Gene Truong named Youth of Year, Boys & Girls Club honors nominees
Youth of the Year Gene Truong at the Boys and Girls Club reception sponsored by August Sebastiani Foundation.
On Thursday evening, four Sonoma Valley High School seniors were honored at the Boys & Girls Club’s Youth of the Year celebration, and Gene Truong was selected as the 2011 recipient. I had the honor of serving as one of four panel judges, along with Rick Cavalli, Lora Eichner and Andrew McDermott. The four Youth of the Year nominees – Gemma Bolanos, Ely Hernandez, Anelyn Burquez, and Truong – were each truly inspiring and impressive. All four will receive a $500 scholarship for college, and Truong will receive a new laptop computer.
The audience at the reception was packed with students there to support each of the candidates, and all four received thunderous applause. The nominees delivered moving speeches detailing their journey thus far and the role that our Boys & Girls Club has played in their lives. Said Executive Director David Pier, “It was inspiring to hear what each of them has gotten out of their time at the club, particularly knowing how they have also given back to the club and the community. We are honored to recognize the accomplishments of each of them and to be sending Gene on to compete at the regional level for Youth of the Year.”
Truong delivered a heartbreaking speech that began with his earliest memories in Vietnam, being raised by his single mother, sometimes without the means for food, rent or schoolbooks. He described his life in Vietnam as “a day-to-day battle of survival.”
He was shocked when his mother one day announced that they were moving to America. While told over and over how lucky he was to have this opportunity, arriving in a new world knowing absolutely nothing was very difficult. Truong described feeling like an outsider and the loneliness of being unable to communicate. He felt invisible, had no friends and was picked on because he looked and acted different. Misery escalated into serious bullying, and when he defended himself, no one listened to his side of the story because he spoke no English.
Truong became determined to learn English, and took to carrying a small, electronic dictionary around with him everywhere he went. But hard-won fluency in English didn’t solve his troubles. Life at home wasn’t always easy and he became the one who picked fights and acted disrespectfully toward teachers. He associated with kids getting into serious trouble and headed in the wrong direction, and would sneak out of the house at night.
Said Truong, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I wanted to fit in. I so badly wanted friends that I didn’t take the time to think about right and wrong.”
He felt that everyone was against him and trusted no one. He put a wall up that, 10 years later, is just now beginning to come down.
Truong knew that he was letting himself and his mother down. “When the principal would explain that I had gotten in another fight, I would watch my mom’s face – it looked like her heart was breaking. But she was also angry. She didn’t work as hard as she did to bring me to the U.S. just to watch me ruin my opportunities.”
While Truong’s road to redemption was a rocky one, a major turning point came when he met his mentor, former pro football player John Taylor, in middle school. “He helped me to see that something had to change,” said Truong. “He encouraged me to try out for basketball, which is now my passion in life. When I made the Sonoma High team, I realized that I wanted to change.”
This is the point at which Truong’s involvement with the Boys & Girls Club became pivotal. He had stopped by occasionally when he first moved to Sonoma, but now decided to really get involved. He used the club to make new friends and to get help with assignments. He liked helping out with the little kids, and it was a place where he felt wanted. “I came to do homework,” he recalls, “but when I was finished, I didn’t want to go home. I found ways to keep myself busy, volunteering anywhere I could be helpful.”
But his time at the club was not always easy, he admitted. He acted out, and when he was rude to the staff he was asked to leave. When he argued with other members, he was asked to leave. “But I kept coming back. I got a second chance at the club, third and fourth chances actually. I began to realize that my actions didn’t define who I was. And eventually, I stopped mouthing off and began to like who I was at the club. The club put me on the right track.”
Truong became close to Robin Eurgubian in Teen Services and she convinced him to join College Bound, even though he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to college. He went with the group on college tours, and found he could picture himself there. He began to realize that there is so much more to life than what he had known so far in Sonoma.
The goal of college lit a fire under Truong. He has worked hard, improved his grades and he has already submitted his applications to CSU East Bay, CSU Channel Islands, Sacramento State, Chico State, CSU Bakersfield and Sonoma State. He credits Eurgubian with his breakthrough to college consciousness. “Robin guided me through each and every step,” he now says. “I felt like she was there for me all the time – pushing me to do things I thought I could never do. Even on my bad days, she would show me the positive side – how to make things better.”
With his college applications in, Truong is turning his attention to his senior project. He has designed a basketball camp for younger BGC members that he will run in the spring and is excited to give back to the club.
Previous recipients of the Sonoma Boys & Girls Club Competition have been Manuel Herredia-Santoyo in 2009 and Jessica Contreras in 2010. As the 2011 recipient, in March, Truong will head to the northern California regionals for the next level of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Youth of the Year competition. Also honored Thursday night were Member’s of the Year chosen from each satellite Boys & Girls Club location.