Learning to swim


Javier Blanco didnt know what a grade point average was when he started high school at T.C. Williams, but hell be the first person in his family to tackle college when he graduates this month.

He didnt know how to swim, either, but that didnt stop him from learning and becoming one of the fastest on the Titans swim team. And his affinity for rugby? Its not because he grew up with any innate talents. Its because he stepped outside the box that life provided for him.

Blanco, a 17-year-old mop-topped kid from Arlandria-Chirilagua with the sparse seeds of a mustache budding beneath his nose, has beaten some odds. Hes always had the smarts and the personality to excel at school and in general, but hes needed nudges along the way.

When I first met Javier he was kind of all over the place with his life and his friends, said Yasmine Ventura, a program coordinator at Community Lodgings, a non-profit that helps families and individuals obtain self-sufficiency. At his age, its not cool to think about getting help or having someone talk to you about making good decisions.

But Blanco listened eventually. The son of El Salvadorian immigrants who dont speak English, he lives across a field from the nonprofit center. His parents have supported him along the way but lacked the practical knowledge to navigate the education system, he said. 

Though Blanco had been using the center since third grade, high school was when he needed Community Lodgings and others to push him most.

Arlandria-Chirilagua, where gangs like MS-13 stake territory, is one of Alexandrias most dangerous neighborhoods. The community center was that much more important for Blanco, Ventura said.

They gave me something to do, stuff to stay off the streets and not do bad stuff, because there were a lot of other things I could have done at any given time that were bad, Blanco said. Bad influences like doing drugs I know a whole bunch of friends who just dont do anything. They just go outside, smoke pot or whatever, just chill, not care about school or just skip [school].

Blanco will attend Marylands Salisbury University this fall, but his story is the exception, not the rule, for kids in his neighborhood. The Community Lodgings program he joined in third grade aimed at graduating Alexandria students from high school, but it lost funding a few years ago. Blanco returned anyway, hanging around and asking Ventura questions about his GPA and homework, or talking excitedly about his success with T.C.s swim and rugby teams.

But after the program lost funding, friends who began the program with Blanco faded while others, including Blanco, took advantage of a project called Building Better Futures aimed at getting kids into college. One of Blancos best friends, David who goes by Gerbil was influenced by his success and plans on going to Northern Virginia Community College. Not everybody followed suit.

You have to take into account that [Arlandria] is a very dangerous and not-educated neighborhood, so a lot of those kids ended up doing other negative things and whatnot, Ventura said.

Blanco swims in the fast lane, literally. He learned how to swim in the summer of 2009 when Community Lodgings accepted an offer from the Warwick Village pool to use the facility. He survived a swimming class, which earned him a lifeguard certification, and eventually a job.

It also earned him a spot on the T.C. Williams swim team, where Blanco out-paced friends who had swam for most of their lives. 

If youre in the eight lane at practice, that means youre among the fastest. If youre in the fourth, thats the slowest. I made it up to the seventh, Blanco said. I felt kind of awkward. I was like, OK, I havent even been swimming for two years and Im swimming with kids that have been swimming since fourth grade.

He embraced rugby in the same fashion when T.C.s coach asked Community Lodgings staff if any of their kids were interested. Blanco was the only one to raise his hand.

I think hes always willing to try something, said Chris Minnich, Blancos mentor. I think hes been very much someone who I find determined to make his life better than what was given to him in life.
These are the reasons that these types of programs are critical for these kids, he said. The reason kids drop out of school isnt because of academics. Its because they dont have anyone to tell them they care about them going to school.

Community Lodgings taught Blanco how to swim, and thats not lost on the soon-to-be high school graduate. Its a place that I can always rely on, he said. I know someones always going to be there for me and help me out. I can get help on anything if I need it to keep going.