OCEANSIDE — Three years ago, Oceanside police officer Lt. Taurino Valdovinos set out to make a difference for the city’s at-risk youth. Now, the region’s local hospital is backing his vision.
Valdovinos founded the Oceanside Youth Partnership (OYP) program in March of 2018, serving as a mentoring and character-building program for at-risk youth. The program aims to steer teens and young adults away from gangs, drug use and other illegal activities and toward a successful future.
Tri-City Medical Center recently became a sponsor for the program.
Valdovinos, an 18-year veteran of the Oceanside Police Department, started out his law enforcement career in gang enforcement. After years on the beat, Valdovinos noticed that while law enforcement was successful at enforcement, it was lacking in prevention.
“I wanted to do something more to get to these kids before they became gang members,” Valdovinos said.
The lieutenant modeled his program after a similar one in San Marcos run by Sheriff’s deputies.
“I met with them, picked their brains about their program, and I decided I’d like to do something similar,” he said.
Teens are referred to the program through partner organizations, school districts, pediatricians and the District Attorney’s office and undergo an interview process. The program is completely voluntary and not exactly easy, according to its founder.
“It’s easy to make excuses for failures, but we’re trying to teach these kids to own their education, careers, their lives,” Valdovinos said.
Once teens are selected, they begin a 16-week program following a core curriculum, fitness program and small group mentorship with police officers. The students go over current events to build awareness of the world and are exposed to proper physical fitness regimens and a diverse variety of food while in class.
The program brings in guest speakers who share their own lived experiences and often relate with the students.
Many of the program’s students come from poverty, abusive and drug-addicted homes. Both Valdovinos and Aaron Byzak, a childhood friend, know a thing or two about growing up in such households.
Byzak, a recent guest speaker for the program, shared his experience growing up in Carlsbad with parents who abused drugs and alcohol.
Valdovinos was one of four children to his single, immigrant mother. He moved in and out of the apartments for a while during his childhood, at one point living down the street in what both he and Byzak call a “legitimate shack.”
Byzak and Valdovinos grew up together, meeting when they were 5 and then again when they moved into the same apartment complex.
Now, Byzak works as the chief external affairs officer for Tri-City Medical Center.
Tri-City’s sponsorship of the program is part of its Community Outreach and Support Through Active Leadership (COASTAL) Commitment Initiative, which serves to demonstrate the hospital and its staff’s support of community improvement programs like OYP.
“We look at social issues that impact health outcomes and unmet needs, and we try to invest not only dollars but time and energy from leadership in those initiatives,” Byzak said.
Byzak and other Tri-City Medical Center representation were present for the most recent OYP cohort graduation ceremony held April 1 at the Oceanside Boys & Girls Club, a fellow OYP partner organization that hosts the program’s classes.
“We want these students and families to know that there are people out there who really care about their outcomes in life,” Byzak said.
One of the first graduates of the program was Hunter Meyer, who won San Diego County’s Youth of the Year award in 2020.
Meyer was already hanging out with gang members by the time he was in eighth grade. For years he struggled with depression, fighting, drug abuse and more trouble.
After narrowly avoiding the gang initiation requiring him to kill another person, Meyer wanted to turn his life around. Meyer’s resource officer at El Camino High School referred him to OYP and he reluctantly joined. Meyer went on to become one of seven first-year graduates of the partnership.
“He completely did a 180 with his behavior and academics,” Valdovinos said of Meyer.
During his time in the program, Meyer’s opinion of police began to change as well.
“They treated us like their own,” he told The Coast News last year.
For Valdovinos, his top priority is to build relationships and establish trust between these kids and the city’s police officers.