A success story: Sequoia Gateway

Marvin Lopez's business card tells you he is the lead recruiter of California teachers in the Tulare County Office of Education. That's all the small card lets on. It doesn't say anything about his role as an inspirational soccer coach, a caring mentor, an unrelenting visionary and a huge-hearted human being.

His business card sells him short.

I first met Lopez in 2007 when I made a trek to Visalia, Calif., to study his creation, the nonprofit Sequoia Gateway Soccer Program, as part of ESPN.com's Hispanic Heritage Month content that year. I am compelled to share his updated story now in the continued celebration of Hispanic heritage because of its ability to remind us that historic revolutions are nothing if not for the personal contributions made by intrepid individuals, often in small communities in need.

Located about 300 miles north of San Diego and 250 miles southeast of San Francisco, Tulare County is California's modest middle child, nestled in the rural central valley. It is pristine California countryside whose acres of fertile farmland have been dishonored by an antiquated agricultural class system which relegates much of populace to dismal education expectations.

Many people working in this labor-intensive industry tend the fields. "Pickers" are predominately Mexican immigrant workers who earn low wages for a tedious task. Picking grapes, citrus fruit, vegetables and cotton is the default profession for many in Tulare County; thus it isn't surprising that more than 30 percent of its citizens over the age of 25 don't have a high school diploma -- well below the state average. Almost 90 percent of its adults over 25 are without a bachelor's degree. The most damning reality might be the overwhelming sentiment that graduating from high school and continuing on to college is an unlikely dream, too far out of financial reach to be considered a realistic strategy toward personal success.

Many of the region's children lack adult role models who are able to convey the value and possibility provided by higher education. Boys, in particular, are expected to work jobs on farms or in construction, which tempt the teenage psyche by offering immediate compensation without the requirement of significant education.

Enter Marvin Lopez.

Born in Guatemala in 1976, Lopez moved to the United Sates and settled with his family in New Jersey when he was 14. Like so many children of immigrant parents before him, he never dreamed of going to college.

"It never crossed my mind," Lopez says today. "It never would have happened if it wasn't for soccer."

Just as many of the boys he has coached did, he held minimum-wage part-time jobs while he was in high school.

"Landscape, newspaper boy, pizza delivery, snow removal -- I probably would have ended up doing something like that because community college was not an option for me, either," he says.

Lopez, though, had soccer. Much to his surprise, his talent caught the eye of college scouts; and someone took a chance on this good kid from an immigrant family. He was recruited by and granted a scholarship to Drew University in New Jersey, where he majored in Spanish literature and minored in business and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in education.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that his own success story became the inspiration for his outreaches later in life.

"I moved to Tulare County on a job offer in the education system, so it didn't take long to get a sense of these boys," Lopez says. "Immediately, I could see they were just like me. I knew that there were some really talented boys here, good boys that deserved a chance."

He could immediately see, too, that many of the boys in Tulare were coasting through school, falling into gangs, dropping out, and generally selling themselves short.

"They just need something to make them care about their character," says Lopez. "It could be football, or baseball, basketball or whatever; but for these boys here in this part of the country, it's soccer."

He started a traveling team in the town of Porterville, hosting tryouts that tested for talent in a program that demanded achievement, grade maintenance, study hall attendance and character-building community activity. His personal mission was to instill a sense of self-worth and ambition in his selected sons of soccer, stressing enrichment both on and off the field.

When Lopez took his team to tournaments around the state, he planned concurrent visits to nearby college campuses. He made phone calls to coaches at universities, vouching for his boys and inviting scouts to see for themselves. He helped his players (and their parents) through admissions paperwork and financial aid applications. He even flew several boys across the country to visit universities on the East Coast and meet with coaches would couldn't (or wouldn't) make the trip to Tulare.

Between 2005 and the spring of 2008, Lopez coached the Sequoia Gateway traveling team, which carried about 18 high school boys on its roster. In that span, about 40 teenagers made the cut and the grades to warrant membership. Remarkably, nearly every single one of them graduated from high school and went on to further education of some kind -- a four-year university, a junior college or a trade school.

