On a winter night in 2002, Christopher Yanov, the founder and sole staff member of Reality Changers, sat with a handful of eighth graders and their college-student tutors in a meeting room in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The one-story stucco-and-cinderblock building that squats on the corner of 28th and B Street in Golden Hill looks more like an urban fort than a church. Steel bars cover its windows, hardened locks secure the wide front doors. Inside, Yanov and the tutors worked with students on their homework at folding tables, the quiet in the room punctuated by occasional murmured consultations.
Reality Changers, Yanov’s eighth-month-old program to help local youth stay out of gangs and aim for college, had an official census of 12. Attendance was normally spotty. Tonight he had 6. He didn’t know whether it was going to fly.
A rock clattered against the bars and rattled the window glass. Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed hard on the bars; if it had hit the pane directly, it would have shattered it. Salvo after salvo of pebbles clanged against steel and glass.
“How come we’re out here and not in there?”
“Hey, Chris! You forgotten your friends?”
A 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 hadn’t bargained for this. The kids shot sidelong looks at each other and tried to look cool.
Yanov walked outside and greeted the guys, eighth and ninth graders from the neighborhood. He taught these kids at Kroc Middle School and played basketball with them at the park on weekends. Edgar and Luis were there, and the others were guys from their crew. They wore baggy pants and oversize black jackets, and their heads were shaved. Last spring, when he’d started Reality Changers, he’d invited most of them, Edgar and Luis especially, to join. They’d all turned him down.
“Hey, Chris, no fair, you didn’t let us in!”
“You guys know you’re invited,” he said. “You just got to get your grades up.”
“Kids inside did.”
“You’re our man. You should just let us in.”
“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you. See you around.” Yanov waved goodbye and walked back into the church.
The rest of the session, the guys outside threw rocks and pushed their faces against the windows. The kids inside couldn’t concentrate, and the tutors were rattled. No more work got done that night. The kids left, and the tutors chalked up the night as a loss.
Yanov couldn’t stop grinning.
Those guys wanted in. He knew he had something.
At 23, two years out of UCSD, with no connections, no background in education, and no funding, Christopher Yanov started a program for kids who had no hope of college to prepare them to go. Seven years later, 55 Reality Changers graduates now attend college, every one of them the first in their families to do so. Another 100 high school students are currently part of the program. This is the story of Yanov’s lurching startup, and of Jorge Narvaez, who was in the room at the Iglesia that night, and of Edgar Castillo, who was throwing rocks, and the difference Yanov made for both of them.
In the fall of 2000, Yanov started work as a substitute teacher at Ray A. Kroc Middle School in Clairemont Mesa, where the student body spoke 12 languages and gangs were a constant presence in the courtyard. The week he was assigned to cover math classes, he watched the kids file into the low-ceilinged classroom and settle into their desks. First, the good girls who sat down and opened their binders, sure to have their homework done. Then, shuffling into the room just ahead of the bell, laughing, cursing, thumping each other on the arm, the gangbangers, the tough kids with shaved heads who hung out at the coral tree in the courtyard. They stuck their feet out in the aisle, folded their arms, and narrowed their eyes to slits. Jorge slouched in his seat and stared past Yanov. Edgar drew in his notebook.
Edgar hung out at the coral tree now. He’d shaved his head, and every day he looked more like the hard guys. Jorge went his own way. He got in fights, and he ditched school to spend days with his girlfriend. Both looked ripe to join a gang and start the familiar trajectory: tags, petty theft, gang fights, drugs. Quit school at 15 or 16. Father a child. Get arrested and sent to prison. All before 21.
Yanov knew Edgar and Jorge from other classes. Smart guys, both of them. He’d talked with each enough to know they wanted something better. All they had was their desire. Desire is potent fuel, but fuel alone isn’t enough. Kids need a launch platform, a flight plan, and a lot of support crew. Without these, their fuel goes flat. Or it explodes.
Middle-class kids are surrounded by support crew, a phalanx of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, tutors, test coaches, and college advisors who assume that they’re headed for college and whose job it is to help the kids get there. This crew helps them step up to the demands of high school, stay with it when expectations ratchet up, and imagine what they can do with their lives. Middle-class kids live in a culture of peers who are doing the same and of parents and other adults who see college as a given. Surrounded by these assumptions, they are carried upward on a powerful escalator.
