What’s quickly apparent about Armando Alvarez is that he feels good about who he is and excited about how his life is unfolding.
That wasn’t true a few years back, when he was struggling in school, often living alone, and coming to terms with his sexuality.
But Alvarez, 19, says “angels sent from heaven” changed all that.
Teachers and friends, guidance counselors and an evolving relationship with his mother have helped Alvarez finish high school — he will graduate from Sunnyside High on Wednesday — and embrace his dreams.
“Being alone so young was the worst experience,” said Alvarez, who says he started living largely on his own around age 15. “Now, I see a lot of success in my future.”
Alvarez loves drag shows and choreographed dancing, makeup and clothing. He works part time as a party planner — primarily for quinceañeras — and dreams of having his own venue for parties and celebrations.
What’s hard to believe, in light of his exuberance and ready laugh, is that he’s been bullied and harassed for being gay, that he’s gone without enough to eat, that’s he’s lived through summers without cooling and winters without heat.
Alvarez is one of 19 graduating seniors at his high school — and one of 44 in the Sunnyside district overall — who were, or are currently, considered homeless.
For a while, to support himself, Alvarez worked through the night cleaning hotel rooms and then attended school by day.
“I’m glad I went through it,” he said. “It’s taught me how to be stronger.”
Extreme poverty is the most common underlying factor faced by the youths Araceli Mendoza helps in her job as a liaison for homeless Sunnyside students.
In Alvarez’s case, it was his guidance counselor, Patricia Garcia, who first referred him to Mendoza and then to Youth on Their Own, a local nonprofit that helps homeless students finish school.
This year, about 240 homeless teens are expected to graduate.
“All of our Youth on Their Own students are so appreciative and humble and true survivors of their situations,” said Garcia, who met Alvarez about four years ago. She’s pushed him to stay focused and graduate because, she’s told him, a rewarding life awaits.
“He’s tenacious. He’s very talented and creative,” she said. “He has the ability to seek out opportunities for himself and to market his talents.”
Alvarez and his mother, Teresa, are getting close again, despite a complicated family history and some disagreements about what happened during his early teens.
She says the problems were rooted in her son clashing with his stepfather, while Alvarez says he was rejected and left largely to fend for himself. His mother says she tried to provide for him by finding him a trailer to live in, while Alvarez says he felt abandoned.
Mendoza said she has worked with several teens who became homeless because their parents didn’t approve of a pregnancy or of their sexual orientation or of their being transgender.
Other times, teens are alone because a parent or parents have been deported or are incarcerated.
“A lot of people aren’t aware that homeless students exist,” she said.
“We do have students who are in class, going to school every day, who are facing those challenges at home.”
Garcia and others helped Alvarez get food and services. They found him a space heater for the cold nights. A classmate’s mother, Monique Coronado, rushed over one night when she heard the trailer’s wiring had started shooting sparks, Alvarez said. Youth on Their Own installed a new water heater.
“They have all done so much for me,” he said.
Last year, Alvarez headed the decorating committee for Youth on Their Own’s graduation ceremonies. The theme was superheroes, and CEO Nicola Hartmann said his work was amazing.
“He’s super-talented,” she said, adding that his generous spirit is inspiring. “And even when he was struggling to get by, he was already talking about giving back.”
Alejandrina Gallardo, a Spanish teacher at Sunnyside High School, said Alvarez used to hang out in her room during his free periods. They talked about his life, and schemed how he could make things better.
“We were all trying to help him in the best ways we could,” she said. “He’s a great, great kid.”