PORTLAND, Ore. - For almost as far back as either of them can remember, sisters Andrea and Alejandra Alvarado have been spending their afternoons and much of their free time at the Regence Boys & Girls Club in North Portland.
The Club has been such a constant in the Alvarados' lives that it feels like second nature when they find themselves serving turkey dinner to disadvantaged families on Thanksgiving or explaining the social benefits of a grant to Portland mayor Charlie Hales.
“We go in – we don't even have to be asked 'Can you help us?' – we just go, 'What do you guys need help with?'” says Alejandra, 17. “We go to a staff member and ask, 'What can we help with? What do you guys have left that you guys need to do?'”
This kind of selflessness and engagement with their community – imbued in both girls by their parents Alfredo and Leticia at a young age – has fueled everything that they do, from interning at Providence Park through the YouthForce program to delivering impromptu speeches as part of the Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year awards process.
It's no surprise then that the pair – who jokingly describe their relationship as one between “best friends and worst enemies” – were honored together as the “Girls of the Game” at the Portland Thorns FC home opener this past Sunday at Providence Park.
While both Alvarado sisters seem almost embarrassed by the attention their actions have brought them – “I don't expect to be recognized at all, so this is like so unnatural and weird,” says Andrea, 18 – they are also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to share their experiences with the wider Portland community.
“Being recognized for something like this is like, oh, I am doing something,” explains Alejandra. “It makes us think of the bigger picture, like I am doing something to help somebody. I am, I don't know, making something bigger.
“Something small like this can make an impact on somebody else.”
Adds Alejandra, “I don't know how to explain it, but to get that recognition is for me really emotional and amazing.”
Emotional and amazing in part because both sisters have achieved their success in spite of the tremendous cultural, geographic and linguistic odds against it.
When she was still in preschool, Andrea had a speech impediment that prevented her from mastering English. Her parents, fearing that their daughter might not learn the language well enough to advance in school, refrained from speaking Spanish with her at home. Growing up around a large Spanish-speaking family, Andrea relied on Alejandra for translations at family gatherings.
Both girls also consider themselves incredibly fortunate to have landed in Portland.
Their family first moved to Oregon from a crime-ridden California town beset by gang violence, a place where opportunities like the ones the Alvarado sisters now enjoy were in short supply.
“We were extremely lucky to have [the Boys & Girls Club] in our life,” Andrea says. “If we were still in California we wouldn't have had it. It would have been [a] much more negative outlook in a sense because in the area we lived there was a lot of gang violence and so there were a lot of what-if possibilities if we would have stayed.”
Education, too, remains a major priority for both sisters.
Their father had to work his way through high school in order to help out his family and never got the opportunity to pursue a college education. Their mother began her collegiate studies but never was able to finish.
So for Andrea and Alejandra, going to college and earning their degrees would be a huge accomplishment for the entire Alvarado family.
All the more remarkable then that both sisters have achieved so much so far in their young lives.
This past year, Andrea received a nomination for the Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year award in the Portland metro area. That experience pushed the normally reserved Andrea well outside of her comfort zone, asking her to do things – like writing and delivering a speech in front of an audience – that she had never really done before.
“I got to tell [the judges and participants about] a part of me that I don't usually [share],” she says of the experience.
Both girls say they're interested in furthering studies into their own culture and Andrea says that she would like to combine that with studies in early childhood development to help combat prejudice and racism through understanding of other cultures.
Whatever the future holds, both sisters expect that the Boys & Girls Club will remain a part of their lives for years to come.
Or as Alejandra puts it:
“I want to be able to say I'm a first-generation college student, I graduated at the best of my abilities, I'm making a successful career and still give back and participate in things like this and still work with children and work with the Boys and Girls Club and give back to them as they've done for us for so many years.”