Aaron Clark Beat the Odds, Now Helps Other Kids Succeed

University of California Grad Aaron Clark Mentors Through Americorps' City Year
Eli Flores (left) and Aaron Clark of City Year, at Markham Middle School in L.A.
Robert Gallagher

06/14/2012 AT 11:00 AM EDT

When he was in fifth grade, Aaron Clark used to lie in bed at night, bouncing a tennis ball against the ceiling and planning his escape from the rats and roaches, gang shootings and stomach-knotting stress of life in the housing projects of Oakland, Calif.

"I made a promise to myself," says Clark, now 24. "If I can get to college, I'll take care of people here in the projects. I'll remember kids like me. And I'm going to pull them up."

He's a man of his word.

After becoming the first male in his family to gradate from college (the University of California, Riverside) Clark became an AmeriCorps member with City Year, a national nonprofit agency that sends 17- to 24-year-olds into struggling public schools for one year of service.

Their mission: to provide one-on-one tutoring and, just as important, act as role models for kids who often have none. Says Paul Hernandez, principal of Markham Middle School in Los Angeles's Watts district: "For kids consumed with surviving rather than planning for the future, City Year has been a lifeline." Since 1988, City Year mentors have tutored more than 1.2 million students across the country.

'A Different Kid'

At Markham, Clark was drawn to seventh-grader Eli Flores. While the 12-year-old was obviously bright, he was a frustration to his teachers, pulling Ds in science and math and failing English. But Clark, a two-mile-a-day runner, saw untapped potential in the guarded boy who loved video games. So Clark got to work, pulling Flores out of class for study sessions up to seven hours a week.

Eli's mom and teachers say, after Clark came into his life, Eli became a different kid. "He's matured, he's focused, even his penmanship is better," says Yesenia Enriquez, Eli's English teacher.

The proof: Eli's grades soared from Ds to mostly As and Bs, and he scored the second-highest in his class on a district English test. "Mr. Clark," Eli says, "taught me how to improve and have good posture. And how not to give up."

Clark, who recently finished his year with Eli, wants to become an attorney, go into real estate and someday create a business district not far from the projects where he grew up. Of Eli, he says: "I hope what I've taught him lasts a lifetime."

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