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Zarnow: College guy already helping Santa Ana

Yousaf Husain is giving free spiral-bound notebooks to a crowd of students at John Muir Fundamental Elementary School in Santa Ana, and the kids are going wild.

“Who wants to go to university?”

Dozens of arms wave madly.

“I did it! So I know you can do it as well.”

These 152 students, fifth-grade and younger, attend an after-school program run by THINK Together. After doing homework, they will use these notebooks from Yousaf for their journals.

Yousaf, 23, knows the power of blank paper.

In our lives, we also fill in the blanks.

A senior and double major at UC San Diego, Yousaf attended Muir himself. Later, as a student at Santa Ana High, he volunteered to tutor for THINK Together. On this day, his second-grade cousin is sitting on the benches.

So, yes, this is about coming full circle – but it's also about giving back and setting examples.

Yousaf is surprised anyone would care about his story.

“My mom, she's the success story.”

It's not exactly clear who is setting the example.


Let's start with the notebooks.

In 2011, the Clinton Global Initiative University was held at UC San Diego. The two-day program, hosted by a different college each year, focuses students on developing innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

You gain admission by offering an idea.

Yousaf and two friends borrowed the buy-one/donate-one, or BODO, business model and applied it to school notebooks. For each notebook sold, a child gets a free one.

After attending the Global Initiative program, they submitted a more-detailed business plan.

Winning proposals have been grand in scope – fighting AIDS worldwide or sending African children to school. The BODO project simply gives kids a free school notebook.

To the friends' surprise, the Clinton Global Initiative funded them with $1,000.

They considered sending notebooks to Mexico, but that got complicated. Then Yousaf realized he could bring them to Santa Ana and do just as much good at home.

“Instead of trying to start a whole new program, we could work with one that I already knew. I could give back to the community that helped me get to where I am.”

Using a U.S. supplier, Roaring Spring Paper Products, Yousaf's group spends about $1.75 per notebook. Members sell them at campus events to students for $4 and to faculty for $5.

So far, it's small-scale philanthropy. They've sold about 300 notebooks. Still, that's enough to supply students at two after-school programs with notebooks, construction paper, glue sticks and scissors.

Yousaf, who lives surrounded by cartons of notebooks, is hoping others will take over the project after he graduates. He wishes he could have done more, but his co-founders graduated, and he works two jobs to keep down his loans.

He is the kind of son who makes mothers proud. Yousaf wore a tie when we met. He had me at “hello.”

He plans on law school, maybe becoming an immigration lawyer and possibly running for city council – in Santa Ana, of course.


As Yousaf pulls up at the school to unload notebooks, his mother rushes over to help.

Gracie Muniz took a half-day off from her job as an executive assistant to be here – and that says it all. As a single mother, she has always been present in her son's life.

She signed up Yousaf for Muir a year in advance and stood in line to be sure he was enrolled at the acclaimed school. When he was offered a scholarship to boarding school in Minnesota, they visited together before turning it down.

“We decided maybe the best teachers he had were right in front of him.”

Yousaf is not fluent in Spanish.

“My mom focused me on English.”

He can't remember a time when he didn't expect he would go to college.

“I wanted him to do better than I did,” Muniz explained. “I was going to hold him accountable.”

When she graduated from Santa Ana's Saddleback High School in 1983, that was all her parents expected from her. They came to Santa Ana from Mexico more than 30 years ago. Her father worked hard picking cotton and on the railroad.

Yousaf grew up living with his grandparents and his mother. Now Muniz works two jobs, supports her mother and is proud she has never taken public assistance even in the worst times.

“I always told Yousaf: ‘We'll make it happen … The opportunity is everywhere if you look for it.'”

Muniz owns her home – in Santa Ana, of course.

“Santa Ana is real. It's home … I want to see it better than it is.”

Some would equate upward mobility with leaving the old neighborhood behind. What's striking is how deeply rooted Yousaf feels, wanting to stay right where he is – following his mother's example.

“You have a responsibility to give back,” he explained. “If all you do is take, you're not serving the community at large.”

Santa Ana, he says, has done well by him.

He mentions teachers who inspired him – in kindergarten, at Villa Fundamental Intermediate School and then high school.

He made good friends in AP classes and the high-school band.

University was an adjustment. He and his friends were suddenly at a huge school filled with really talented people.

“We found out maybe we're not as special as we thought we were.”

Many would disagree.

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