Nearly every single one of them, except two.

"Mary, call me, I've got some great news," said Lopez's voice message some months ago. I hadn't heard from him in awhile, and I wondered what had him so excited. When I returned the call, he still sounded elated.

"Remember my two little ones? The only underclassmen on the team you met," he asked. He didn't wait for a response. "They're both at a prep school back East. They're finishing high school in New England at Northfield Mount Hermon! Can you believe it?"

Lopez knew I came from Connecticut, the land of high-brow boarding schools, and that this would surely strike a chord with me. He was right. I'd met his boys. I'd driven the humble roads from which they hail. I know how hard they worked and how much they challenged themselves.

"I'm so happy," he continued, his proud glow obvious even over the phone. "Diego and Johnny, they were both recruited by The Pennington School and NMH. They applied and were accepted and decided on NMH. They're both there now together."

Sophomore Johnny Mendoza and junior Diego Medina-Mendez both received full scholarships (based solely on financial need at NMH) to the esteemed Massachusetts boarding school whose annual out-of-state tuition, room and board fees for the 2009-10 school year are $43,400. That's higher than many annual household incomes in the boys' hometown.

Jim Burstein, an NMH alum and the boys' varsity co-head coach at his alma mater, acknowledges the good fortune -- on both sides of this equation -- that brought these young talents to a school so far, literally and figuratively, from their home.

"They're just great kids," Burstein says. "People will say that they are lucky to be here, but that's not it. The truth is, we're so lucky to have them. This is a very progressive school with an international student body. We've welcomed them in from the start and are so lucky to have them as a part of the community."

According to Burstein, Mendoza (who is bilingual) has helped bridge communications between the school's students from Spain and their peers and teachers. The coach describes a recent weekend in the life of his Tulare players: a game at Loomis Chaffee in Connecticut, a six-mile "Kicking Breast Cancer" walk in Boston, and a few hours on stage for their dramatic performances in "A Raisin In The Sun."

Mendoza, in a quick telephone interview that interrupts his Sunday night chemistry homework, tells me, "My parents were kind of sad when I was leaving, but they knew it was the best for me and I knew it was the best for me. I am so grateful for this opportunity and the doors that have been opened to me from Marvin's team. I love it here. It's really nice."

Says Burstein: "It's really a credit to Marvin. He is such a wonderful person, and the fact that so many parents have entrusted him to find the right school for their sons is just a tribute to what an incredible person he really is. Parents are willing to send their boys, sometimes across the country, for an education and an opportunity on Marvin's word."

Sadly, though, the hard economic times have forced Lopez to stop operating the Sequoia Gateway Soccer Program, which he calculates costs about $1,000 per student-athlete each year for equipment, uniforms, travel to tournaments and college campuses, and other basics.

"Mentally, I was nowhere near ready to walk away after last season," Lopez says. "But with the recession, we just weren't getting the donations of local businesses and sponsors anymore. We fund-raise, but it's not enough to sustain a program. We have a unique situation because kids' parents are in no position to put family income towards their son's travel."

The loss of the program is particularly difficult, Lopez says, now that he is seeing success stories such as Mendoza and Medina-Mendez.

"I had nothing to show at the start," he says. "The proof took a few years for these kids to get out and make it. They made it, but now there is no support to keep going … I am so disappointed, mad sometimes, that we can't keep doing what we do to help more kids. But I am so happy for all of my boys and so proud to say that we moved them all on before we shut down."

Lopez says he continues to field calls at least once a week from boys and their parents asking for guidance in the college application process. He still assists willingly and only hopes the community will one day find the means to restart the soccer side of the arrangement.

Something tells me Lopez's good work will endure for years to come. After Mendoza graduates from NMH, he says he has his sights set on a business and education degree; and the word is that Amherst College already has its eye on him. Maybe in a few years, Lopez's torch will be passed to him, or to another Sequoia Gateway graduate.

They say you can tell a lot about a teacher by the success of his pupils.

Mary Buckheit is an ESPN.com Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at marybuckheit@hotmail.com.