on the magazine's staff, and a total of 25 have worked on the project since its inception earlier this year. The magazine's name was created by the students, Reyes explained. It's pronounced like 'We Said,' but meant to also resemble the name "Merced."

The group includes students from several campuses in the Merced Union High School District, including continuation schools. They meet twice every week after school, in a classroom at Valley Community School.

The students, ages 15 to 19, generally receive a paid stipend of $30 per week, depending on their level of participation in the project. At the outset of the project, Reyes got the word out to students by putting out fliers, talking to his old teachers at Merced High, and giving short classroom presentations about We'Ced throughout the district.

The magazine also addresses current local news events in the community, such as the Merced Union High School District's recent changes to its bus service. There's also an article about the district's new campus, El Capitan High, which is slated to open next fall.

"I'm hoping (the students) are having fun, and not only re-examining their own lives, but the community around them," Reyes said.

Filling a gap

We'Ced fills a gap, Reyes said, because the voices of young people too often are forgotten when important community issues are discussed. Because of We'Ced, the youth are heard -- and they also garner some basic reporting and news writing skills along the way.

"It's definitely an empowering thing. A lot of these young people will talk about feeling ignored, feeling disconnected or feeling silenced in some way," Reyes said. "Being able to give them this platform ... it really does affect them in a positive way."

All of the students involved in We'Ced said the experience has been enlightening and has brought them closer together as a group.

"I always wanted to help out the community, but I never knew how or where to start," said Veronica Sandoval, 18. "This program really gives you a voice and an opinion, and lets everyone know how you feel, and that you really do matter."

Sandoval also said Reyes is "awesome" as We'Ced's coordinator. "He understands what we're going through and supports us," she said.

Lisa Vasquez, 16, wrote a story in the upcoming issue of We'Ced about teenage depression. Vasquez said Reyes makes everyone feel comfortable.

"He doesn't make you feel awkward. It's kind of like he's one of us. He is one of us," she said.

'Amazing' opportunity

Melissa Kelly-Ortega, communications specialist with Building Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that works to upgrade neighborhoods in the Merced area, and a partner of We'Ced, said Reyes is helping to provide an "amazing" opportunity for young people to share their stories. She called Reyes a natural role model and a great leader.

"He sets up good rules from the very beginning. The students know what's expected of them, and they work hard," she said. "I think they've created a really good support group there too."

In the meantime, Reyes said he's enthusiastic about We'Ced's future, and he hopes the experience will be as enriching for high school students as it's been for him. "I hope this can be an experience that can help them change their lives for the better," Reyes said. "I hope this seriously gets a young person to consider higher education, or to seriously consider doing something of value with (his or her) life."

We'Ced is published by San Francisco-based Pacific News Service/New America Medica, and is made possible by grants from the California Endowment. For more information, go to www.wecedyouth.org.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: 'Merced Matters' appears every Monday. In it we will tell the stories of Mercedians -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things, extraordinary people doing ordinary things and a lot in between. We hope you like our effort to let you know more about others in our community, and we welcome your suggestions. Please contact Victor Patton at vpatton@mercedsunstar.com or (209) 385-2431 with your ideas for 'Merced Matters.'

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