Lynn non-profit, La Vida Scholars, inspires future leaders

Leonardo Casillas graduated from Lynn Classical and the La Vida Scholars program in 2014. Now, he's a college graduate with a full-time job as a financial analyst with Akamai Technologies, and it's all thanks to La Vida Scholars. (Spenser R. Hasak)

LYNN — The transition from high school to college isn’t always easy. Leonardo Casillas believes his time at La Vida Scholars is what got him through it.

The Celebrate Literacy fundraiser announced that La Vida will be honored as a 2018 Excellence in Literary Leadership Award Recipient, and Casillas says they deserve it.The Lynn student graduated from Lynn Classical High School, and the after-school education program, in 2014.  After graduating from Stonehill College this past May, he just nabbed his first full-time job as a financial analyst for Akamai Technologies. Before joining La Vida Scholars at the age of 16, Casillas considered himself very shy and secluded.

“La Vida showed me how not to be a victim because sometimes in the society that we live in, for people that look like me and are from a city like mine, it can make you feel like you need to be a victim all the time,” said Casillas. “They gave me the all-around education that I needed.”

Casillas got involved with La Vida Scholars after he participated in the former La Vida YES program, which helped middle-schoolers with their homework. There he met Dave Zagunis, the previous director of La Vida Scholars, who became a mentor to him. After a few years of keeping in contact, Zagunis reached out to the ambitious Lynner and invited him to join the tight-knit group of La Vida Scholars students. Casillas would spend his weekdays at Lynn Classical and his early evenings at the after-school program, completing SAT prep exercises and getting help preparing for college.

“It was a great experience because it allowed me to see what people my age were doing, see what the end goal was like, as well as having somewhat of a father-figure here to help guide me through things,” he said. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for La Vida.”

Casillas grew up near Union Street, in a house that burned down in 2008, with his mother, two brothers and one sister. He never worried about getting to college — his worries were whether his mother would be able to pay for it. La Vida and their staff not only helped Casillas prepare for his SAT exam and write his college essay, they made sure he and his mother were correctly filling out his FAFSA forms. Until joining the program, he always thought it was going to be tough transitioning into college as a minority with the socio-economic status he was raised in.

“I come from very low-income family, so the Christian A. Herter Scholarship that I got from La Vida junior year of high school catapulted me all the way to college, and there were a lot of mentors there, like Dave, who gave me a lot of the inspiration that I needed to be able to get me where I wanted to go,” he said.

When he started the scholarship program, they informed him and his family that they were allowed to add money to a savings account to be stashed away until college. After the savings account reached a certain monetary amount, La Vida Scholars would match whatever it amounted to and give it to the student. Casillas started his college career not only with the Herter Scholarship, but with the $5,000 from the savings account, which he used for books throughout the four years.

With the transitional planning he learned at the program, he was accepted to 14 of the 16 colleges he applied to before he decided on Stonehill College. Not only did La Vida give Casillas guidance on getting to college, awareness on the many hurdles of applying to schools, and confidence in himself, the scholarship program gave him a group of lifelong friends as well.

“I still talk to them everyday, it became a bond that didn’t break over the years,” he said. “It’s a very small cohort that allows them to specialize on you and give you the attention you need to progress and it made the entire difference.”

Shortly after his college graduation in May, Casillas accepted a full-time position at Akamai Technologies, where he interned during college. He is very much a part of the alumni program for La Vida Scholars and hopes more kids will gain exactly what he did during his time there. The Celebrate Literacy Fundraiser will host its annual event, honoring the scholarship program, on August 29 at 5:30 p.m. on the rooftop of All Care VNA, Hospice, & Home Care on Market Street. Tickets cost $30 in advance or $35 at the door.

“The Leo that’s sitting here today is not the same version of Leo at 16 years old,” Casillas said. “I was more shy and more secluded and I got this strong empowerment from this program that allowed me to become the person I am today. La Vida sets the pedestal and creates the atmosphere that nourishes great students.”

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