UC Merced graduate in running for $50,000 PeaceFirst prize

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 19, 2013 

Noel Justin Gomez’s work with eighth-graders could land him a $50,000 prize that would enhance the effort to better the lives of middle school students. Gomez and Patricia Paredes co-founded Project 10%, which has reached more than 3,500 students.

Gomez, formerly of Merced, is one of 50 people throughout the United States in the running for the Peace First prize offered by the Boston-based organization. The competitive fellowship is designed to invest in young leaders, creating a positive change in their communities, said Tal Gilad, executive director of Peace First LA.

Gomez, 22, graduated from UC Merced in May with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He has temporarily relocated to Las Vegas and is a volunteer tutor at the College of Southern Nevada, where he received his associate of arts degree in communications. He hopes to find a job in the Merced area.

Gilad said the Peace First winner should be announced the first week of October. The Boston-based organization was founded 20 years ago; this is the first year the prize has been offered.

Gomez said when he was 11 years old, two of his uncles were killed because of gang violence and drug trafficking. He was determined to graduate from high school and continue on to college, being the first in his family to do so.

Gomez founded Project 10% in February 2012. He said the group’s mission is to cultivate a healthy, peaceful and vibrant community by increasing the high school graduation rate by 10 percent through a professionally supported team of UC Merced students sharing their life experiences with eighth-graders.

Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, said Gomez has been inspirational in getting other students involved in the program as well. Gomez lived in Merced since January 2011 and said he will be back here soon once he is employed.

Paredes, of San Jose, graduated from UC Merced in May with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and minors in writing and management. She has applied for law school.

“If we won, I’d jump for joy,” Paredes said. “I’d be so thankful on behalf of the middle school students who are grateful for the program. I know they’re very thankful.”

Gomez hopes Project 10% will grow and reach more middle school students, early high school students and inspire more university students to make a difference in the lives of others. UC students share the obstacles they encountered early in life and how they persevered with their education.

Gilad said Peace First has a 20-year history of teaching peacemaking skills in schools, from prekindergarten to eighth grades. Empathy, negotiation skills and community involvement are stressed.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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