By Grace Altenhofen, Des Moines Register
When North High School senior Agustin Oropeza joined Al Éxito seven years ago, he had hesitations.
He wasn’t sure the Des Moines-based organization dedicated to advancing educational achievement and leadership in Latino youth was for him.
“I didn’t really like it at first, my first year, because my mom’s the director so I was like, ‘I’m forced to go to this,'” Oropeza said. “But then quickly, after a few weeks, I was like, ‘This is a really good community.’ Everybody’s super nice to each other and they help you bond with people and learn about your heritage and culture and stuff like that.”
On Saturday, with his mother watching proudly, Oropeza became one of 32 graduating senior Al Éxito participants.
In the Des Moines Arts Center auditorium, decorated with balloons and streamers, each age group of Al Éxito participants came up to the stage to receive certificates in recognition of their work. Each graduating senior was welcomed to the stage, where they received a sash with the embroidered words ‘Al Éxito’, a large laundry basket full of college supplies and an equally large hug from one of the organization’s leaders.
Oropeza will attend Iowa State University to study architecture in the fall. He said his time in Al Éxito has helped prepare him for the future.
“I would say [Al Éxito] really helps bring you out of your comfort zone and helps you improve on your speaking abilities,” Oropeza said. “They do a lot of college trips, they have a summer college [program] — two weeks of staying on campus and you go to the courses and learn about the college life.”
What is Al Éxito?
Al Éxito’s mission is to “accelerate Latinx youth’s academic achievement and leadership capacity through transformative opportunities for youth, and their families, to fully participate and thrive in Iowa’s communities”, according to the organization’s website.
The organization hosts several programs aimed at middle school to college-aged students, which include tutoring, scholarships, leadership activities and summer camps.
Dawn Martinez Oropeza became involved as a mentor with Al Éxito in 2008 and was hired as the executive director in 2013.
“We serve middle school through college, and we’re really providing transformative opportunities that a lot of the Latino students don’t get,” Martinez Oropeza said. “So we’re empowering them to be leaders, empowering them to fulfill their academic dreams and their career dreams.”
This year’s graduating seniors, who have participated in Al Éxito programs, include 32 students from seven different locations. Many Al Éxito graduates continue through college and return to help with the program later on.
“It’s such a great experience,” Martinez Oropeza said. “Our college students are leading some of the programs…so to see it grow from the alumni, it’s really heartfelt. I’m really grateful for that.”
Every year, Al Éxito serves over 800 students from 18 Iowa communities and distributes over $60,000 in scholarships. The organization also extended aid to students’ families who were struggling financially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re here to support them when there’s no other centralized Latino center they can go to. We’re trying to fill those gaps,” Martinez Oropeza said. “They learn about the culture that they don’t get in school, they get curriculum they don’t get in school, they see Latinos with degrees that look like them and come from the same experience.”
‘It’s kind of unbelievable’
William Leiva walked across the stage during Saturday’s celebration after four years in Al Éxito. He will attend Iowa State University in the fall with a full ride scholarship to study data science.
“I can’t believe I’m graduating, but it’s really exciting,” Leiva said.
Leiva said his favorite part of the program was the people he got to meet along the way.
“Dawn, the head of the program, she’s always setting up meet-ups with a bunch of different people,” Leiva said. “The trips that we made to colleges, we got to spend overnight and meet people there as well. Spending the night over there, seeing how it is in a dorm, seeing the lecture rooms and everything, it was cool.”
For graduating senior and seven-year Al Éxito member Wilfrido Morales Rivas, one trip in particular had a profound impact.
“Definitely the trips and just meeting the people, it really is a surreal experience,” Morales Rivas said. “The most memorable one for me was when we went down to Texas and helped at this migrant processing facility. Just being there and talking to them, it was a really eye-opening experience.”
Morales Rivas will attend the culinary program at Indian Hills Community College in the fall. He encourages students to look in to the programs and opportunities Al Éxito provides.
“It may seem kind of dumb at first, but once you’re in it, you really do fall in love with the program and you just keep coming back,” Morales Rivas said.
Grace Altenhofen is a news reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @gracealtenhofen.