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Finding a new direction

Jose Ponce, 33, recalls his childhood and adolescent years as difficult ones, marked by loss, such as that of his sister, who was killed in a car accident that left him — then 9 years old — severely injured in a body cast for years.

Growing up in east Petaluma, Ponce had difficulty steering his life in a positive direction, he said. That is, until he found purpose in building custom beach cruiser bikes.

Having learned welding and auto-body work from his father, he found that building these bikes was a positive outlet for him and a way to stay off the streets after school.

Now an industrial engineer and living in his native Petaluma, he hopes to bring that same experience to teenagers like him who may be struggling through their adolescent years. Piloting a new, project-based mentoring program with Mentor Me Petaluma, a youth mentoring organization that matches needy students with Big Brother — or Big Sister — like adults, Ponce is hoping that building the cruiser bikes will have the same positive effect on Joseph Perez, 14, that it did on himself.

And so far, it seems it has.

"I am enjoying everything I'm doing," Perez said. "It's keeping me out of trouble every day."

Just several weeks ago, things weren't going quite so well for him.

Perez was expelled from Petaluma Junior High, and was attending an alternative school, explained Mentor Me Petaluma executive director Deborah Dalton.

"He started hitting rock bottom," Dalton said. Now, after about four weeks into working with Jose to build a cruiser bike, he's getting the highest grades in his algebra class.

"He's showing up weekly to check in, he's with Jose all the time," she said. "It's completely given him a new lease on life."

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