10 years of ‘carving tunnels of hope'

College-prep program changes students' future, one at a time

Growing up in San Diego Abel Salas felt pressure to drop out of school and join a gang but he resisted the temptations of the streets.

Reality Changers, an after-school, largely free, college-prep program based in City Heights helped him maintain a positive direction.

"They helped me set my mind on getting a college degree," said Salas, 18. He recalls getting help rewriting a college application a couple of dozen times before submitting it. He is now a freshman on a full scholarship at the University of Southern California majoring in mechanical engineering.

Nearly 200 inner-city students, mostly Latinos, from dozens of schools across San Diego County, participate in Reality Changers, which has offices in City Heights and Solana Beach.

Participants are 8th to 12th grade students who receive academic help, assistance filling out college applications and other support from dozens of volunteers, including college students, and a small paid staff.

Graduates of the program are often the first in their families to attend college and many, like Salas, return to help out when they can. Others have graduated or are currently attending major universities such as Harvard, Stanford, Duke and UC Berkeley.

San Diego State University recently agreed to guarantee admission to Reality Changers students who meet entrance requirements to the four-year university.

"I see this as the safest, most professional building in the middle of the hood," said Christopher Yanov, 32, Reality Changers founder and executive director.

Yanov started the program in 2001 with four eighth graders, $300 and space in a Golden Hill church. He was influenced by his experiences growing up in Ventura County, where many of his friends were the children of migrant workers who picked strawberries.

In San Diego, he was a university Spanish Literature major and began volunteering at a Spanish-speaking church to practice.

"I volunteered mostly by serving gang-related youth, which showed me how much intelligence street kids have and so little opportunity to put it into good use. So I started Reality Changers with the hope of carving tunnels of hope under the back alleys of despair."

Yanov expanded the program after he won $23,000 as a contestant on the game show "Wheel of Fortune." Donations grew as the program's success became known.

He serves on the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention and is working on a book about ending gang violence in America.

He holds bachelor degrees in Spanish literature and political science from the University of California at San Diego and master's degrees in peace and justice and international relations from the University of San Diego.

Reality Changers today operates with a $1 million budget, mainly from private donations and grants. Some donations are as small as $5. The Bank of America Charitable Foundation recently donated $200,000.

Yanov said motivation is the only requirement to apply for the program. Most of the students are the children of immigrants and speak English and Spanish. Immigration status is not an issue, however.

The program is faith-based but students from all religions are welcomed. Students are required to follow strict rules. They must maintain at least a B average, attend weekly meetings, perform 50 hours of community service annually and pledge not to get involved with alcohol and drugs or engage in sexual or gang activity.

They must also pass a random drug test given at least once a year. No one has failed a test, Yanov said.

"They have too much to lose," Yanov said. "This is a social network that reaches across 40 different high schools throughout San Diego County. They have real good reasons to succeed and they don't want to be missing out on everything they have here."

The program is free for 130 students enrolled at the City Heights location and another 35 at the Solana Beach site.

Reality Changers recently started a weekend program for 35 seniors who were on the 150-student waiting list and charged them a small fee for help with their college and financial aid applications. Reality Changers plans to launch a new fundraising campaign using social media.

Since 2001, the nonprofit has helped its graduates obtain more than $10 million in scholarships. All students who have completed the program have graduated high school and nearly all have attended college.

Seniors focus their last year on applying for colleges, scholarships and other financial aid and receive help from knowledgeable volunteers. Nearly 80 are applying this year to private and public universities, nearly twice as many as last year.

Eighth to 11th graders focus on their studies and get help from college students, retired teachers and other tutors. They prepare for college-entrance exams, practice writing and note taking and hear guest speakers.

One of the reasons the program works is its accessibility. On many nights the City Heights location at the corner of 39th Street and University Avenue is the safest and most productive place for young people.

One-third of the students who attend the program live within a block of where at least one homicide has occurred since 2003, according to Reality Changers.

One recent night, about 40 seniors filled two computer labs and worked on applications for University of California schools. They were aided by college counselors and students.

Yaritza Hernandez, a Serra High School senior with a 3.8 grade point average, was writing an essay about what it's like growing up in a single-parent household as part of her UC application.

Yaritza's mother works as a housekeeper. Yaritza, 18, wants to run for Congress someday.

Across the hall, in a large room fitted with couches about 40 eighth through 11th grade students studied words they might see on the SAT, the college-entrance exam, and wrote essays about their commitment to community service. A few parents brought hot meals to share with the large group of students who had full use of the building's third floor.

Downstairs, a guard watched the lobby.

At the end of the night, Yanov and other Reality Changers staff members led students out of the building safely into their parents' cars.

"They don't let us go out until they see our parents," Yaritza said. "Everybody loves coming here. We've all become really close."

Leonel.sanchez@sandiegored.com

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