During last month's eighth-grade graduation ceremony at Jefferson Middle School in Aurora, students were each given a white rose to hand to someone who had made a difference in their lives.
Thirteen-year-old Fernando Olmedo chose to give his rose to his classmate and friend Meliton Chaidez, who had just delivered the school's commencement speech. Fernando said he was so moved, he couldn't hold back his tears.
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Meliton ChaidezAge: 13
School: Jefferson Middle School
Who inspires you? Boys II Men founder Clayton Muhammad because of his passion toward the community.
What's on your iPod? I just got one! I put a lot of Taylor Swift on it. I also have a playlist called "Pump Up" for the gym.
What book are you reading? I recently read "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins.
The three words that best describe you? Confident. Social. Respectful.
"He's always been there, giving me advice, helping me, telling me the right thing to do," Fernando said. "He's really responsible, he's really mature, he's really nice. He does what he has to do, he doesn't play around -- he takes school seriously, and he takes his friends seriously."
Meliton, 13, of Aurora, gave a speech about volunteerism as exemplified by Clayton Muhammad, the founder of the Aurora-based youth mentoring organization Boys II Men. The organization pushes young black and Latino men to achieve excellence, and Meliton is the president of its junior division.
With that same speech, Meliton also won the regional Modern Woodmen of America school speech contest after squaring off against kids from Illinois and Indiana. Modern Woodmen is a fraternal financial services organization based in Rock Island whose speech contest is open to schools across the country.
Meliton is now competing at the national level against about two dozen kids; the winner will be named the first week of July.
Meliton said he wanted to pay homage to Muhammad because of what he's learned from him.
"He doesn't just volunteer himself, but he shows others how to volunteer, which multiplies his power. To me, that's real volunteering," said Meliton, who spent innumerable hours polishing his speech after inspiration first struck in the shower.
Jill Weaver, corporate communications manager at Modern Woodmen of America and a judge at the regional speech competition, said Meliton's passion made his stand out.
"He was very convincing. I think we all felt moved by what he had to say," she said. "We were impressed by his passion. He had that head and shoulders above the others. Many of them are very, very good speakers at this level, and that's what made him rise to the top."
Meliton earned a slew of awards from Jefferson Middle School this year, including the J-Hawk award for exemplary character, the school service award, and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy FUSION award for participating in a before-school math and science program. He was also a student ambassador and a student council member and on the honor roll for three years.
His only B in the last three years was in band class -- he plays the sax -- and it wasn't for lack of trying, Meliton said.
"Band is pretty difficult, even if you practice a lot," he said, adding that he switched from alto to tenor sax, which was a big challenge. "I tried so hard."
"He's one of the most fantastic kids I've known in 34 years," Principal Patricia Cross said. "I would not be surprised to see Meliton -- if he chose to -- be the first Latino president of the United States. He's just that good."
"Really," she said. "He's such a good kid. He's outgoing, he's helpful, there's not really a mean bone in his body. He's polite, he's got manners. He loves to learn and he's enthusiastic."
Muhammad, who founded Boys II Men 10 years ago, said Meliton has a unique brand of "comfortable charisma."
"He's an old soul in a young body," he said. "He came into Boys II Men in the third grade, and we saw that pretty clearly then he was very smart. Meliton just had that little flair about him, he was just beyond his years. He could handle conversations with the older guys, and at same time you put him with his peers and he connects with them."
Meliton said he's always had great role models in his two older brothers, Gilberto Jr., 21, a civil engineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Raul, 17, an incoming senior at West Aurora High School. Raul is the current president of Boys II Men, and Gilberto is a past president.
"Both of my brothers are growing up to be great, they're really great. Those are big shoes to fill," he said.
At Meliton's age, Raul and Gilberto were both motivated students, but not quite at that level, Raul said.
"Meliton is extremely mature for his age. He takes a lot of responsibilities and he follows through with them," Raul said. "For a kid his age, it's not common. When I was his age, I was involved, but I was not involved as he was. He takes it a step further."
Much of the credit goes to Meliton's parents, Gilberto and Maria Chaidez, Cross said. "They need to write a book about how to raise young men, because they've done a wonderful job," she said.
The Chaidezes are originally from Mexico, and they say they've always done all they can to encourage their boys to shine. Both have a sixth-grade education and pushed their kids to achieve academically.
"We both had excellent parents who taught us the right principles, so that's what we passed onto them," said Gilberto Chaidez, a factory worker.
Meliton is a very respectful and affectionate kid who worries about things like his parents' health, said Maria Chaidez, a homemaker. "We dance almost every night in the kitchen. We have a tradition that every quinceanera dance we go to, I start the dance with Meliton," Maria Chaidez said.
Meliton said he's not sure what he wants to do when he grows up, but politics is on his radar after so many people mentioned that after his commencement speech. Then again, he might go into law enforcement. Or perhaps cooking, which he loves.
Jefferson teacher Kathy Yarbrough, who coordinates the speech contest at the school level, said that Meliton has a gift for public speaking.
"I've seen a lot of kids, and I've seen a lot that are really good speakers, but I've never seen a student like Meliton. He's a really gifted orator," she said, adding she only helped him with minor points on his speech. "He has passion about what he speaks about. He holds himself with self-confidence, and he practices every single day -- that's part of it, too."
There's just something special about Meliton, Yarbrough said. "That young man is going places," she said.
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to firstname.lastname@example.org or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.