Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Junior at Gaithersburg High draws on his past to mentor youth

Once a troubled eighth-grader, he now inspires middle schoolers at Olde Towne Youth Center

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Travis Melendez, 18, youth counselor and a junior at Gaithersburg High School, made the 3-D mural ‘‘Pryde” on the center’s wall.
All it took was a ball of string, a sponge, paint, a staple gun, a venetian blind, foam, a garbage bag, wood chips, dirt and shrubbery for Travis Melendez to create a three-dimensional mural of the Olde Towne Youth Center in Gaithersburg.

He named the artwork Pryde.

‘‘I really wanted this piece to be focused toward them,” Melendez said last week of the middle schoolers he mentors at the Olde Towne Youth Center. ‘‘I wanted them to actually be taking pride in something and doing this was my best guess.”

Melendez, 18, a junior at Gaithersburg High School, is a senior counselor at the youth center. But he hasn’t always taken pride in himself. He was suspended several times from Gaithersburg Middle School for fighting. In 2004, when he was in eighth grade, a school administrator caught him and several other students leaving school to fight off-campus. He was expelled and sent to a county program for highly-disruptive middle school students.

Fleet Street in Rockville provides academics and mentoring for students in lieu of expulsion, according to a Montgomery County Public Schools Web site.

‘‘I kind of got a flash of light there,” Melendez said. ‘‘I got my grades straight...They told me that getting back into public school would be hard but I was definitely determined to get back in.”

At Fleet Street, Melendez saw violent outbursts from his peers the likes of which he had never witnessed before.

‘‘I kind of told myself: If I can get good grades in this environment then being in a public school should be easier for me,” he said.

Melendez also had to complete 75 court-mandated service hours due to his last fight, his mother said.

To complete those hours, he turned to the place where he used to hang out with friends.

The center’s former manager ‘‘knew the kind of person he could be,” and allowed him to volunteer there, said Kimmie Alcorn, a city recreation program manager. ‘‘It’s a testament to the fantastic human being he is now,” she said. ‘‘He’s a great kid and he’s growing up to be a tremendous young man.”

At the Olde Towne Youth Center, Melendez found camaraderie and support – even while doing drudge work, he said.

‘‘I saw changes in him,” said his mother Mary Melendez. ‘‘When he had to start being responsible for other kids, I saw him maturing.”

At Fleet Street, Melendez improved his grades to A’s and B’s then straight A’s and earned his way back into Gaithersburg High School as a freshman in fall 2005. Last semester, he earned a 3.28 GPA, he said.

At 16, he was hired as counselor and in January, he was promoted. These days, he coaches extra-mural basketball and football and helps students with their homework.

His easygoing manner invites middle schoolers to ask questions, Alcorn said. ‘‘They love him because he’s clearly older than them – he’s that cool older guy – but he’s not that person to be feared yet.” He is someone ‘‘that they can look up to.”

Melendez, who said he has a cumulative 2.5 GPA, hopes to do some internships and get scholarships to go to college to study architecture, he said.

Melendez said he would work at the youth center for free — investing time in middle schoolers ‘‘is my paycheck to me.” That’s why he spent more than a week decorating the center’s wall, even though the building will be torn down this summer to make way for a new and much larger youth center on Teacher’s Way. He has never had art lessons or spent much time drawing.

Paper clouds suspended in twine dangle above his mural and birds made of wood chips fly across the sky.

‘‘Don’t be afraid of what you are capable of, take pride in it and never settle for less,” he wrote on the mural. ‘‘Your mind is like a sponge if drenched in knowledge. Soak it up and use it to your benefit.”