When Santa Monica High School student Josh Miller remembers his friend and teammate Eddie Lopez, he is reminded of someone who could bring people together, no matter from what background they came.
“He was the kid who brought everyone on the team together,” Miller said of the Santa Monica High School student, who was shot to death in February last year at the age of 15.
Miller, who became a close friend of Lopez’s as a teammate on the Santa Monica High freshman football and baseball teams, remembers Lopez as an outgoing teenager who was not only a talented athlete but a good student.
The well-liked Lopez was a model teenager who was “exactly what he should’ve been,” and the exact opposite of someone who people might expect to be shot to death, Miller said.
Miller, 17, said Lopez was not just a friend but an inspiration to him, because he was able to persevere despite difficulties and racial stereotypes.
“He defied every stereotype set up for him,” Miller, a senior at Santa Monica High, said of his friend.
Following the death of Lopez at such a young age, Miller said he struggled to cope with the loss but was motivated to address some of the very same problems that his friend was able to overcome. One issue is that, while Lopez was able to get into Santa Monica High honors classes and succeed, other minority students were struggling to do the same thing, Miller said.
Miller wanted to look into why some minority students were finding success in honors classes and others weren’t, so he decided to produce a documentary, Tracking to Nowhere, which addressed the issue. The documentary won first place at the Santa Monica Teen Film Festival.
The lifelong Santa Monica resident chose to take his quest a step further than just addressing the issue — he wanted to focus on the “root of the problem.” A month after Lopez died, Miller created the “Resilient Youth Foundation,” a student-run nonprofit group that aims to motivate all students to achieve and excel.
“I wanted to start a program that helped kids and helped motivate them too,” Miller said.
Miller’s efforts in the aftermath of the slaying of his friend have been recognized as more than just a good deed, and as a heroic effort. The Santa Monica student was named this month as a finalist for CNN’s Hero Award in the “Young Wonder” category, which recognizes outstanding achievement by a person under the age of 18.
Hero Award finalists were selected for six categories, such as extraordinary commitment to the welfare of young people and advancing the cause of civil or equal rights. In being named one of the 18 finalists in the six categories, Miller was selected from more than 7,000 nominations submitted by viewers in 80 countries.
Miller said he has received other local honors, including the “Cool Kid Award” from ABC, but nothing to compare to the CNN Hero Award, which is “global.”
“It’s a huge honor and it’s really helped the progress of the foundation,” Miller said of the Hero Award. “It gives me motivation and it shows that we’re really advancing this cause.”
The news of the honor didn’t actually hit Miller until he was watching the award ceremony on TV and saw a picture of himself posted, along with musician/actor Harry Connick, Jr. talking about him and Lopez. It was a proud moment for Miller to hear a celebrity talk about his good friend and the person who inspired him to develop his foundation.
What Miller said he is most proud of is to see the foundation that he started less than two years ago become nationwide, with a branch expected to open in Illinois.
“I’ve taken this thing that I started in my head and turned it into a nationwide organization,” Miller said.
Santa Monica school officials praised Miller as someone who has been able to make a difference in the lives of other young students.
“Josh is a shining example of how one person has the ability to create real and positive change,” Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District superintendent Dianne Talarico said. “We should all be inspired by what Josh has accomplished by the age of 17.”
Former Santa Monica-Malibu school board member Shane McCloud, who worked with Miller on his documentary, said the student is “beyond his years.”
“He’s very compassionate about people who are less fortunate, his neighbors and the community,” McCloud said. “He realizes his actions have the ability to affect a larger community.”
McCloud noted that the Santa Monica-Malibu district is fortunate to have a student like Miller be recognized on a nationwide scale.
“I think the district can be proud to know that a student like Josh is one of their students,” McCloud said. “We need more Josh Millers.”
As the Resilient Youth Foundation continues to grow, the workload placed on Miller has increased to the point where he has had to give up some of his joys, such as playing on the high school baseball team. The young student, who currently has a 3.8 grade point average, has been active throughout his high school career and has had several internships.
In addition to his foundation, Miller has established a scholarship program that recognizes students who demonstrate academic excellence. Five students have already received the Eddie Lopez scholarship.
Miller has also created a program called “Rewards for Results,” which rewards at-risk middle school students with awards such as an L.A. Dodger baseball game, for improving their grades. Through the program, 89 percent of the students involved have completed their goals and they are able to see that they can achieve academic success, Miller said.
With his organization expanding nationally to address the academic struggles of minority students, Miller said he now wants to work on changing the problems from a “policy standpoint.”
It may seem as though Miller has had many more years to push his causes forward, but he has not even gone to college yet. The extremely occupied student has his sights set on top colleges such as Brown, Columbia and Northwestern and hopes to pursue a career in either economics or politics.
Miller won’t forget how tough it was to lose a close friend at a young age, but he says he is thankful for the inspiration Lopez left behind.
“I realized how blessed I was to have all of these opportunities,” Miller said.