COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - For 17-year-old Esmael Soto, the Boys and Girls Club is not just a way of giving back to the community – it's also his extended family.
"When I first came down here from the Bronx in New York, I had an attitude of 'I don't care,'" Esmael said.
His parents had recently split up, and his father left while they were still living in New York. After the family moved to Columbus five years ago, Esmael started going to the Boys and Girls Club.
"The first time I came to the Boys and Girls Club, it was a nice environment because everybody was talking and laughing, and they made themselves known," Esmael said.
Now, he calls the organization a home away from home and says they've helped him overcome three major setbacks in his life – his parents' split, and losing both his baby brother Jeremiah and grandmother Ida May.
Throughout those challenges, the Boys and Girls Club has been there.
He also credits the organization for helping him mature into a young man.
"I felt that if I had an attitude, everybody would get to know me," Esmael said. “But the Boys and Girls Club let me know and said 'Wait Soto. It's better to speak respectfully to people and then they will acknowledge you better.'"
He now applies that mindset as a mentor to help shape and mold the younger children of the Boys and Girls Club. Esmael talks with the youth group about his past and how his time in the club has impacted his new lease on life.
"I'm like an encouraged person, to let the youth know they can be successful in life," Esmael said.
Regardless of where he ends up, he hopes to stay close to the organization that helped guide him through life.
"Everybody at the Boys and Girls Club knows that I've got something going on for my life," Esmael said. "I'm at my peak."
As for Esmael, the sky is the limit. Esmael has been accepted to Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. and plans to study business with a focus in sports management.
"I'd like in 5-10 years for the Boys and Girls Club to still be a place I'd come back and volunteer at and let them know, yes, I was in this same predicament that y'all were in," Esmael said.