Four years ago, Jonathan Villafuerte and his best friend were leading a life of vandalism and violence. Today, he¹s investing his time in a Christian college while his friend is doing time for first-degree murder.
The difference between these two inner city youths is one chose to accept the realities of his surroundings while the other chose to join a group of ³Reality Changers.²
The Christ-centered nonprofit gives high school students from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to change their circumstances and go to a four-year-university through exposure to college and Christian life.
With weekly tutoring sessions, college-entrance exam workshops and Bible studies, the program has helped more than 25 San Diego County students get into colleges — including Harvard and Dartmouth — armed with new Bibles, new computers and new attitudes in the last six years.
³You learn a lot of responsibility, maturity and you learn a lot of social skills and manners,² said Villafuerte, 20, who now serves as site director in Solana Beach for Reality Changers. ³Before R.C., I was just an inner-city student. You really grow and learn a lot. R.C. introduced me to God and that¹s the main thing.²
Villafuerte, who used to sleep on the floor in his family¹s apartment, graduated in 2005. Today, he lives at Point Loma Nazarene University where he¹s a full-time psychology student on a $131,000 scholarship. He¹s in the school¹s gospel choir, leads a Bible study and is active in clubs.
He also works at a bagel shop as a shift manager to help support his parents, as well as being responsible for 15 Reality Changers students, lesson plans and administrative tasks weekly.
Villafuerte said Christopher Yanov, the program¹s executive director, approached him about Reality Changers when he was his substitute teacher in the 8th grade. However, Yanov wouldn¹t let him in until he left his graffiti crew two years later.
³I can¹t really name a teacher that made a difference in my life except Chris and he¹s a sub,² Villafuerte said. ³I never even knew my counselor¹s name. I just knew my principal, and that wasn¹t a good thing.²
The program, which started with a $400 budget, has an annual operating budget of $350,000. The money goes to programming, supplying students with Bibles and laptop computers, and sending them to a $3,000 college summer program and a $400 retreat at Forrest Home every summer.
At the Christian camp, located in the San Bernardino Mountain, students get to escape from a world of violence, drugs and graffiti and relax with God in safety and peace for a week. For some, it will be the first time they have ever left their neighborhoods or slept in a bed, Yanov said.
Reality Changers is supported by prayer partners, foundations, individual donations, churches and volunteer tutors.
Yanov said the one-on-one tutoring program is essential, because most inner-city children can¹t get help with their studies at home because their parents are either uneducated themselves, speak another language or have to work more than one job to survive.
Michael Carter, 17, said when he is at home, his father is at work. And even though his mother is learning English, she said her math skills are limited to the three years she spent in a part-time elementary school.
³Where I grew up in Mexico they didn¹t have schools,² said Anita Carter of Encinitas. ³It was just one room for everyone.²
Michael, who is now tutoring younger students as part of the program¹s required community service, says his grade-point-average increased from a 2.5 to a 3.5 after joining Reality Changers and he was recently accepted to Saint Mary¹s College and CSU San Marcos.
Yanov said some students have brought their grades up by three grade points. Program participants must maintain a B average. Students who maintain a 3.5 or B+ grade-point-average get to be college students for three weeks through UC San Diego¹s Academic Connections program.
Students live in campus dorms while they take college courses for credit. The program shows students — and their parents — that they are capable of surviving college and gives them something to work towards, Villafuerte said.
³I was so happy because I knew what was in store for me,² he said. ³It was the first time I had a room of my own and I said, ŒThis is the life I want.¹²
Adrienne A. Aguirre of Vista is a freelance writer.