Yusuf Nessary struggled to keep up with his classmates in his south central Los Angeles grade school. He and his family had come to the United States from Afghanistan in 1980 to escape the war with the Soviet Union. He spoke very little English. To make matters worse, his teachers thought he “looked Mexican” and placed him with Spanish-speaking students. So, he was labeled a slow learner, which shook his confidence.
“I was always the other kid,” he recalls. “I felt like I shouldn’t be there.”
So how did this Saint Mary’s senior find himself giving a speech about literacy recently to a roomful of donors at a glittering fundraiser?
It all began when his family left their gang-infested LA neigh- borhood for Houston, Texas, where the 11-year-old was able to attend a school with better resources. His older sister, Zohra, helped him when he got stuck in school, but it was a heart-to- heart talk with an uncle, a respiratory specialist in LA, that finally lit a spark in him. Suddenly he had a dream—to become a doctor.
After two years in college in Houston and his family’s move to the Bay Area, Yusuf transferred to Saint Mary’s. “I Googled ‘top pre-med schools’ and Saint Mary’s popped up,” he said with a smile. He had found a place where he could thrive. “Saint Mary’s has been a second family,” he said. “When you find a sense of purpose, it brings so much more meaning to your life.”
While pursuing pre-med, Nessary also found another passion—helping children avoid the problems that had held him back for so long. The catalyst was the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) and a program it administers called Jumpstart, an Americorps project that sends college students into preschools in low-income neighborhoods to help children learn reading, writing and other skills they need to succeed in life.
“At first, Jumpstart was very intimidating...until I went into the classroom,” he recalled. “When I saw the kids’ faces and how happy they were that we were there, I knew it was right for me. It was as if I was seeing myself.”
So when CILSA asked him to write about his experiences for a Jumpstart regional essay contest, he was glad to oblige. Little did he imagine that his essay would take first place among those submitted by volunteers from a host of Bay Area colleges that included Stanford, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State.
And that’s how Yusuf Nessary came to be at a podium in a Hillsborough mansion, addressing more than 350 donors at the “Scribbles to Novels” fundraiser. He told them about his childhood and how his struggles undermined his confidence. And he told them about his special bond with a little boy named Taevion at Manzanita Head Start in East Oakland who struggled to read and write but made great progress after two years in Jumpstart.
Finally, he explained how he wanted children to know that “anything is possible with hard work and dedication”—something he’d learned from his father.
The “Scribbles to Novels” event would raise more than a half million dollars for area Jumpstart programs.
A recording of the speech made its way to YouTube, and the first thing Nessary did was send the link to his father, who had returned to Afghanistan to serve as a logistical advisor for the U.S. military. He also donated the $250 scholarship he received to a scholarship fund for students who want to study the fine arts.
Nessary's Jumpstart experience also changed his plans for the future. Now he hopes to pursue a master’s degree in public health and raise awareness of health issues in low-income communities like East Oakland or in countries like Afghanistan. Jumpstart had given him “‘overwhelming joy and pleasure,’” Yusuf said. “And it also made me realize that we all are responsible for the future.”
— Teresa Castle