The way up looks different if your undocumented mother works cleaning houses and your stepfather cooks at a Mexican restaurant, and nobody around you has ever gone to college, and you’ve never even stepped onto a campus. You don’t have pictures in your head of the world you want to reach, no talismans to guide you toward that hazy ideal called college. Your parents struggled to get to the U.S., maybe came without papers, because it was so important to get here, because here their kids had a shot at a decent education, and they knew education was the key to making a better life. They want it for you, talk to you about it all the time, but making it happen, that’s up to you. You don’t know where to start, and there’s no one around who can tell you what you need to do. You might not even know that you’d be allowed to go to college.
Edgar had never seen a sub like Chris Yanov before. Tough-looking dude, wide shoulders, dark hair buzz-cut, a thin line of beard tracing his square jaw. Wore a suit and tie every day. Yanov spoke Spanish like a native; it sounded weird, Mexican slang coming out of his gringo mouth. At lunch he didn’t hide out in the teachers’ lounge. He’d scarf down his food, then go to the in-school detention room and talk with kids there about making something of themselves.
Yanov lived in Golden Hill, across the street from Edgar, and he played basketball with him and his friends in Golden Hill Park. Edgar had watched Yanov talking to the older guys about staying out of gangs. Sometimes at Kroc, Yanov would walk over to the coral tree and say hello to Edgar, ask him how he was doing. It felt good that Yanov talked to him, but when he came over to the tree, Edgar squirmed. He was trying to fit in with these guys, and the gringo seeking him out didn’t help.
Jorge had met Yanov the year before. “This annoying white guy came up to me and said he’d heard that I was going to meet another guy off campus to fight. He asked me to promise I wouldn’t do it. That was hard.”
Yanov’s instructions from the math teacher that week were to show the film Stand and Deliver. All week, Yanov and his classes watched Jaime Escalante set the bar high, challenge his students. That week Chris Yanov’s vision began, the vision that collided with Jorge Narvaez’s desperation and Edgar Castillo’s indifference and changed all their lives.
Edgar knew how things worked at Kroc. “If you were a guy, you had two choices: you were hard, or you were a nerd.” Edgar was a nerd, a soft-looking boy with a round face and shy smile and lush, dark hair that fell over his forehead. His notebooks overflowed with drawings of cars and characters from video games and kids’ names in bulging, kinetic letters.
Las Lomas, the gang in Golden Hill, was making it harder for Edgar to stay a nerd. They left the grade school kids alone, but in middle school, guys Edgar had known since First Communion were leaning hard on him to join. If you didn’t belong, you could get beat up just walking to the taco shop. Last summer, he’d watched a bunch of Las Lomas guys bust a kid’s head with baseball bats, the blood pouring out. He didn’t want any part of that. He hung out with the hard guys and started dressing like them; he hoped that would be enough. He got his crew cut buzzed down to an eighth-inch of black bristle, wore plaids and baggy denims, the hems scuffing the sidewalk. He ditched the backpack his mother had bought him and carried only a binder. Backpacks were for nerds and white boys.
Jorge is short and wiry, with a slender face, close-cropped wavy hair and eloquent hands. Even sitting, he bristles with energy. In the small apartment on Tenth Street near Fairmont, where he lived with his mother and brother and stepfather, the TV was always on, people were always shouting, and no one had any space of their own. For a couple of months, they didn’t even have their own place and moved from one relative’s apartment to another, sleeping on couches. His mother and his stepfather fought a lot, and Jorge fought with his younger brother. His mother wanted him to do well in school, but she couldn’t read English and couldn’t help him.
Jorge remembered his father, a handsome man with a sweet smile who played the guitar and sang to him. His father also drank a lot and smoked crack, and Jorge remembered the awful times when his father was high and he beat Jorge’s mother with his fists. When Jorge was seven, his mom packed three plaid plastic satchels after his father left for work, and she and Eric and Jorge rode the bus to Guadalajara. They lived there until Jorge was ten. Then his mother met Gustavo, and they came back to the States. Gustavo had a green card, and Jorge’s brother Eric was born in the U.S., but his mother had no papers, and neither did Jorge.
