Nelson Barrios

Ever meet a real “class act”? Nelson Barrios actually has an award for it.

To salute the student’s service to his community, a Boston TV news crew surprised Barrios in his physics class.

“All I see is a big camera and a woman with a microphone talking,” Barrios remembers. “I kind of had a hint of it [coming], because my advisor told me to dress nicely that day. So I was like, ‘Oh, they’re here for me!’ and they interviewed me and gave me the ‘Class Act’ award.”

It’s not the only time his SkillsUSA chapter at Lynn (Mass.) Vocational Technical Institute has been recognized for its service. Other media outlets have come calling, the students have earned a gold President’s Volunteer Service Award, and the chapter is one of only 24 Models of Excellence designated by SkillsUSA last year.

“Our main project we named ‘Stars and SkillsUSA,’ where we focused on younger kids,” says Barrios, last year’s chapter president. “We did a project to help them avoid drugs, because we know that’s a huge epidemic in our city: a lot of people, a lot of overdoses of heroin. Middle school is usually the time kids are exposed to the terms and even marijuana.”

Aside from guest speakers, the chapter set up a question-and-answer table to cover all aspects of drug abuse.

“We had lawyers there, because it doesn’t just affect the person that’s taking the drug, it’s affecting the whole community,” Barrios explains. “We had judges there, people that worked in the medical field to tell you what it does to your body, people that work with social services, because people that are taking drugs are not able to take care of their kids.”

SkillsUSA members had middle-school students sign pledges to stay substance-abuse free and gave them pledging pins in exchange.

“One of the students actually came up and told me, ‘Oh, I’m not clean today, but after this project, I’m gonna try and do my best and stay clean,’ ” Barrios says.

Other chapter projects have focused on hunger and homelessness in the community. In the summer of 2014, students were painting park benches and removing graffiti when they realized homeless people were living right under their noses.

“We found clothes, shoes, blankets, makeshift pillows, a bike and a whole lot of other items which indicated to us that people were sleeping there at night,” says another chapter officer, Kevin Gomes. “We wanted to do something to help.”

Soon he and Barrios began to motivate their entire school into donating items for the local homeless shelter. “We challenged our peers,” Barrios adds. “Each care package had to have flip flops, face cloths, deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a variety of other needs.

“Together, we were able to gather over 500 care packages and 125 pillows for the shelter. In fact, we collected so many items that we shared the packages with many other shelters as well.”

A walk to end hunger

A walk to end hunger.

Another eye-opening experience happened one December when the students helped with a food pantry housed at a nearby elementary school. “We recognized that there are a lot of people who need food, not just the homeless,” Barrios says. He, Gomes and SkillsUSA advisor Jason McCuish organized a walk with the Greater Boston Food Bank. Their goal was to raise $5,000 in two weeks.

“We asked all of our student population to ask 25 people to give them $1. We figured this was a manageable task, and if everyone got involved, we would easily hit our target goal,” Barrios explains.

They wound up raising $8,000, which could be turned into 24,000 meals. The chapter also donated another round of care packages to the homeless shelter, this time with winter clothing. “They wanted 120 pairs of socks, and we gave them more than a thousand,” Gomes says.

“And when you think about Christmas,” Barrios adds, “it’s kids around here [saying], ‘Oh, I want an Xbox, a PS3, I want an iPad,’ and all they wanted there [at the shelter] was the socks to stay warm. So that really touched us.”

New class, new ways of giving back

Now in his second semester at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell, Barrios is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For the aspiring engineer, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program will cover eight years of school. The application process included writing eight essays, “and a lot of what they look for is your community involvement,” he points out.

The former automotive student says he was drawn to engineering “because you get to work as a team” and that he learned a lot about teamwork through SkillsUSA. “I really like working as a team because you get to meet new people, get to see different aspects of people and the way people think. Each person has a different way of thinking, and so you get a little bit of that, which helps expand the way you think as well.”

The scholarship will help him continue to give to the community. As the “class act” told WHDH TV, “I want to use my education to bring more awareness to the problems we all face in a daily basis. I want to do something to change people’s lives in some way. You have to give it your all every day.”

Asked why he’s so intensely focused on serving others, Barrios points to McCuish, his SkillsUSA advisor. “Because of him, and because when you give back, there’s a different feeling inside of you. And to notice that from just little things, you can make a difference in people’s lives. I think that’s the reason why I like helping the community so much.”