Joey Bravo at Santa Monica High School on Friday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — Along a light yellow hand-painted wall with creative creatures that resemble aliens and even Pac-Man figures stands what Joey Bravo calls his “treasure chest” — a colorful chest with bold jungle animals grazing by a bright blue river.

“My dad gave that to me and my older brother when we were younger,” Bravo said as he described the chest.

And although Bravo is a tall, grown 17-year-old now, he still stores his childhood memories within the chest — whether it’s stuffed animals or trinkets.

But more importantly, the treasure chest embodies his childhood struggles and how far he has come today. On top of the chest that holds his past stands a thick, black frame with an intricate presentation of abstract artwork and in the middle reads, “Hope and Unity Award of 2010.”

The award, presented to Bravo on Aug. 20, is the highest recognition the Pico Youth & Family Center, a Santa Monica based non-profit that works with at-risk youths, awards each year. Joey was one of the top candidates for this year’s award for making a 360 degree turn in his life. He went straight from using drugs and alcohol and four years of probation to achieving a 4.0 grade average at Santa Monica High School and completing community service hours for fun.

“I was just like any other kid from my middle school and everything was alright,” Bravo said. “[Then] things just started flipping up and things weren’t stable at home.”

Bravo’s home life was on the edge when he was 12 years old. After watching his father abuse his mom for years, the tipping point came when his father tried killing a local resident in a dark alley in front of Bravo and his five siblings.

“[My father] had said he had seen him at a party with my mom dancing … and he wanted revenge,” Bravo said.

Soon after the Bravo family witnessed this scene, his father spent time in prison and was deported back to Mexico. Bravo and his tight-knit family became homeless for three months during the summer of 2005. Joey recalls moving from his grandmother’s house to motels and different shelters around Santa Monica. When trying to cope with this new lifestyle he began drinking alcohol and using illegal drugs.

But that wasn’t the only thing that kept him feeling steady in such a spastic time. His love for animals — something he exhibited as far back as elementary school by making animal-shaped sculptures out of sticks — is what led to being sentenced to probation.

Bravo, who didn’t have money but felt compelled to be around animals, would venture to pet stores around town just to browse. But, before long, he admitted to entering pet shops with the intent to steal animals for company. This activity led to eventually being arrested by the Santa Monica Police Department for attempting to steal a valuable bird, leading to the charges that would later place him on probation.

“That was like a roller coaster ride,” Bravo added.

The downward spiral continued as he chose to take the path that led him to excessive drinking, using and selling drugs and hanging out with gang-related crowds.

Bravo said he hit rock bottom when he was caught at Samohi with drugs his locker. The principal at the time, Eva Mayoral, expelled him mid-semester during his sophomore year for possession of illegal substances. A month later, Joey attended Olympic High School, a continuation school, for three months.

Yet, he soon realized he should apply himself more and aimed toward the goal of getting enough credits to transfer back to Samohi as quickly as possible.

Bravo also became involved with the PYFC, where he helped as a mentor and counselor.

It wasn’t long before Bravo returned to Samohi for the remainder of his junior year.

“Going into the year, I was like ‘Alright, just get as many [grade point average] points as you can,’” Bravo said.

Bravo maintained a 4.0 average during his time back at school and plans to continue that feat this upcoming academic year now that he knows he can achieve such high marks.

Beyond this upcoming school year, Bravo has his sights set on taking advanced placement classes and even plans to attend a few courses at Santa Monica College.

“He’s the type of kid now that says, ‘I really want to do it, so give me a chance,” said Yunuen Valencia, who is Bravo’s counselor at Santa Monica High School.

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