Growing up in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, Alfonso Palacios knew he was a smart kid but he also felt like he could get away with anything. He had a brief encounter with the police when he was 10-years-old and they tried to scare him straight, but it was the strong voice of his cousin Freddy, who was 11 years his senior, that helped Alfonso. “I grew up with him, I never had an older brother. I was the oldest child from my family. I looked up to him. He was the guy that would take me to the movies or to the park and was the guy who would always mentor me and give me good feedback and have my back. He was my mentor and my coach. He was somebody who I looked up to,” he said.
While in high school Alfonso, a self-proclaimed “rocker kid” with long hair and always listening to his music, was a part of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), but he hated it, rebelling against the rigorous structure. Though he did not enjoy the experience, Alfonso still vividly remembers sitting in his ROTC classroom as the second tower fell on September 11th, 2001. “That was a big thing for me, it was a huge impact. Ever since then, it stayed in the back of my mind,” he said.
Alfonso would bounce around different schools before dropping out of high school in the 12th grade. After this, and a brief stint in college, he worked hard and became a forest firefighter with the Inyo National Forest Service. While working as a firefighter, he noticed similarities between his job and the structure of ROTC that he had once hated. Now older, Alfonso said he “grew up” and realized how much he loved and appreciated the emphasis on structure. The shift in his mindset would play a crucial role in his next big life decision.
After Alfonso’s father left his family, his home life became a struggle. This challenge, along with seeing two of his friends join the military, the memory of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and wanting to give his life some structure, pushed Alfonso to join the United States Marine Corps. With his mother and younger brother now living alone, Alfonso made the final decision. “I wanted to step up, to be that role model and be the man of the house,” he said.
Alfonso left for boot camp in April 2007. He was deployed to Afghanistan three times and once to the Pacific while in the service, where he worked as a trainer. He traveled to Thailand and the Philippines teaching foreign military service members how to “shoot, move, and communicate.” During his last two years in the service, Alfonso taught at FMTB (Field Medical Training Battalion) West as a combat instructor and curriculum developer.
After nine years, Alfonso knew it was time for him to leave the service. His transition back into civilian life, like for so many veterans, was a struggle but as he began to get his life back on track he knew that he wanted to give back to his community through mentorship. An opportunity to do just that presented itself to Alfonso when he learned about Up2Us Sports’ Operation Coach program. He was immediately interested and two days after learning about the program, he submitted an application. Shortly after, he was hired and learned he would be placed at a nearby youth sports organization.
Now coaching at Woodcraft Rangers, an after-school and summer program for k-12 students in the Los Angeles area, Alfonso has already begun to grapple with his latest challenge: working with kids. He helps kids with homework, leads 30 minutes of fitness time, and is currently preparing them for a soccer tournament. His excitement is unmistakable as he talks about the joy he gets from his service as a coach. “I could be having the most horrible day, but I come here and I interact with nine-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds. They’re living life, they’re happy, they’re not jaded, they have their whole life ahead of them, and it reminds me that life is not bad at all,” he said.
The Woodcraft Rangers program is located not far from the neighborhood where Alfonso grew up, which allows him to relate to and form strong connections with his kids. This connection, as well as his time serving in the military, gives him the tools to reach his kids in deep and meaningful ways as they grow and develop with a strong role model in their corner.
He utilizes the positive traditions and structure he learned in the Marine Corps to create activities to keep all of his kids engaged. He is already seeing the power his invaluable experience can have. “I have a little kid who is on the spectrum but loves soccer. After only a few practices his mom came over and said ‘Thank you,’” he said. These are the moments that assure Alfonso that he is on the right path.
The kids he mentors now and the people he served as a Marine may disagree, but Alfonso humbly stated that, “I’m no hero, but I’ve walked among them.”
Coach Alfonso began his one-year service term in August 2016 and is expected to complete it in July 2017. His participation in Operation Coach is thanks to the generous support of ESPN and CaliforniaVolunteers.