Back in the U.S., everything was larger, the streets were wider and clean, the buildings higher. Jorge felt he had more room to breathe, and at first, he had hope for himself. Here, he wouldn’t have to work landscaping or in fast food; he could go to school and find a good job. School would help him, he knew, but he didn’t quite see how. He watched his mother come home so tired she couldn’t move off the couch. She and Gustavo worked hard, and still there was never enough money, and always they fought. By eighth grade, Jorge felt his hopes curdling, the life he wanted receding out of his reach.
When he was in high school in Oxnard, Chris Yanov had had Mexican friends, kids as smart as he was, as capable of going to college. He watched their ambitions wither because doing well wasn’t cool with their crew; their hopes derail because their parents couldn’t write the check for the college-application fee. At UCSD he studied political science and looked for a way to help kids like the guys from high school. Golden Hill, 12 miles and a world away from the leafy campus, was where he found it.
From the east side of downtown, Golden Hill climbs 200 feet to a mesa with a view from the harbor to Mexico. In 1880, wealthy San Diegans built homes there for the harbor view and the breezes. When Yanov arrived in 1996, Golden Hill was divided. West of 25th Street, those old Victorian mansions and Craftsman bungalows, now meticulously restored, with well-kept yards, had become a neighborhood of prosperous singles and young families and retired couples. East of 25th, houses from the same era, their porches sagging and their paint blistered and peeling, were divided into single rooms, rented to crackheads and laborers and the occasional artist. Apartment buildings sheltered families lately arrived from Mexico, two or three households together, sometimes more than 20 people crowded into a cousin’s or an uncle’s place.
West of 25th, immaculate BMWs and Mercedes parked on the broad avenues. To the east, aging Toyotas with oxidized finishes shared the streets with plumbers’ vans and pickups with crumpled fenders and plates from Baja and Mahopacán. On the side streets east of 25th, a taco shop, a nail salon, a by-the-slice pizzeria, two small groceries, a fruit stand, a liquor store, a 99-cent store, a barber shop, and a video store served the neighborhood’s most immediate needs. A union hall, a nursing home, and a heating and air-conditioning business have been there for decades. The Las Lomas gang controlled the streets.
The Sunday Yanov walked into the bare sanctuary at Iglesia Presbiteriana he found his place. The church was new, maybe 30 families, lots with teenagers, and a struggling youth group. Pastor Tom Simpson was glad for his new parishioner who wanted to work with the kids. Yanov moved into an apartment at 29th and A Street and started a one-man mano a mano antigang effort. He hung around the taco shop and played pickup basketball at the courts in the park. He got to know the guys with shaved heads, and he invited them to the church youth group. They came and behaved a little better than they did on the street. But they kept on fighting and using. They still quit school. They got arrested. Some fled to Mexico. Too many of them ended up in prison. Yanov’s church work wasn’t getting anywhere.
He charged through UCSD, graduated in two and a half years, with a plan to go to law school. So many of the guys he worked with got chewed up in the courts and the prisons; with a law degree he could make a difference. He started law school at Cal Western.
Yanov hadn’t reckoned on the avalanche of reading and writing that buries first-year law students. Four hundred pages some weeks. He kept losing ground. At the end of the first semester, he’d failed one course, and his average was 68. The dean of students told him he’d need to bring it to 74 by the end of the year. Spring semester he nearly lived in the library; between February and May he bought only one tank of gas. At the end of the term, the dean called him in for a chat. He hadn’t made a 74. He’d need to find something else to do with his life.
Yanov had never failed at anything. He needed to figure out Plan B. He signed up with San Diego Unified as a substitute teacher, and when he told the kids he played basketball with in Golden Hill that he’d be subbing, they said, “Come sub at our school.” They went to Kroc.
At Kroc, Yanov wore a suit and tie every day; the kids needed to see he took his work seriously. He talked to kids about staying clean of drugs and going to college, but nothing he said changed the realities of their lives. On the HBO series The Wire, Duquan, a young black man isolated in his neighborhood, asked, “How do we get from here to the rest of the world?” That fit the kids Yanov worked with. They knew there was a rest of the world but had no idea how to get there. An eighth-grade girl he’d talked to about college asked, “Am I allowed to go?”
