For students from disadvantaged backgrounds or who have endured trauma, the instinct to keep that history private can be strong.
Yet David Diaz has some advice.
“Tell your story,” said Diaz. Don’t be afraid to share your experiences because they might make a difference.
Diaz is one to talk. As a youth, he endured great hardships, from losing his home, moving three times during high school, not having enough food to eat at times, and watching his mother fight cancer.
When he was in high school, Diaz told his story to a Napa nonprofit called If Given A Chance.
“My guidance counselor at Vintage, Kathleen Brainerd, put me in touch with the group,” said Diaz.
He was selected by If Given A Chance for mentoring and financial support for his education, including yearly $1,500 grants for four years of college. (Today the group awards grants of $2,500).
And not just any college: Diaz was accepted at Stanford. He earned a double degree in political science and communications in 2009.
“They are a great group doing amazing things,” Diaz said of If Given A Chance.
If Given A Chance identifies Napa County high school juniors “who have overcome extraordinary challenges and demonstrated a commitment to continuing their education and supports their positive path to success,” said a news release.
The organization helps students regain their sense of self-worth, emotional balance, and independent living skills through mentoring, life-skills training, and financial assistance, with ongoing support as these students navigate the challenges of obtaining a college degree or completing a vocational training program.
Diaz graduated from Vintage High School in 2005, but before he moved to Napa, he had lived in the Cupertino area with his mother. Stanford was always in the background. It became Diaz’s first choice for college.
However, the family hit hard times when his mother, Judy Diaz, was diagnosed with cancer for a second time. They fell behind on the rent and had to move to Reno. It was a tough time. Food insecurity was a major concern.
“I ate a lot of graham crackers and peanut butter for a lot of that time,” Diaz said wryly.
From Reno, the two moved in with his grandmother in Napa where Diaz enrolled in Vintage High.
He settled in and became a very good student. During his years at VHS, Diaz took many AP and honors courses. At its highest, his GPA reached 4.8. “For one quarter," he said modestly.
“My mom instilled the importance of education at a young age,” said Diaz. If he was going to play sports, homework had to be done first, he said. “I didn’t get to do any fun stuff unless school was taken care of.”
The truth is, he liked to do well in school, said Diaz.
“I’m ultra-competitive,” he admitted. “Getting good grades was a way to show that I was smart and I belonged there, and to prove to myself I had the inner fire to succeed.”
“And I like to learn new things,” which is one of the things he likes about working in his chosen field—technology.
Because he was so set on attending Stanford, he applied for early decision admission from the university. He also planned to apply at Harvard and Yale, but held off because he would have to request a waiver to pay for the application fee. Diaz said he was accepted to every UC he applied to, but his heart was set on Stanford.
On the day he found out he’d been admitted at Stanford, “I went to the mailbox and pulled out this giant booklet. I started screaming because I assumed if it was a packet it’d be good news,” instead of a one-page rejection letter.
His mother was ecstatic, said Diaz.
“She was over the moon and things got even better when we saw the financial aid package.”
Based on his mother’s income, Diaz received a 95% scholarship. The $1,500 from If Given helped with extra expenses like food when the dorms were closed and other costs.
“Just having that extra bit of money (and mentorship) from If Given A Chance was one less thing to have to worry and stress about in that environment,” said Diaz. “It was a nice safety net.
In addition, after Diaz joined a Stanford rugby club, If Given A Chance supporters sponsored him on his first trip outside the U.S. on a club trip to Ireland.
“That was an amazing eye-opening experience,” said Diaz.
Today, Diaz is the global expansion lead for mobile game developer Supercell. The company makes games including the popular “Clash of Clans.” Its newest game is called “Brawl Stars.”
Married in 2018, he and his wife Vanessa Diaz are expecting a boy around June 25. Diaz is now 33 and he and his family live in Montclair, near Oakland.
His mother is doing well, he said. In fact, he just bought a house for her in Concord. That way she’ll be closer to Diaz and his growing family.
“I feel very, very fortunate to buy her the house,” he said. “Her number one priority was making sure I was taken care of,” said Diaz.
“The ability to be able to pay it back a bit and get her a nice place … is a game-changer. I’m very happy to be able to do that.”
Diaz had this advice for Napa youth who might be facing challenges like he once did.
“You can’t let things in your past inhibit your future success,” he said.
For those facing trauma or hardships, “I think there’s an innate feeling of hopeless or sorry for yourself. That’s OK in the short term but if you want to get yourself out of the situation, the brunt is on you to put in the work and effort.”
“If you have that inner drive, turn things that have been detractors to you into positive forces. I used it as a burning fire to make improvements,” he said.
“I knew that I didn’t want to stay poor and have these distractions stop me from getting to be where I wanted to be.”
Overcoming trauma shows resilience, he said.
Diaz will share his story as the keynote speaker at a virtual annual awards evening on May 24 hosted by If Given A Chance.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “I really do appreciate and value what If Given A Chance foundation does.”
Free registration for the “Courage and Light” event is now available at ifgivenachance.org/may24.
Those attending have the option to sign up for a silent auction to benefit the If Given A Chance program. Over the past 25 years, the non-profit organization has supported over 400 students who have gone on to thrive in their chosen careers.
The event, from 6 to 7:15 p.m., will also feature testimonials from high school students being supported by If Given A Chance; a cameo appearance by If Given A Chance alumnae Gianna Peralta, who is employed as an infection prevention manager at Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa; and entertainment by Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Skyler Jett. Jett will be accompanied by Victoria Theodore, known for her work as keyboardist for Beyoncé.
“We have chosen the theme Courage and Light for our annual event because of the courage that our students show in breaking cycles of abuse, overcoming addiction, leaving gangs, managing physical and emotional disabilities, and overcoming poverty and the light that shines from our successful alumni,” said Allison Haley, Napa County district attorney and president of If Given A Chance.
Editor's note: this story has been updated to include the current amount of money If Given A Chance gives recipients.
You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or email@example.com