Jefferson Award winner Ernie Vargas has turned a group of troubled teens into one of the best local rugby teams.
As a youth counselor for the city of Hawaiian Gardens, Vargas was trying to help a group of troubled teenagers. He thought a neighborhood rugby team would be a positive way to funnel aggression.
"The intention wasn't to start rugby team. It was to work with a particular group of kids that were having some problems that year," said Vargas.
"If I wasn't doing rugby, I'd probably be doing drugs. I'd probably be in jail or something," said one of the rugby players.
The idea flourished. And, three years later, Vargas has transformed one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County into a training ground for some the best youth rugby teams in Southern California.
"The kids play the game -- it's a physical sport," said Vargas. "Kids are aggressive and they get to get that energy out."
Vargas does most of the coaching, driving to tournaments and gathering of equipment on his own time. It's a sacrifice that doesn't go unnoticed by the young players.
"Ernie had helped them. [He] took them from the streets and put them into the sport and changed -- he has changed all our lives a lot," said Desiree Martinez, a rugby player. "We really thank him for that."
"He really takes his time to have sports for us," said Eri Laguna, another rugby player. "He does everything for us. He is a good coach."
But, what matters most to Vargas is helping his young players learn the focus and work ethic needed to win championships; and watching them grow into adults.
"When they become adults they'll come back and say, 'Oh, 2007, I was on that team.' That's something they can be proud of," said Vargas.
The rugby teams have been featured in newspapers and national television. Recently, his team was given a donation from State Farm for new equipment.
"When people say, 'Oh, Hawaiian Gardens, that's a little small town ... they can't get far.' That just motivates us more to do better," said Jackie Barriga, a rugby player.
From the trophies on his desk, to the praise from his players, it's easy to see how Ernie Vargas is making a difference in his community and is this month's Jefferson Award winner.