Diego Carvallo

“One day, I just cracked and lost it. I did something I’m not proud of,” Diego Carvallo remembers, the pain still in his voice three years later. “I got busted for domestic violence. I ended up hitting my mom and started fighting with police.”

Incarcerated as a result, Carvallo began a lonely period of reflection that left him with one question: “How did I get here?”

Five years before the incident, he’d been living happily with his family in Mexico City. Then his father, Manuel, received a job transfer, and the family relocated to Atlanta. That’s when the problems began.

“I didn’t just lose the normal things you lose when you move. I also lost my language,” says Carvallo, now 18. “I was like a baby. I didn’t have a way to communicate effectively.”

An outgoing child, Carvallo had often been the center of attention, a position he relished (and admittedly still does). Suddenly, he’d become invisible in a strange land, a tough situation for a 10-year-old to grasp. “I started acting out,” he explains. “I ran away from school a couple times, bit the vice principal. I would get in fights and made having me in class horrible for my teachers.”

It wasn’t easy for his parents, either. Desperate for answers, they sent him to a psychiatrist. Carvallo was diagnosed with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Months later, his condition changed for the worse. After an argument with his mother, Veronica, Carvallo overdosed on Tylenol and had to have his stomach pumped.

“I didn’t really want to end things,” he says. “I guess it was just a cry for help.”

Diagnosed as suicidal, Carvallo was admitted to nearby Peachford Hospital. The experience did not provide the hoped-for results, mainly because the precocious eighth-grader quickly figured out how to manipulate the system.

“When you tell the doctors what they want to hear, you get out,” Carvallo notes. “But you’re still depressed, and you haven’t changed that much. What made it even worse was that when I got back to school, no one even knew I’d been gone. That was a downer even more.”

However, there was one more fall to come: the domestic assault charge that landed him not just in a detention center, but in that fabled place where people either get up or give up: rock bottom.

“The first couple of days [in jail], I cried the whole time,” he remembers. “I wanted my mom. It was the hardest [time] I ever went through.”

Then, Carvallo adds, he began “a lot of silent thinking about what I’d done — going back and reanalyzing my whole life — and I think that’s what really helped.”

Later, as his release drew near, Carvallo found himself thinking back to his return from the hospital and the lack of concern he’d felt from his peers. This time, however, someone was waiting for him.

‘Go big or go home’

Starting as a freshman at Centennial High School in Roswell, Carvallo joined the criminal justice program and, by default, SkillsUSA. Thomas Washburn was his instructor and chapter advisor. “We sat down and talked about what happened,” Carvallo says, “everything that’d been bugging me, and we worked on a plan for how I could improve.”

Washburn, a 2011 finalist in the national Advisor of the Year program, adds, “As with all my students, I guided him through setting a direction in his career goals. Then I got him involved with SkillsUSA by having him come by my room in the morning to hang out, which is when most of the SkillsUSA leadership is hanging out. This gave him a great group of friends and role models.”

Carvallo quickly went from viewing SkillsUSA as “something I just had to show up for” to something he looked forward to. “SkillsUSA provided all the things I needed in one package,” he says. “It provided good friends, goals and a support structure for everybody.”

The student immersed himself in all aspects of the program, from social activities to leadership development. His metamorphosis was so impressive that Washburn encouraged him to run for state SkillsUSA office in 2011.

But Carvallo had another idea. “I decided to run for national office,” he says. “Go big or go home.”

The campaign was another milestone in Carvallo’s turnaround. “My name allowed me to make huge copyright infringements on the ‘Go, Diego, Go’ show,” he laughs, referring to an educational cartoon tied to the “Dora the Explorer” TV series. “I used the theme song in my speech and ended it with, ‘Will you be my Dora and go on this adventure with me?’”

That question was answered during the Awards Ceremony of SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference, where Carvallo heard his name called as the new Region 2 vice president.

“I was in shock,” he remembers. “I couldn’t move. My advisor looks at me and goes, ‘Diego, go!’ I got up on stage, and happiness swirled up inside of me.”

Today, that joy is shared by Carvallo’s parents through a restored relationship with their son, who is the oldest of three children.

“He’s accomplished a small part of what he will be able to in life,” Manuel says proudly. “[SkillsUSA provided] a positive source of happiness that reinforced him as a person.”

Carvallo now plans to go into nuclear and radiological engineering. Out of nearly 9,000 students, he was recently one of 500 chosen as a semifinalist for the Georgia Institute of Technology’s presidential scholarship.

The wide-open paths before him are miles away from the dead-end, barren roads he used to wander. Yet to Carvallo, the scope of his ongoing journey is best described by a folder his mother keeps. “She has a folder of all my court papers, my detention slips, my life,” he explains.

“After I won national office, there was an article about me in the newspaper. She had it laminated, and I’ll never forget watching her open that folder, put in that newspaper article and close it back up. I didn’t have to sit and reflect on how far I’d come. I saw it and was like, ‘Wow!’”