Luis Guzman is a student at YouthBuild in Santa Rosa. Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee

The thing about school, says 18-year-old Luis Guzman, is that it’s hard to stay in it.
“It’s hard just being in school because I know my family doesn’t have any money,” he said between classes at YouthBuild, a vocational education school for at-risk youth he has attended since March.
His father and brother, who supported the family, lost their lumber industry jobs in the long recession, he said.
The $9.50 an hour he earns from construction work through the school’s vocational training program and the $8 an hour from waiting tables and cleaning at a senior living community help only so much.
“I want to drop out and help them out, get a full-time job,” he says. “I’ve thought about it. I still think about it.”
But Guzman, who came to YouthBuild from Ridgway Continuation High School in Santa Rosa, hasn’t dropped out.
Instead, the teenager who was kicked out of Elsie Allen High School a little more than a year ago has thrived. He’s aiming to graduate before he turns 19 in February and is considering attending Santa Rosa Junior College.
“I’d be the first in my family,” he said.
Guzman has been made a construction crew leader and a member of YouthBuild’s student council, which helps set the school’s policies and procedures.
“We’re very proud of him,” says Cathi Andrade, YouthBuild’s education manager. “He has really become a great leader.”
Guzman grew up and still lives in Moorland, a neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s southern edge where gang graffiti and occasional gunshots are a sharp counterpoint to the tinkle of ice cream cart bells and children playing in the streets.
Guzman says he sidestepped Moorland’s harder side by listening to his father, who urged him to stay on the right path, and by keeping in mind his parents’ struggles as immigrants.
“I had that chance all around me,” he says of the neighborhood’s violent temptations. “The difference for me, I think, is I would think about how my family has suffered a lot, not only in Mexico but here.”
In the hallway of YouthBuild’s Lomitas Avenue building, someone shouts, “Five minutes.” Break is almost over, classes are set to resume, and Guzman will go too, back on the path he’s walking so well.
Things are pretty cool these days, pretty smooth.
He’s working every other week in the school’s construction program, building affordable housing in Sebastopol.
He’s attending classes — English and Life Skills are his favorites — and piling up credits.
He’s listening to Mexican music a lot more these days and that too shows a change in him.
“I used to think a little bit it wasn’t that cool,” he said.
He got his driver’s license this month and is driving a Chevrolet truck.
“It makes it a lot easier for my dad,” he said.
And he’s reading a new book, “Buried Onions,” about a teenager growing up in a tough Fresno neighborhood.
“I just picked it up one of these days and decided I’m going to read a book,” he said.
The combination of school and work tires him.
“I get home and I eat and I shower and I fall asleep,” he said, but he’s still focused. “My goal is to graduate,” he said.
And then, before getting a job or attending the junior college, he plans to take a break, go to Mexico, to Uriangato, Guanajuato, where his family’s from.
He has been there before, and it has a pull on him.
“I like waking up to the smell of the stoves, the nice burnt wood,” he says. “I look out the window and see people walking with their farm animals. You’re free out there.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

Luis Guzman
Age: 18
School: YouthBuild
Family: Mother, Rosa; father, Lionel; sister, Vanessa; brothers Eduardo and Miguel
Heroes: Father
Favorite book: “The Hatchet”
Favorite music: Spanish language
Hidden talent: “I don’t know right now”
Dream job: “My own construction or landscaping company”