June 11, 2012 12:00 PM

AARON CLARK, 24

Los Angeles

When he was in fifth grade, Aaron Clark used to lie in bed at night, bouncing a tennis ball against the ceiling and planning his escape from the rats and roaches, gang shootings and stomach-knotting stress of life in the housing projects of Oakland. “We were surrounded by garbage, used diapers and syringes. When I was 8, a gunshot went through my bedroom window,” says Clark, whose outgoing manner and easy smile belie his rough start. One evening he walked out to his balcony, where he could see the UC Berkeley campus-achingly close but a world away. “I made a promise to myself: If I can get to college, I’ll take care of people here in the projects. I’ll remember kids like me. And I’m going to pull them up.”

He’s a man of his word. After becoming the first male in his family to graduate from college (UC Riverside, class of 2011), Clark became an AmeriCorps member with City Year (cityyear.org), a national nonprofit that sends 17- to 24-year-olds into struggling public schools for one year of service (see box). Their mission: to provide one-on-one tutoring and, just as important, act as role models for kids who often have none. “Every day, they have to make critical choices: ‘Do I join a gang? Do I give in to alcohol or selling drugs?'” says Paul Hernandez, principal of Markham Middle School in Los Angeles’s Watts district. “For kids consumed with surviving rather than planning for the future, City Year has been a lifeline.”

At Markham, Clark and 15 other mentors worked with their partner teachers to identify 10 students who showed signs of being potential dropouts. Clark was drawn to seventh-grader Eli Flores, 12, who was as painfully shy as Clark was gregarious and, while obviously bright, a frustration to his teachers; he was failing English and pulling Ds in science and math. “He’d turn in essays with one sentence: ‘I don’t like school, and I don’t want to be here,'” says his English teacher Yesenia Enriquez.

But Clark, a two-mile-a-day runner who had a kidney transplant at age 17 after months of hospitalizations, wasn’t fazed. And he saw untapped potential in the guarded Latino boy who loves video games and cartoons. “He didn’t want to be in Watts forever,” Clark says.

So Clark got to work, pulling Flores out of class for study sessions up to seven hours a week. “Eli, what’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile?” Clark asked on a recent Monday as he helped him prepare for a multiple-choice test. The next day he drilled Flores, who had recently shown talent in drama class, on his part in a spoof on Shakespeare. “There’s lines on every page!” Flores protested. “You know what that means?” Clark said. “It means you’re the star, you’re important.”

That’s not a feeling that’s come naturally to Flores, who lives in the Jordan Downs Housing Projects with his brother and mom, Leonor Guzman, a gas station cashier (he has little contact with his father). But, his mom and teachers say, since Clark came into his life, he’s a different kid. “He’s matured. He’s focused-even his penmanship is better,” Enriquez says. “He’s more determined and has higher self-esteem.” And then there are his grades: mostly As and Bs now and, in January, he scored second-highest on a district English test. “It felt good,” says Flores. “Mr. Clark taught me how to improve and have good posture. And how not to give up.”

Clark, who will finish his year with Flores in June, hopes the lesson will stick. His own ambitions include law school, real estate and creating a business district not far from the projects where he grew up. “I want to serve my community. This is exactly what I said I was going to do,” he says. “And I’m staying on that route.”

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