PLANADA — If we can do it, you can do it.
That was the inspirational message two UC Merced students shared with a room full of eighth-graders in Planada on Friday morning.
The presentation was part of the Merced County Project 10%, an effort based on statistics from an anti-crime organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
Patricia Paredes, 23, and fellow student Noel Gomez, 21, both UC Merced seniors, started the Merced County Project 10% in February 2011.
As part of the program, they speak to eighth-graders in all of Merced County's middle schools about the importance of graduating from high school and making positive choices.
They have spoken at every middle school except Los Banos and Gustine, which are set for later this month, inspiring more than 3,000 students so far.
The idea emerged after Paredes and Gomez took a summer leadership trip to Harvard University in 2011. "We were inspired to help our communities," Gomez said.
After coming home, the students met with Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II and Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve E. Gomes, along with other community leaders, to launch the first-of-its-kind project.
On Friday morning, a room filled with eighth-graders from César E. Chávez Middle School watched as Gomez talked to the kids about self-value, demonstrating his point with a $20 bill.
"If I fold, crumple and step on this $20 bill, do you still want it?" he asked, as he stomped on the waded bill.
The kids responded "yes" in unison.
"So whatever you do, it's still $20. It doesn't lose its value," Gomez said. "My point is, I want you to think of yourself as a $20 bill. Sometimes people fold you and walk all over you, but just like that $20, you never lose your value."
The theme of Gomez's presentation was choices, and he made that clear by telling the kids a personal story about watching his favorite uncle die from a gang shooting when he was 11 years old.
"You are about to enter high school, and you'll have a lot of choices," he said. "Your choices, what you're doing or not doing, is affecting the world," he said.
Co-founder Paredes shared a story about growing up in a single-family home after her father died when she was 16. She said it's important to reach the kids right before they enter high school.
"We thought that middle school would be the best point to speak to them because it's a transition point," Paredes said. "They think we're cool, they can relate to us and look up to us."
The faces of the eighth-graders lit up as they realized the two UC Merced students faced similar challenges and barriers -- bad neighborhoods, crime and English as a second language -- but successfully overcame them.
"It was just a couple years ago that I was in their seat," Gomez said. "I wish when I was their age I had someone tell me the things I know now."
Toward the end of the presentation, the children signed a promise to themselves to graduate from high school and took home a "high school diploma" copy.
Paredes and Gomez plan to visit some of the students during their freshmen year of high school. But for now, the kids walked away with a powerful message: The choices they make affect themselves, their families and the community.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.