JEFFERSON AWARDS

Together We Rise founder gets Jefferson Award

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In just a few short years, Danny Mendoza has made a huge impact in lives of at-risk children.

In California, 65 percent of teens in foster care leave without having a place to live. The concept of "aging out" - getting kicked out of the system at 18 - had weighed heavily on Mendoza while he was in college, so he decided to do something about it.

Mendoza started Together We Rise, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of foster children in America. For this, Mendoza has won the Jefferson Award.

On a recent afternoon, Mendoza and his Together We Rise volunteers visited the McKinley Children's Center in San Dimas. Their goal was to hang out, have a barbecue and let the kids know they're not alone.

"The most rewarding thing is just seeing that for one day, these kids can just step out of their element," Mendoza said. "They're here for no fault of their own. There's obviously horrendous things that happened to them, but just for one day they can be a kid and not worry about it."

Julissa Castillo, the executive director of foster care at McKinley Children's Center, says some people may look at Mendoza and think he's too young to make a difference, but they would be wrong.

"Having Danny around and making himself available to the youth that we serve has been really amazing," she said. "He's been able to connect with them on many different levels: the support, the services, the extracurricular activities."

One of those activities has been their build-a-bike event, where they donated 1,000 bicycles to children in need.

Every experience reinforces what it means to make a difference.

"I think I've just learned to appreciate little small things in life a lot more," Mendoza said. "As a kid growing up in Southern California, you kind of expect things from your parents. Once I learned more about the foster care system and how these kids don't have anything, it kind of gave my life a little more meaning."

Anyone interested in Together We Rise or learning more about how they can get involved as a volunteer can visit their website at togetherwerise.org.

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charity, jefferson awards, ellen leyva
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