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Oregonian: Forest Grove 4-H Student Meets Michelle Obama

February 1st, 2011

Meeting first lady Michelle Obama was the cherry on top of a year’s worth of sweet experiences for Forest Grove student Joel Cazares.

A senior at Forest Grove High School, Cazares already traveled to Washington, D.C., for a leadership summit last summer and learned in December that he won a full tuition scholarship to Portland’s Warner Pacific College.

But shaking the first lady’s hand Tuesday during the National Mentoring Summit at the Library of Congress tops it all. During the brief encounter, Cazares told her, “Everybody from Oregon says ‘hi.'”

“She said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard it’s a really good community,’ and I said ‘Yeah,'” Cazares said.

His other impressions: She’s taller and younger looking in person.

Cazares, 18, is a member of the 4-H Tech Wizards, a mentorship program run by the Oregon State University Extension Office. The program began in Forest Grove and has since spread throughout Washington County.

Now, backed by part of a $5 million grant to the national 4-H from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Tech Wizards is set to be launched nationwide.

Octaviano Merecias-Cuevas, director of the Tech Wizards, said the invitation from the first lady came as an added surprise after he learned the Tech Wizards would become a national program. Merecias-Cuevas received the invite after returning from a trip to Washington, D.C., to train mentors from 21 states.

“I came back and was about to take my day off … then I get a call from national 4-H,” he said.

AP Photo/Jose Luis MaganaFirst lady Michelle Obama speaks during the National Mentoring Summit at the Library of Congress in Washington on Tuesday.

Merecias-Cuevas chose Cazares to accompany him at the summit because “he has been an excellent leader” during his three years in the Tech Wizards.

Through the program, Cazares spends several hours each week volunteering on nature restoration projects, and learning about science, engineering, technology and math.

At the summit, he participated in sessions led by mentoring experts and heard Michelle Obama deliver a keynote speech.

“She said that even the president and the first lady can take time out of their lives to be a mentor, and it would be important for other people to do so,” Cazares said.

The highlight of the experience, though, came after the summit, when participants attended a Washington Wizards basketball game.

“It’s my first time I’ve gone to an NBA game, and it’s really intense,” Cazares said over a cell phone, shouting above the cheering crowd in the arena.

Cazares, who was born in California but spent most of his childhood in Mexico, said an older student helped keep him out of trouble when he moved to Forest Grove five years ago. He hopes to fill the same role for his younger classmates.

“I told them in order for me to help them, they have to ask me for the help,” he said. “Mentoring is helping, but not forcing them to do good things.”

Kelly House

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