Alhambra 22-year-old Aaron Yang seems more than captivated with Santa Clarita.
At a young age, he was curious about the world, he told The Signal in a recent telephone interview. He said that during his elementary school years, he’d explore communities outside of Alhambra via resources like the internet or talking to people over the phone, see what other places had to offer. He first came across the Santa Clarita Valley through, believe it or not, in a yellow pages search of churches.
“I wanted my mom to take me to a church in Valencia and Newhall for vacation Bible school, but she wouldn’t do it,” he said, “because she said that it was a bit too far for her to drive.”
As he grew older, Yang would eventually convince his mom to bring him out to the SCV for lunch and to hang out at the libraries — both the Valencia and Newhall branches. His connections with libraries across the country is quite the tale, one that National Public Radio even shared in a piece they did about him in April 2021.
But Yang’s story begins when he was just 2 days old, he said, when doctors discovered he had meningitis — inflammation of brain and spinal cord membranes. He’d later be diagnosed with cerebral palsy, experiencing trouble with body movement and muscle coordination.
He said his condition would cause other problems for him. For as far back as he can remember, Yang said he wanted a companion.
“I really wanted a sibling,” he said, “because being an only child kind of sucks.”
That loneliness would follow him to school.
“When I was a kid, I had trouble making friends,” Yang said. “A lot of people — when they realized I had cerebral palsy — just felt a sense of embarrassment if they hung out with me. Like, I guess they just didn’t want their image ruined.”
Another issue that Yang wrestled with was the expectations he felt from his community of Alhambra.
“Everyone here was very academic based, where parents expected their kids to get into top schools and pursue productive and meaningful careers,” he said. “An academic career didn’t appeal to me because I believed that it didn’t give me the opportunity to pursue my passions, bring out my creativity, and where I am able to be in an environment where I can be my true self without fear or judgement.”
Yang said the SCV seemed to be the place more suited for him. Aside from the people he talked to in the area and their receptiveness toward him, he said he loves that Santa Clarita is so scenic, and he especially loves the “fun” atmosphere of Old Town Newhall. He’d spend much of his time at SCV libraries, particularly the Old Town Newhall branch.
An avid reader, Yang says he finishes about 10 to 15 books every three months — and not just novels, but also nonfiction books like a few he checked out on film production. He even has his own copy of the “Oregon Blue Book” — because he’s interested in the functions and governing of that particular state.
In 2015, when Yang was a sophomore in high school, he decided to take part in an online summer reading program that gave prizes to those who read a certain number of books.
“I accidentally clicked on this site — a summer reading site for a Texas library,” Yang said. “I didn’t realize the library was in Texas. And so, when I looked down at the information page, I realized, ‘Wait a minute, that area code from the phone number is not California.’ And, with horror, I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I just participated in programs in another state.’”
Yang reached out to the program coordinator, explained his situation, and to his surprise she asked for his address and sent him his prizes for his reading.
After that, Yang began participating in other similar online library programs around the country — something he’s still doing to this day. Asked how many library programs he has under his belt, he said about 500 of them, and he’s taken part in programs from every state except Hawaii and Alaska, which, he said, have been quite difficult.
The story on National Public Radio in April 2021 about Yang, as reported by Anne Ford from Chicago, shared some librarians’ concerns about someone outside their communities collecting prizes from underfunded programs. According to Ford’s reporting, one particular Pennsylvania librarian said she heard from dozens of colleagues who had received the same email:
“I signed up for the teen summer reading, but I live in California. Is it possible to mail my prizes to me? I really appreciate it.”
Librarians, according to the radio story, even used his name as a verb, stating that they’d been “Yanged.” You can even find T-shirts online that read, “We Got Yanged.”
Yang said that several librarians expressed concern with his taking advantage of their programs for the prizes, but he maintained during his interview with NPR that he simply wanted to participate in the programs.
Incidentally, according to Carrie Lujan, spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita, Yang never picked up any of the prizes he earned from the Santa Clarita library reading programs he entered.
But it was the experience on the radio, Yang told The Signal, that perhaps presented him with his calling.
“I just really enjoyed the publicity experience,” he said.
And so, his mind went to acting, and he began looking for acting schools. You’d think Hollywood or maybe downtown Los Angeles, right? Yang thought Santa Clarita. In May 2021, he sought out and found Limelight Acting Studio in Valencia.
“I did an internet search,” he said, “and I saw the photos, and it seemed like students there felt like they were having so much fun.”
That was essentially how he made his decision. To be sure, he called Kristin Pitts Altman, the owner of Limelight and the person who would become his acting coach.
“I remember where I was when he called,” Pitts Altman said. “I was in my office, and I got a call, and yeah, I remember his energy. We were talking, and he’s like, ‘I really want to do this. I want to give you a try. But can we do one lesson?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure.’”
Pitts Altman said she spoke with Yang for about 45 minutes over the phone. Then he tried the one lesson, and that was it — he came back for more.
“Kristin is considered to be my hero, role model and inspiration in life,” Yang said. “Without her guidance and support, my dream of becoming an actor and having this goal would not be possible.”
Yang’s family has been very supportive. His uncle Kenny — Kenny Tuan — has made quite the impression on him. He pushed for Yang to reach for the stars.
“I encouraged him to discover the beautiful world,” Tuan told The Signal about some advice he gave his nephew. “So, that’s the reason he got involved with the library and also the church activities. He said that your community is very nice and very suited to him.”
And even though Tuan suggested that Yang get involved in computer science, he was more than supportive when his nephew expressed an interest in learning acting. In fact, Tuan paid for his classes at Limelight.
“He was the father I never had,” Yang said. “I never met my dad before, and he (Tuan) took on the liberty of being there for me.”
Pitts Altman said Yang, who finished her acting program in August, has been doing well. He’s already got a manager and an agent, and he’s been auditioning regularly and quite often, too. He still keeps in touch, she said, especially when he has a big audition.
“We meet online for coaching,” she added.
But Yang misses his visits to the SCV and said that living so far away — nearly an hour — is a “huge sadness.” He said he plans on buying or renting a house in the area when the time comes to move out. A Santa Clarita address will go better with the “661” area code that precedes his business cell phone number.
“I would like to live in the area that gave me a new career possibility,” he said, “and where I am able to really find my voice, and live somewhere I feel most accepted, and being able to really express myself fully in creative assets without any fear or judgment.”
And if that wasn’t enough, he said he’s even had thoughts of buying a grave plot for himself at the Eternal Valley Memorial Park on Sierra Highway in Newhall.
Officials of the city of Santa Clarita took to Yang’s story. Upon learning more about him, they invited him on Wednesday to the Old Town Newhall Library to finally present him with his deserved library reading program rewards that he never picked up, and a proclamation from Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs, which he, along with the rest of the City Council, signed, recognizing Yang’s passion for libraries, summer reading programs and the Santa Clarita Valley.
Sammy Clarita, the city’s horse mascot, was also at the library on Wednesday to meet Yang and his mother and uncle, who smiled through the entire presentation, admittedly proud of Yang for who he’s become and who he still wants to be.
Gibbs, seemingly fascinated with Yang’s story, asked more about how Yang came to find such an interest in the city. And then he said, “The hardest question I’ve got for you: If you could choose one actor or actress that you could act with in a movie, who would it be?”
Yang answered with Pitts Altman.
Captivated with Santa Clarita? It would seem so. The SCV is certainly a place that’s brought out the best in Yang, and not a place, he said, that’s limited him to the mere diagnosis that’s more often than not used to describe him.