The week he subbed for math, he sat after school in the quiet teachers’ lounge. He thought about Jorge and Edgar and all the other kids he taught. They didn’t need more talk. They needed a bridge to the rest of the world and a shot at changing the realities of their lives. He smoothed a napkin from some teacher’s takeout and wrote “Reality Changers.” He liked the sound of it. “Agentes de Cambio.” Even better in Spanish. He folded the napkin and tucked it into his wallet.
He laid out his plan to Pastor Simpson. It was simple, and wildly ambitious. Start with eighth graders. They couldn’t just walk in to Reality Changers; he’d invite the ones he wanted. The kids he wanted weren’t necessarily the smartest ones. He wanted the strong personalities, the ones with staying power.
They’d need it. They’d have to keep a 3.0 average to stay in. Commit to no drugs and no sex. Drug testing, unannounced. Do volunteer work. Come every week to the program meeting. Work on English vocabulary and writing, have dinner together, maybe speakers. He’d have one-on-one tutors, college students, close enough in age that kids could see themselves and their futures in their tutors.
He needed a serious carrot. Like Academic Connections, UCSD’s three-week summer program for high school students. Get these kids onto campus. Live in the dorms, take a college course — taste college. The biggest carrot: Keep a 3.0 all through high school, and they could get into college. Get in, and he’d guarantee them scholarships. He didn’t know how, but he had four years to figure that out.
All he had was the space at the church.
In the next months, he talked to Edgar and Jorge and about ten other guys. Jorge remembers Yanov’s invitation, delivered to him after school:
“You do drugs?”
“You had sex?”
“I’m starting a program for guys who want to go to college. You interested?”
Yanov started Reality Changers with Jorge and three others. Edgar had said he’d think about it. Yanov never heard back from him.
Jorge couldn’t wait to get to the Reality Changers meetings. “It was survival, that simple.”
A 3.0 felt like a staggering goal when he started; by the end of ninth grade at James Madison, he’d kept the 3.0, joined the biology club, run track, and had a girlfriend.
The next summer he went to Academic Connections. He walked into his dorm room at UCSD and looked around. Bed. Desk. Chair. Shelves. Closet. Window. All his. Nobody else in the room. First time in his life he’d had a room of his own. He shut the door and sat on the bed and looked around at everything. All his.
He studied marine ecosystems. For three weeks, he spent his days on the beach with the professor, gathering invertebrates and learning how to classify them. “You’re not gonna let this go,” he told himself.
Yanov was the father he hadn’t had, Yanov’s belief in him the strong scaffolding on which he could build his dreams. We are sitting at the breakfast table in Jorge’s apartment. His hands are on the tabletop as he talks, fingers close together, then spread a bit, then a bit more. “After I started Reality Changers there was a little, and a little more, and then an explosion.” His hands open wide and hold the air.
Edgar remembers the night he and his friend Luis decided to start their crew. The Las Lomas guys never stopped leaning on him, at the bus stop, at school, at the barber shop. He and Luis knew they’d have to do something. They talked on the phone that night, Edgar in the small bedroom he shared with his brothers, Luis at his apartment a block away.
Instead of joining, they’d start their own crew. Just guys they knew, like familia, who’d have each others’ backs. They knew the three other guys they’d start with. They’d do strictly tagging, no fights. Edgar felt great. They weren’t little kids anymore, and with the crew they could take care of themselves.
They boosted cans of spray paint from the 99-cent store, and in the alley next to Luis’s apartment they’d drink a little beer and plan their tags. They were becoming somebody.
A year later, the crew had grown to 20 guys, with tags from El Cajon to Chula Vista. They’d done some sides of buildings down on Euclid Avenue. People knew who they were.
Edgar knew guys in Reality Changers. He heard about their meetings, about the tutors and the way people treated each other with respect. He thought about Reality Changers every time his mother cried about his coming in late, which was pretty often now. She’d sit on the couch, crying, and tell him how worried she was for his future. His father yelled, and sometimes he’d get so mad he’d lock Edgar out of the house. The lockouts Edgar shrugged off. His mother crying, that stayed with him.
He’d also started to worry about his future. At crew meetings, guys drank a lot of beer now, and sometimes tequila. Nothing else at meetings, but Edgar knew who was smoking weed, who was doing coke and crystal. Some guys wanted to do more than tagging. Edgar couldn’t risk getting arrested. He’d been born in Tijuana while his parents saved money to pay the coyote to take them across. His father had become a permanent resident, but Edgar and his mother were still undocumented, always at risk for deportation.
