ESCONDIDO — The life of a once-homeless child, now a graduate of Rancho Buena Vista High School, significantly improved when a concerned Escondido police officer stepped in to help five years ago.
Alejandro Matias Nazario, or Alex, grew up in a home with his older brother and parents in Escondido. But after his father left, Alex’s mother began to struggle financially. The family started jumping from hotel to hotel before ultimately living on the streets for several years.
In 2018, Alex started frequenting a Starbucks and Jack in the Box on the corners of Quince Street and Mission Avenue in Escondido. The 12-year-old would hang out at Starbucks until it closed before going to the 24-hour Jack in the Box on the other side of the intersection.
While working the graveyard shift, Escondido police Officer John Larson heard reports from Starbucks employees of a boy hanging out alone near the store, prompting the officer to investigate.
After a week, Larson finally spoke with Alex, who was initially afraid of the police officer because he thought he would be taken away.
“I didn’t want to leave my mom,” Alex said.
Alex eventually opened up to Larson about his situation and some bad experiences while homeless, like when he was robbed for his tennis shoes.
“It broke my heart,” Larson said. “I mean, here he was at 12 years old, and grown men were picking on him and taking his shoes.”
Larson soon decided to take Alex back to the station with him.
“Knowing the situation, I knew that there was more that the police and the state could do to help better his life,” Larson said.
Alex stayed in an intake center for juveniles before heading to foster care. Larson lost all contact with him when he was placed in a new home.
Larson never forgot about the boy he helped that fateful night. In December, he opened up about Alex to Bobbi Akans, the point of contact for a Shop with a Cop event. Akans did some digging for the officer and eventually found Alex, a senior attending Rancho Buena Vista High School.
Larson went to the school in civilian clothes to see if he could find Alex and talk to him. He left his information and soon heard a response from the teen’s counselor. Larson returned to the school the following day to take Alex to lunch.
Larson learned that after he left the intake center, Alex had gone to live with a family in San Ysidro for a year before moving in with a new family in Vista.
“I wanted to be closer to my mom and stay in touch,” Alex said.
Although Alex hasn’t seen his mother or brother in a few years, he has grown close with the Vista family that took him in.
“They’re my family at this point,” he said.
Moving in with them was a significant transition for the teenager, who was surprised by the big house, the clothes and the food he was provided.
“It felt very surreal,” Alex said. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have.”
Larson was invited to Alex’s Sunday family cookouts, where he met the family and saw how well Alex’s home life was going.
“It was a blessing to see,” Larson said.
When Alex returned to school after being homeless, he was immediately thrust into seventh grade even though he had missed nearly two years. Despite the odds stacked against him, Alex persevered and performed well academically over the next several years.
“He had every right to struggle, and he still graduated on time with great grades,” Larson said. “It shows his strength and courage and how regardless of his situation, he chose to be successful.”
When Alex graduated on June 7, Larson celebrated with him.
The now 17-year-old will begin classes at MiraCosta College this fall with plans to major in graphic design. He also has a part-time job and hopes to start a clothing brand as a hobby.
After reconnecting, Alex and Larson plan to stay in touch.
“I appreciate what he did for me,” Alex said about Larson. “If he wasn’t there that night, I don’t know how my life would have changed. I wouldn’t have graduated, I wouldn’t have found my new family or my friends… I’m really grateful.”