Kids find direction by getting their hands dirty

Aaron Valencia has been selected as a 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero. Voting is now underway to select the Hero of the Year, to be revealed during ‘CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,’ airing live, Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.

Story highlights

Aaron Valencia's rough childhood and early substance abuse issues threatened to derail his life

After getting sober, Valencia began to focus on his passion, classic car repair

Valencia now uses his shop as a base to help local at-risk youth learn mechanic skills

Lancaster, California CNN  — 

Aaron Valencia was a teenager when his life hit rock bottom.

Growing up in poverty, he was raised by his mother, who was in an abusive relationship.

“I … had to grow up fast in an environment with drugs and alcohol, physical abuse,” Valencia said. “Not having stability took me down.”

At 9, he started drinking. At 14, he smoked meth, then shot heroin at 15. Throughout his teens, he ran away, sold drugs and spent time in jail. When he ultimately found himself sleeping in a park, with nowhere left to turn, it was a wake-up call.

In 1999, Valencia went to rehab and later entered a court-appointed treatment program. He has been sober ever since.

Along the way, he began working on restoring classic cars, eventually opening his own small body shop in Lancaster, California.

A few years ago, neighborhood children started hanging around his garage. As they expressed interest in the work, it gave Valencia an idea.

Today, his nonprofit, Lost Angels Children’s Project, provides an afterschool program – with a focus on classic car restoration – for low-income, foster and at-risk youth.

“Our whole goal is to offer somewhere positive and safe where they can come and learn and be a part of something different,” Valencia said.

Three times a week, about 15 children come to classes, where they learn how to build a car.

“Kids come in not knowing anything about cars. We start from zero with teaching them how to read a tape measure, do fractions, nuts and bolts, just basic safety and tools,” Valencia said. “Then we take those skills to an actual classic car.”

Every year, Valencia and his students restore a custom car and raffle the finished product at a car show. The money they raise goes back into the program.

Since he formalized the project in 2015, Valencia has worked with about 100 young people.

The result has been a win-win, he said. Children are learning in a positive and nurturing environment, and he’s able to give them something he never had: stability.

“These kids are still kids. They’re still concerned about video games and their school. And I love that,” he said. “It makes me happy because they’re still being kids.”

CNN’s Allie Torgan spoke with Valencia about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: How did you discover your own passion for custom cars?

Aaron Valencia: Early in my sobriety, I met this guy who had a crazy 1954 Chevy lowrider out in Hollywood. I mean, done to the nines. We drove around Hollywood that night, and from that moment on, that’s what I wanted to do.

I dove in head first, and it set me and my life in a whole different direction. I didn’t grow up in a mechanic household. I didn’t know how to change a sparkplug, but I started just absorbing any information I could from everywhere I could. It just evolved. And before long, I opened up a small shop.

CNN: What was the inspiration for this project?

Valencia: I run a shop in an industrial complex with a lot of other mechanics. And we’re always doing crazy lowriders. There is music, and cars, and just a lot of stuff going on. So, kids were kind of gravitating towards the shop to see what was going on.

Kids wanted to help, wanted to do something instead of just standing around. So, we put them to work, and we started seeing how kids were excelling from it. They needed a place to go, needed a place to be a part of something positive. So, it was like, “Let’s open up the shop and be able to teach them. Have them come here and they can actually learn a trade, learn a lesson, learn something to better their life.”

cnn heroes valencia extra_00021726.jpg
CNN Hero Aaron Valencia: The kids inspired him
02:23 - Source: CNN

CNN: Ultimately, your program is about more than helping kids build a car.

Valencia: A lot of these kids have been through trauma, issues; and coping skills is something that no one really teaches you. We have little round table discussions, just talking about normal topics of peer pressure, life experiences.

Not only do we work on classic cars, but we also get them into the boxing gym, and they start working out. It’s just another avenue for some of the kids who have anger management issues, have self-discipline issues. And all the same skills that it takes to build a car and fabricate a custom car – we do smaller art projects as well. Recently, the kids put on their first art show at a big gallery here in Lancaster, and it was a huge success.

It’s a lot more than just teaching kids how to be mechanics. We are trying to get them to open their eyes to see a different way.

Want to get involved? Check out the Lost Angels Children’s Project website and see how to help.

To donate to Lost Angels Children’s Project click the CrowdRise widget below.