Boxer Marlen Esparza, the first American woman to qualify for the Olympics in the first year that women’s boxing appeared in the Games, believes in working hard to follow your dreams. The Pasadena, Texas native graduated near the top of her high school class and had her pick of undergraduate schools — but instead she chose to attend community college while pursuing her career with the USA National Boxing Team.

Esparza, one of Coca-Cola’s Olympic 8-Pack of Athletes, also believes in working hard on behalf of others. Thousands of miles from Esparza’s Texas home, a young Latina named Vanessa Barajas is looking forward to seeing this iconic athlete in Salem, Ore. There, at the annual luncheon that honors the Youth of the Year for the local Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGC) chapter in Salem, Esparza will remind this group of teenage achievers just how powerful hard work can be.

How Boxer Marlen Esparza Inspired a Young Girl Named Vanessa

Barajas met Esparza during the Boys & Girls Clubs Leadership Summit in Colorado Springs, Colo., which was sponsored in part by The Coca-Cola Company.

Barajas and Esparza met during the Boys & Girls Clubs Triple Play Leadership Summit (sponsored in part by Coke) in Colorado Springs, Colo., when Esparza addressed a group of Clubs youth leaders, telling them about the obstacles she encountered in order to pursue her dreams. She’d begged her father to let her box, and he said there were no women in boxing. Then she begged her coach to train her, but he said he didn’t train girls. Finally, she had to work harder at the gym, because “I was sparring guys — and guys don’t want you to beat them up at the gym.”

Jessica Otjen, senior branch director of BGCA of Salem, Marion and Polk counties, says, “I wrote to Marlen when I saw how charged Vanessa was after her presentation. All she could talk about was Marlen and how inspirational she was.” Otjen also sent a link to a video about Vanessa that she believes inspired Marlen to respond and agree to appear.

“Two weeks before we went to Colorado, Vanessa’s family members were victims of a drive-by shooting; all eight of them had to spend hours on the floor of their living room, hoping for safety and a ceasefire. Vanessa’s poise in getting on an airplane and meeting someone like Marlen after that shows Vanessa has something not all people have,” says Otjen. Barajas waits until Otjen finishes speaking before saying with excitement, “It was my first plane ride ever!”

The teenager is just as excited to talk about meeting Esparza: “I didn’t really know who she was, but when I heard her story, I thought: I understand her, and she understands me. Her dad told her boxing was only for boys. In Hispanic families like ours, the girls end up pregnant at a young age sometimes because that’s how their families see them.”

Marlen Esparza Instructing Kids at Triple Play event

Olympic boxer Marlen Esparza instructs kids on how to correctly wrap their hands during the Colorado Leadership Summit.

Esparza knows what it means to be seen through another person’s filter. “I feel like I’ve been in the position you guys are in,” she told the Leadership Summit. “The only difference between me and you is that I found what I loved early on and I stuck with it...I’m just like you. You can do whatever you want to do...I want you to know that you’re worthy and deserving.”

Today, Barajas is looking forward to the April 2013 Salem Boys & Girls Clubs Annual Spring Luncheon, because Marlen Esparza will be there, and the two of them will get to speak together and share their stories.

Barajas has clearly taken a journey greater than a mere airplane trip. Otjen says, “Vanessa came to our club two years ago on a referral from her probation officer; she initially thought of us as a way to pay off restitution and wasn’t too thrilled about training sessions.” The Clubs “T3” program helps teens ages 16 to 19 learn about employability and life skills as they go into the workforce. The T3 Program is funded by Job Growers Incorporated and is a partner of WorkSource Oregon.

Barajas got involved with local gangs at an early age, and it took some time with the Salem Boys & Girls Clubs until she believed their programs offered something beyond gang life. “Once our staff started to wrap their arms around her, Vanessa started getting involved in community service. Her grades shot up from a .14 GPA to a 3.75 GPA,” says Otjen. “You could see her potential, see that there is a leader behind all of the obstacles she went through before she joined our club.” Barajas agrees that her felony theft charge was “a wakeup call. I knew I needed to figure out what I’m doing with my life.”

Vanessa at the Boys and Girls Club of America

Vanessa, right, and a friend put up their boxing fists at the Boys and Girls Club of America.

One of the ways that Barajas has kept herself on a positive path is through athletics. “At school I do soccer, softball and basketball. It keeps my mind out of stress and keeps me out of trouble. Practices and games take a big chunk of my time, and I feel better when I exercise too,” the young woman says. She likes to take boxing classes when she can (“they’re really expensive”), and it was this interest that led her to listen in on Esparza’s Leadership Summit session.

“Vanessa and I want to say how thankful we are to have gone to the 2012 Triple Play Leadership Summit. The support that made it affordable is truly important; it’s not easy to set aside budget for travel right now,” says Otjen. Barajas “has a lot of good karma in the bank,” and has developed this through working with the Marion-Polk Foodshare and the local Habitat for Humanity.  Otjen goes on to say that, “these experiences helped show her that she is a valuable person in society, as well as in our program.”

Barajas will have more chances to see herself as valuable to society as she moves into her future. “I want to go to college. I want to prove my family’s expectations wrong — show them that I won’t wind up with a baby, show them that I can finish and go to college.” Barajas has obviously heard Marlen Esparza’s inspiring message loud and clear.

In the London 2012 Olympic Games Esparza won a bronze medal for her performance in the women’s flyweight 51kg/112lbs category. Esparza has told media she plans to retire from boxing and would like to attend medical school.