Carlos Ojeda Jr. had a message for Danville High School students on Thursday.
“Knowledge is power. Your voice is your power,” the motivational speaker told the teens.
Ojeda Jr. — a community advocate who works with high school and college-aged youth to spread his message of education, leadership, community activism and entrepreneurship — was invited to speak in Danville by the students of DHS’ Hispanic Leadership Council.
The council members first heard Ojeda Jr. speak last spring at the annual Latino Youth Conference at the University of Illinois.
Ojeda Jr. gave motivational and leadership presentations at South View and North Ridge middle schools Thursday morning and a final assembly in the afternoon at DHS.
Ojeda Jr. sprinkled in advice as he talked about his life, including his upbringing in Newark, N.J., where he witnessed a gang shooting when he was 10 years old. The violence prompted his immigrant parents to move the family to Redding, Pa., but that’s when the real trouble began for Ojeda Jr.
“I had trouble all the time … in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension by the time I was in tenth grade,” he said.
“They wanted to put me in a special school with special people,” he joked.
“I was told I would never amount to anything — I could either drop out (of school) or die — and I believed them,” he said.
Ojeda Jr. told the DHS student body that dropping out of school wasn’t an option for him nor should it be for them.
“It’s up to you to decide,” he said. “If you drop out of high school, you make $10,000 less a year (than a high school graduate) and you’ll make millions of dollars less over your lifetime.”
Eventually, Ojeda Jr. found out he had “a hearing problem and a communication problem” that was affecting his schooling.
When a teacher encouraged him to consider going to college and to take the SAT college entrance exam, he said it “changed his life.”
Ojeda Jr. also told the teens that time is precious and to love their families and warned against ruining their lives with some of the choices they make.
“I look at all the stupid things I’ve done, all the times I put my life on the line and how I could have lost everything,” he said.
Ojeda Jr. described his father as a daunting figure who worked in a factory around the clock.
“The only reason we never came to blows was because my mom always came between us,” he said.
When Ojeda Jr. learned his father was dying, it changed everything.
“Just when I learned to live with my father, I had to learn to live without him,” he said.
“I wish I had all the five minutes I wasted over my lifetime, so I had that time to spend with my father,” he said.
“You have those five minutes and people who love you,” he said, pointing to the crowd. “Love each other, love your family and smile a little more.”
Ojeda Jr. ended up receiving a four-year scholarship to a university in Michigan and being the first member of his family to graduate from college. He said his dad, who never cried at funerals, cried at his college graduation.
When Ojeda Jr. showed a photo of his father hugging him at graduation on a large projection screen, the student body collectively said, “Awww.”
He also showed photos of his wife and him on their wedding day and of his two sons.
“Your voice is your power. I had to believe in myself,” he said.
Cristina Padron, DHS junior and member of the leadership council, said, “His childhood, his story was so intense.”
Alyssa Trujillo, fellow DHS junior and council member, said, “No matter what, if you speak up, you can change things.”