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The Moment the Founder of Reality Changers Knew He Was Onto Something

In an excerpt from “Grit and Hope,” a new book that chronicles five students’ push to become the first in their families to go to college and the San Diego program helping them get there, Reality Changers founder Christopher Yanov realizes he might have a success on his hands.

The following is an excerpt from “Grit and Hope,” by Barbara Davenport, which will be available in stores and on Amazon June 10. The book tells the story of five Latino students who start their college applications in the midst of the country’s worst recession and of Reality Changers, the program that aims to help them become the first in their families to go college.

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On a winter night in 2002, Christopher Yanov sat with a handful of eighth graders and college-student tutors in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The one-story cinderblock building in Golden Hill, near San Diego’s downtown, looked more like a fortress than a church. Iron grillwork covered the windows; the door was a slab of hardened steel.

Yanov and the tutors and students sat on folding chairs around two tables in a room facing the street. The kids settled into their homework, and the room was quiet, punctuated with occasional murmured consultations.

Reality Changers was eight months old, with a census of twelve, six boys and six girls he’d recruited at Ray A. Kroc Middle School, where he was a substitute teacher. Students were expected to come every week, but attendance was spotty. Tonight just six kids showed up. He didn’t know whether Reality Changers was going to fly.

Grit and HopeA rock clattered against the bars. Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed on the bars, and rattled the glass. Salvo after salvo of pebbles followed, clanging against steel and glass.

Then the shouts.

“Kiss-ass schoolboys! Little pussies!

“How come we’re out here and not in there!”

“Hey, Chris! You forgotten your friends?”

A brown face pushed between the bars and pressed against the glass. “Chris! You only talking to the smart kids now?”

The tutors looked at Yanov, eyes wide. They were freshmen from UC San Diego, worlds away from the Iglesia; they hadn’t bargained for this. The kids shot sidelong looks at each other and tried to look cool. Perla Garcia knew the guys outside; she wished they’d just go home. Jorge Narvaez pretended to read, and hoped they’d be gone by the time he had to walk to the bus stop.

Just ignore it and keep on working, Yanov told them. They’ll get bored and quit.

“Losers! Wait’ll you get out here. We’ll fix your asses!”

The rocks kept clattering. The shouts got louder. Kids stopped even pretending to study.

Yanov rolled his eyes and exhaled with exasperation. He stood up and walked out the front door in his shirtsleeves. The night was cold; in the light from the street lamp he could see his breath. He stood a shade under six feet, shoulders squared, chin high, dark hair and beard cropped close.

A dozen eighth and ninth graders stood under the street lamp. All of them lived in the neighborhood and most went to Kroc. Their heads were shaved and they wore the cholo uniform of baggy jeans and oversize black nylon jackets. He’d invited every one of them to join Reality Changers.

They’d have to bring their grades up to a 3.0. Come to meetings every week for academic help and lessons on values and life skills. Instead of a gang, be part of a group where everyone was aiming for college, and kids helped each other. He guaranteed that if they stayed with the program through high school, they’d get into college, and they’d have the scholarships they needed.

He’d worked especially hard on Jonny Villafuerte. Jonny lived across the street from Yanov, a few blocks east of the Iglesia. He was a sweet, soft-looking boy with a shy smile and lush, dark hair that fell over his forehead. His notebooks overflowed with drawings of cars and characters from video games and words in bulging, kinetic letters. Yanov knew Jonny from subbing in his honors algebra class, but lately he’d seen him in the courtyard at Kroc, where the guys from Lomas26 hung out by the coral tree. The Lomas26 gang ran the streets in Golden Hill, and they were leaning on Jonny to join. Last fall he’d shaved his head and started to dress like them. Yanov knew that if he didn’t get to Jonny soon, Lomas26 would.

Now here was Jonny, throwing rocks. “Hey Chris, no fair,” he yelled. “You didn’t let us in!”

“You guys know you’re invited,” he said. “You just got to get your grades up.”

“Aw-w, man.”

“Kids inside did.”

“We know you better. You’re our guy. You should just let us in.”

“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you. Tonight’s not a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘not yet.’ See you around.” He waved and walked back into the church.

Rocks rang the bars like chimes. The kids and tutors were rattled. Not much homework got done that night, and the tutors chalked up the meeting as a loss.

Yanov couldn’t stop grinning. Those guys wanted in. He knew he had something.

Barbara Davenport practiced as a child and adolescent psychotherapist for many years. “Grit and Hope” is her second book. She will be speaking and signing books on Saturday, June 11, 2-4 p.m. at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest.

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