Young’s Jalen Aguilar finds ways to contribute behind the scenes

What started out as a school assignment for Jalen Aguilar became a passion project.

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Young senior Jalen Aguilar (57) received a community service award from the Bears for his work with a citizenship project at his South Side church.

Young senior Jalen Aguilar (57) received a community service award from the Bears for his work with a citizenship project at his South Side church.

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What started out as a school assignment for Jalen Aguilar became a passion project.

One of Aguilar’s teachers at Young tasked him and his classmates with finding a community service project to participate in.

There was no shortage of worthy causes, including helping the homeless. But the senior football player saw the effect of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on Chicago and other sanctuary cities and decided on another path.

“At the time, my heart kind of told me there was more I could do,” Aguilar said. “Being of Latino descent, it affected me. My best friend’s father got deported.”

At Aguilar’s church on the South Side, St. Rita of Cascia, Adriana Morales was starting classes to help immigrants become U.S. citizens.

Aguilar reached out to Morales and helped with the project in a variety of ways. He helped to start a tutoring group to prepare the students for the citizenship process by posing mock interview questions. And he held a fundraising drive at Young to buy supplies for the class.

“We were able to get seven people to become citizens ... it was a beautiful sight,” Aguilar said.

That was reward enough for Aguilar, but it turns out there was more recognition coming his way, Young coach Dan Finger nominated Aguilar for the Bears Community High School All-Star Award and he was selected for one of the weekly honors.

“He doesn’t do it for the recognition,” Finger said. “He was shocked when I told him I nominated him and even more shocked when he won. I think that speaks to how selfless this endeavor is for him.”

It’s another chapter in Aguilar’s interesting journey. He never played organized sports — let alone football — before showing up at freshman orientation at Young.

“I was the kid who always stayed inside,” Aguilar said jokingly. “I was kind of on the chubbier side. (A friend) taps me on the shoulder, says, ‘You’re pretty big, you’d look good in football.’”

Aguilar has seen it all in his brief but eventful football career at Young. The program was shut down because of low numbers his freshman year, before being relaunched and going 8-0 under new coach Chris Mallette in 2018. 

Mallette left for Hope Academy after one season and was replaced by Finger, a Young alum, during a 2019 season curtailed by a Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Then came this year, with the coronavirus pandemic putting prep football in limbo, possibly till the spring.

Despite, or maybe because of, all the ups and downs along the way, Aguilar has bonded with a sport he barely was aware of before high school.

“I went out that first day and I fell in love with it,” Aguilar said. “I found that passion that drives me.”

Now Aguilar is a 5-9, 190-pound offensive lineman who also figures to play some linebacker if there is a spring season.

“It’s been a full evolution,” Finger said. “He’s a super bright kid” — with a 4.83 grade-point average — “so picking up things wasn’t difficult for him.

“He’s a kid who’s not physically gifted in terms of natural athleticism. He just goes to work everyday. He’s killed our weight room.”

“One thing that has stayed with me is resilience,” Aguilar said. “When you get knocked down, you get pushed over on a block, you’ve got to get back on your feet and keep going.”

Exactly what the future holds for Aguilar is uncertain. He has football interest from Division III Macalester in Minnesota, but hasn’t made a college choice yet. After becoming the first member of his family to move on to college, he wants to go to medical school.

And he wants to be an example for his three younger siblings.

“I’m trying to do my best to instill pride in being Latino but also sacrificing yourself for others,” he said.

If there are awards and recognition that come along too, that just makes it even better.

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