Saved By the Boys & Girls Club

UPDATED: March 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2012

Gia Francesca Lopez’s first birthday party last September at trendy Trattoria Amici near Los Angeles was the typical lavish Hollywood soiree filled with pricey gift bags, celebrity glam and paparazzi buzz. But dad Mario Lopez had no plans to turn his daughter’s big day into the beginning of a life of overindulgence.

“She’s going to have a more privileged childhood than I did, but I don’t want to spoil her,” says Lopez, 38. “I want to stress at a very young age that it’s important to give back and help other people in your community. I want to make it her lifestyle and have her understand you do this from the heart.”

The host of the syndicated TV entertainment news magazine Extra learned these lessons firsthand—growing up more than 100 miles and an entire world away from his daughter’s pink princess party.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Lopez spent his youth surrounded by a close-knit extended family in the working-class town of Chula Vista, Calif., just seven miles from the shack-lined hillsides of Tijuana. Lopez’s hometown was and is a place where security bars line the windows and doors of 1950s tract homes, and walls and fences are tagged with gang graffiti.

“It was a tough neighborhood with the potential for a lot of trouble,” Lopez says. Flashing a mischievous grin, he adds that he was a good kid for the most part, but he could easily have taken a different path in life if not for his watchful family and the mentoring he received through the local Boys & Girls Club.

So when it came time to determining the real beneficiary of his daughter’s party, Lopez thought of kids who are less fortunate, like those he grew up with. Instead of gifts for Gia, he asked friends and family to donate to the Community Youth Athletic Center, a facility for at-risk youths in the blue-collar town of National City, where his father, Mario Lopez Sr., still works as a city employee.

Lopez learned of the small grassroots organization from his dad and immediately made a financial contribution; he later donated his $10,000 winnings from an appearance on Weakest Link. The money paid for new boys’ and girls’ showers, a new computer room, and other upgrades.

But money is far from the most important contribution Lopez makes to CYAC. He regularly visits the club, and even seemingly tough teens get excited by having someone they see on TV show up in this unlikely environment.

Since his poster-boy years on Saved By the Bell and as a lust interest on the iconic Nip/Tuck, Lopez’s congeniality combined with persistence—and some killer dimples—opened Hollywood doors for him. He’s done everything on TV, from soaps to Dancing with the Stars. Aside from his acting and hosting duties, Lopez has written a fitness guide, two diet/cookbooks and two children’s books, including Mud Tacos with his sister, Marissa Lopez Wong. In December, he launched his own underwear line. Between his family commitments to girlfriend Courtney Mazza and their daughter and his professional activities, it might seem easy to limit his charitable endeavors to just popping a check in the mail. But Lopez doesn’t see that as an option.

The former teen idol once named People’s Bachelor of the Year recently was spotlighted in the Ron Howard-produced Boys & Girls Club of America public service announcement with Jennifer Lopez, Denzel Washington and other club alums, and also was the spokesman for the club’s Triple Play Fit Family Challenge, which encourages families to lead healthier lifestyles.

As he slides into the booth for our interview at the celeb-friendly eatery called The Farm at The Grove, restless energy seems to radiate from Lopez, who often tapes Extra from this open mall/marketplace. Curious tourists glance toward him while Lopez flashes his trademark smile and politely declines lunch, immediately apologizing for being late—and not being able to stick around for long. High winds in Los Angeles knocked out power earlier on this day, and he’s worried about putting production even further behind schedule.

Despite a frustrating, mishap-filled day, Lopez gets excited when he talks about the importance of safe, supervised environments where kids can channel their energy in positive ways. He remembers spending almost every day after elementary school at the Chula Vista Boys & Girls Club. Today his picture hangs on the wall and people working at the center say the youngsters talk with pride about living in the same community where Lopez grew up.

Says Carlos Barragan, founder of the CYAC, “Mario Lopez grew up in the same kind of community these kids are in, and he faced the same problems they do, but he didn’t use that as a crutch to justify doing the wrong thing. You see him now on TV and know he’s in a great situation, but he made his life that way.”

Barragan, who started the center in 1991, says it’s easy for people in the hard-strapped community to blame economics or discrimination for not succeeding, but having someone like Lopez being part of CYAC gives the kids hope—and a solid example of someone who didn’t let the odds beat him.

Grateful for Lopez’s financial contributions and his efforts to shine a spotlight on the struggling facility’s boxing, fitness and obesity-prevention programs offered at no charge, Barragan says it’s the inspiration Lopez gives kids that may be most valuable.

Lopez, in turn, credits people like Barragan, as well as his own mentors like wrestling coach Dave Ruiz, for keeping kids focused and on track. “Kids need to know that every decision they make has consequences that can be good or bad. You don’t get a lot of do-overs in life, so you really have to be thinking all the time before you do something.”

He says his mentors also showed him he could accomplish whatever he set out to do. “They were consistently in my life, they were there for me, win or lose, and made me feel that I could do anything. Even though I was this kid from Chula Vista, I could still go up against the kids from the wealthier towns and it didn’t matter.” Lopez says, “It can be intimidating to think that you aren’t good enough. That’s when you need people in your life who make you feel confident.”

Lopez, who persuaded producers to cast him in a role written for a white actor in Saved By the Bell, continues fighting for more roles for Latinos in an industry where they are woefully underrepresented. Despite a groundbreaking role in a 1997 TV movie based on Olympic diver Greg Louganis and a stint on Broadway in A Chorus Line, it’s been difficult for Lopez to find good acting roles. When talking about the hardships faced by Latinos, passion fills his voice, along with some frustration.

“Latinos are no longer a minority and yet [Hollywood] is moving at a snail’s pace in recognizing that,” Lopez says. “There are ones like myself, Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez who have the platform to speak up, but there aren’t many out there who do. We do what we can to encourage kids to flex their creative muscles and share our culture.”

A first-generation American whose parents were born in Mexico, Lopez wants to do for other kids what his mentors did for him. “I want them to know that if some Mexican kid from Chula Vista can make it, then they can do it, too. I want to make people smile, laugh and feel good about themselves.”