Wheels of fortune change reality for thousands of students
by SANDY LIPPE
Published - 06/19/16 - 06:46 AM | 6313 views | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Johnny Salas
Johnny Salas
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Turn back the clock 15 years and ask yourself what was your greatest accomplishment? Maybe you got married, had a baby, or ran a marathon.

When Christopher Yanov turns back the clock to 2001, he has to say that he made it possible for disenfranchised kids to go to college and change their lives … lots of kids. Yanov, the president of Reality Changers, was born in L.A., but his folks moved to Ventura County when he was 10.

In high school, strawberry fields surrounded his campus. With 60 percent of the student body Latino and many of their parents picking the strawberries, a summer treat, Yanov realized that the more Spanish he was able to speak, the more friends he would have. He also was absorbing a social justice message as his friends' parents did the back-breaking work.

Yanov graduated in 2 and a 1/2 years from UCSD with that Spanish major and political science minor.  His days were filled with classes, volunteering, and studying, including courses in the summers. He continued working with kids headed on the wrong path.

A book he read by choice, not a college assignment, “The American Street Gang:  Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control,” by Malcolm W. Klein, turned Yanov's thinking upside down. "Everything I was doing was wrong. Lecturing about not joining gangs and not doing drugs only had the kids hearing the opposite. It was like hyping negative behaviors, providing social cohesion of gangs.

“Instead I needed to ask this question: ‘How many of you want to be the first person in your family to graduate from college?’ The wrong lectures were being given against joining gangs ... well-intentioned advice was counterproductive. I needed to get them away from drugs, gangs, violence, vandalism, teen pregnancy, and even death.

"In May 2001, as a substitute teacher 15 years ago, I started Reality Changers with $300 and four eighth-grade students. That same year I won a lot of money on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and went to get two masters’ degrees in peace and justice and international relations at USD."

The first four kids in the program were bused into the former Ray Kroc Middle School and matriculated to Madison High in Clairemont. These kids had abilities, but what was lacking was a support structure. In their neighborhoods gangs were buzzing around like killer bees. Many of these students would drop out in 10th or 11th grades unless a support system could cradle them.

One secret to success is that Reality Changer students who earn a 3.5 GPA in eighth grade can go to UCSD's Academic Connections College Town in the summer, live on campus for three weeks, and get college credit. There are 400 spots and Reality Changers fill 100 of those spots. In senior year of high school, these same students automatically can take a year-long course in Reality Changers called College Apps Academy. "We are in 10 schools," Yanov says, including University City High. We would love to be in La Jolla High School. A satellite is in Solana Beach."

UC High offers students who can pay for the College Apps Academy the same program for $1,400 a year. Only 20 students are in the classroom. Applying to college is a lonely process, Yanov points out. "These students get terrific help and are part of a community of success with strong bonding in the social circle."

Targeting eighth-grade students with 2.0 to 0.0 GPAs and surrounding them with a support system keeps them focused on college dreams instead of living the drug and gang nightmare. Today Reality Changers serves 1,000 youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are 1,300 graduates, including 29 Gates Millennium scholars.

"We untangle the complicated lives of students so that students can be more enthusiastic about learning in the classrooms," he said. 

San Diego Board of Education member John Lee Evans has nothing but praise for Yanov: "Reality Changers is a phenomenal organization. Chris Yanov and his team have worked with students who do not start with a belief that they have a great future.

“Reality Changers works with them through high school until they are accepted into college.  Many of them attend prestigious universities. Even more important than their acceptance into college is the fact that they graduate as mature, thoughtful citizens who believe in themselves."

Johnny Salas, a UCHS senior, has known about Reality Changers since he was 9 when his older brother Abel joined the group. His brother graduated from USC and works as an engineer at the Department of Defense in Point Loma. The younger Salas brother has a million-dollar smile and rattles off his history  with Chris and Reality Changers.  He is so full of praise for the program that you want to bottle up his enthusiasm and sell it.

Salas is heading to UCSD in September with a fistful of scholarships totaling $13,000. He plans to be an aerospace engineer or get into criminal justice. Hopefully, he will make the Triton baseball team as a walk on.

"I attribute my success to Reality Changers," Salas said.

The summer after his freshman year he had a 4.0. It slipped down to a 3.6 because of a flare up of a heart condition diagnosed at age 9.  His junior year he hit academic home-runs: (A's) in A.P. Spanish, A.P physics, A.P. psychology, A.P U.S. history and A.P. English, as well as college calculus at Mesa college. He is graduating with a 4.36 GPA.

Because he had the highest GPA and perfect attendances at his Wednesday night classes at Reality Changers, he got to go to University of Hawaii the summer after his sophomore year for a College Town program led by UCSD and funded by Reality Changers. 

When asked if Yanov is for real, Salas's eyes light up.  "Honestly, he's for real."

Yanov's short-term goal is to be in 30 schools. Right now they are in 10. Students who come to the City Heights headquarters at 3910 University represent 50 different high schools.

For those people who like a good investment and return on the dollar, as well as a sense of social justice, Yanov invites them to consider donating to Reality Changers. Nationally, 56 percent of all freshmen graduate from college in six years of less. Reality Changers college students graduate 86 percent.

"Our kids are used to challenges and know what to expect. A donation of $25,000 will pay for 20 kids in our program at school and we pledge that they will produce $1 million in scholarships. Last year, every 20 12th graders produced $1.7 million in scholarships. The 70-times return on investment ... great for donors." Starting next year, high schools can get training for teachers at around $3,000 a year."

Yanove is modest and motivated. Salas is the poster child for Reality Changers. In this dark world of disorder, two bright lights are visible, Chris and Johnny, lighting the way.  Imagine how San Diego students and Reality Changers will look in the next 15 years with your help. Visit www.RealityChangers.org for more information.

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