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Oceanside teen who overcame extreme hardship honored as San Diego Youth of the Year
San Diego Union-Tribune - 3/26/2020
Three years ago, Oceanside teenager Hunter Meyer wouldn't have bet on himself for a promising future. After battling through years of drug abuse, gang activity, fighting, school expulsions and even a suicide attempt, he wasn't even sure he'd live to have a future.
Then Meyer reluctantly enrolled in a gang and crime diversion program run by the Oceanside Boys & Girls Clubs and the Oceanside Police Department and a window to a new future opened before him.
This month, he was named Youth of the Year by the collective Boys & Girls Clubs of San Diego County. Next month, he'll move on to compete for the organization's state title, which includes a $5,000 college scholarship.
Over the past 2-1/2 years, Meyer, now 18, has gone from gang initiate to avid community volunteer to model employee for the Oceanside Boys & Girls Clubs. Over the past year, he has worked with grade-schoolers in the Clubs' after-school program at South Oceanside Elementary School. He has also been called upon to speak to troubled middle-schoolers who might be considering the same dangerous path that he once followed.
"It's a crazy transition that I went through," Meyer said Monday. "It really flipped my view on Oceanside. There's more we need to focus on. Social diversity can be a big issue as well as trying to fit in. Those are two of the hardest things kids are dealing with in Oceanside."
Jodi Diamond, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oceanside, said Hunter is a good example of how programs such as the diversionary Oceanside Youth Partnership program can re-route at-risk teens who have hit a dead end.
"Hunter is so deserving of this honor. He is truly an example of someone who has turned his life around. We couldn't be prouder of him and his accomplishments. I saw his transformation right before my eyes," Diamond said. "Hunter exemplifies everything that the club is about: Leadership, character development, integrity, resilience and the power of hard work."
Born in Oceanside to a family with nine children, Meyer said he was diagnosed at age 4 with bipolar disorder and Tourette syndrome. Elementary school was difficult for him because he felt like he didn't fit in.
"I was very different and antisocial. I was always trying to find a friend," he said.
In middle school, he started taking drugs to help him feel more comfortable in social situations. At the same time, he started getting into fights with other students. As his troubles escalated at school, he was asked to leave and enrolled at a charter school. There he met a girl and fell in love. When that relationship faltered, he tried to kill himself.
"I was lost. I didn't know what I was going to do, so I just decided I'd let it happen," he said of his suicide attempt. "I was hanging in the garage when my mom and little brother walked in."
Then 14, he was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety disorder. After spending time in a mental health clinic, he enrolled as a freshman at El Camino High School, where he began heavily using cocaine, Xanax, ecstasy and marijuana. He was fighting with other students and began spending time with members of two local gangs.
By his sophomore year, Meyer couldn't see a way out of his troubles. Then, with his mother's encouragement, he applied for a slot in the 12-week Oceanside Youth Partnership program, which launched in March 2018. There, sitting around the table with police officers and rival members from the two gangs he'd once dabbled in, he was asked the question: "Where do you want to go from here?"
"If the Boys & Girls Clubs didn't give the police department the space for the program, I wouldn't have ever turned my life around," Meyer said. "That opened the door and gave us the opportunity to walk through it if we wanted to. Without it, I don't know where I'd be right now."
Of the program's inaugural class of 12 students, just seven graduated, including Meyer. As part of the program, he needed to complete some volunteer hours, so he started volunteering at the clubs every day before and after school. When the school year ended, he volunteered all that summer.
Diamond said that after Meyer spent a full year consistently showing up at the club to volunteer, he was offered at job. He's been there ever since. Although he was among those recently laid off as the result of coronavirus-related school closures, he still considers himself a club employee.
This year, he will earn his high school diploma from Pacific View Charter School in Oceanside. He hopes to attend college and earn a bachelor's degree in either child development or psychology. He's considering a career in law enforcement or as a counselor in the juvenile justice system.
On April 15, Meyer will advance to the California Youth of the Year competition, which will be held digitally due to current shelter-in-place measures. With a win there, he would move on to the Pacific Region competition, which has a $10,000 scholarship prize that's renewable for up to four years. Five regional winners will advance to the national competition in Washington D.C.
Win or lose, Meyer said he's grateful to be in a position where he can use his experiences to help grade-schoolers make more positive choices about their futures.
"I've seen third-graders making gang signs," he said. "For many of these kids I've had a chance to bond with, they talk to me about how their parents are gang members. It's the only life they've ever known. That's something we need to work on."
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