His freshman year, while he and Luis were building the crew, Edgar also started working harder at school, even going to an after-school tutoring program. He brought his GPA up to 3.0. Just in case.
The next summer, his friend Julio said he was thinking about joining Reality Changers. Edgar and Julio lived on the same block, and if they both joined they could walk over to the Iglesia together. That was important, because when the crew heard they’d joined, they’d face some serious hassle.
On a Tuesday night in September, they walked to the Iglesia. Yanov met them at the door and shook their hands. Fifteen guys were sitting around the table. Every one of them stood up and shook their hands. Edgar wasn’t used to that kind of welcome.
The next summer, he went to Academic Connections and studied robotics. Those three weeks at UCSD sealed the deal. If this was what college was like, he was going. In the next three years, Edgar never missed a Reality Changers meeting. At Madison he signed up for AP classes.
He stayed in the crew, and he stayed friends with the guys. He needed them, couldn’t imagine his life without them. He still dressed in hoodies and baggy jeans, still came to meetings. He helped design the tags and worked on all of the big ones, sometimes all night. Since he’d joined Reality Changers, he didn’t use any drugs. Guys would offer him stuff, and he’d just say no, thanks. Everyone acted cool, but he could feel the space opening up between them, especially between him and Luis. They didn’t have much to say anymore. He felt it at school, when he’d walk out of his AP class and catch up with his friends walking out of ESL classes.
Jorge’s family moved to Clairemont. The apartment was larger and cleaner, and in a garage behind the apartment he made a place that was his. He moved an old table and a lamp to the garage so he could study. Then he moved his mattress out there. When he and his girlfriend Nancy needed a place, he brought her there.
In the spring of their junior year, Nancy told him she was pregnant.
“I’d continued the chain,” he said. His grandfather had fathered his first child very young, and Jorge was born when his parents were in their teens. He’d always figured he’d be the man to break the chain, do his life differently. Now this.
It got worse. Yanov said he’d violated his Reality Changers pledge. He’d have to resign.
At the next meeting, Jorge stood up and faced the U of sagging couches where the rest of the kids sat. He needed to tell them something. Tears stung his cheeks. It was several minutes before he could speak.
Yanov stood a few feet away, fists shoved into his pockets. Jorge had to do this himself.
He was resigning, Jorge told them. He’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant.
The room went quiet. Yanov really meant it about the rules.
Jorge was terrified. Without Reality Changers, he’d be lost, his plans derailed. Still, Yanov had said that he would spend three hours a week with him. Jorge would hold on to that connection. He’d keep his grades up. Maybe he could still go to college.
Nancy was the youngest of seven girls. All those sisters bore down on Jorge. Forget college, they told him. He was going to be a father. He needed to get a job. Jorge went to Academic Connections, and for the rest of the summer he shoved wheelbarrows full of cinder blocks on a construction site.
Yanov hated sending Jorge away. He’d had to make the point with the rest of the kids. Jorge had come so far; Yanov couldn’t let him founder. Most weeks he stuck to his pledge and spent the time with Jorge.
Jorge’s essay for his UC application was due November 30, and by the week of Thanksgiving, he still hadn’t written it. Yanov drove to Oxnard on Thanksgiving to be with his family. On Friday, he drove back to San Diego, stopped at Jorge’s place, and picked him up. Yanov and Jorge spent the next day and a half at Yanov’s apartment. Yanov coached, and Jorge ground out his essay. Yanov edited, Jorge revised, over and over. Both remember the ordeal: 3 hours out for sleeping, 30 hours banging on the essay.
UC applications cost $50 per school, and he applied to six. Yanov told him not to worry about the fees.
State universities don’t give financial aid to undocumented students. Jorge would have to get a green card. His father had registered him in 1987, when he was less than a year old, in the amnesty for undocumented immigrants. That gave him a social security number and a leg up on his application for permanent-resident status. The I.C.E. assessed an additional penalty of $1000 because he’d been here illegally. Yanov wrote a check for the penalty.
Alexa Narvaez was born in December of Jorge’s senior year, beautiful and healthy. Nancy’s sisters ratcheted up the pressure. Jorge had a child now. He should marry Nancy, quit high school, and go to work full time. He said no. Monday through Friday, he and Nancy got up at 4:00 a.m. and made 30 tortas to sell at school. By second period, they’d have $60, enough for diapers and ingredients for the next day’s batch.
Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD offered Jorge admission. In May, his permanent-resident status came through. That September, Jorge and Nancy and Alexis moved into an apartment in UCSD’s married students’ housing.
Edgar wanted to go to Point Loma Nazarene University. He liked the school’s rolling lawns and ocean view and its strong Christian culture. The school admitted him, no questions asked about his status. They offered him some scholarship money, but it wasn’t enough. He’d figured he’d go to SDSU and live at home. Two weeks before he was to start, an anonymous donor approached Yanov with an offer to cover Edgar’s tuition and room and board. The same week that Jorge moved his family into UCSD housing, Edgar drove across town and settled into his dorm room at Point Loma Nazarene.
Jorge and Edgar will be college seniors this fall. They’re living out their dreams. It’s been harder than they ever imagined.
Edgar was shocked at how poorly prepared he was for college coursework, the amount of reading, and how much he was expected to write. His AP courses at Madison had given him no real sense of what he’d need to do. Every time he started a new semester, he questioned whether he belonged in college. His mother is proud; his father’s not sure it’s worth it. He’d rather see his son with a full-time job.
Edgar is majoring in psychology, and he wants to be a high school guidance counselor, to help kids like himself. His longtime girlfriend is a citizen, and they talk about marrying so that he can be legal. He’s not ready to marry, but he’ll have to get legal to work.
His freshman year, Jorge remembers, “I didn’t know how to manage my time or emotionally control myself; I was talking to everybody.” He found the Cross Cultural Center, and there weren’t enough hours in the day for all the projects he wanted to be part of, all the demonstrations he wanted to attend, the conversations he wanted to have. His classwork suffered. For his first two years, every quarter he ended up on academic probation.
By the end of his junior year, the strain was telling. His first two years, Jorge had cluster migraines, fierce, pounding headaches caused by stress. He always had too many projects going. He’d always worked part time, Nancy worked full time, and still they were chronically short on money. Their apartment was bare, their furniture worn. Their car was old and falling apart, and their credit-card debt kept piling up. They’d learned that Nancy was pregnant again, due in October.
“Thin ice,” Jorge said last spring. “I feel like I’m on thin ice all the time.”
This past summer he worked two jobs, restaurant work and catering, sometimes 80 hours a week, so that Nancy could stay home with Alexia and take it easier in her last trimester. He paid down the biggest bills and bought a plasma TV. He’s calmer this fall, more focused on his classes, surer in his commitment to Nancy and his daughters. He feels so much older than his peers.
Nancy’s sisters have changed their mind about Jorge. They see how hard he works and how involved he’s been in caring for Alexia. They’ve come to respect his commitment to his education.
Jorge and Nancy have never married, and now with the two girls, Nancy feels more strongly than ever that Jorge should marry her. Jorge loves her and Alexa and the new baby Elania, and he wants them to be a family and to support them all. He just doesn’t want to get married.
Getting married feels like closing off his dreams: he still wants to write songs and play his music. Maybe go back to study marine ecosystems. Get into politics. He doesn’t know that he’ll do these things. But having possibilities is so new to him he can’t bear to close anything off.
Yanov built Reality Changers on his own time, while he worked as a substitute teacher. In 2004, he told the San Diego Presbytery, which had supported the program, that he needed to be a full-time director. Now he draws a salary and oversees two sites that serve 100 students from Oceanside to Tijuana. Fifty-five graduates of Reality Changers attend college. They go to UCLA and Berkeley and UCSD, to UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Riverside. One is at Harvard, one graduated this year from Dartmouth. Others go to Duke, SDSU, Cal State Long Beach, San Marcos, Fullerton, and Northridge. A few have started at Mesa and City College with plans to transfer.
Yanov has built a solid corps of college-student tutors and a group of adult volunteers who tutor, give a ride, or write a check. He’s attracted over $1 million in scholarship donations and more in in-kind service. Reality Changers has outgrown the meeting space at the Iglesia Presbiteriana and has moved to the Workforce Partnership’s building in City Heights. Two full-time employees started this year, both former tutors. One oversees programming. The other is developing “Reality Changers in a Box,” a startup guide for the churches, foundations, and cities who’ve approached Yanov and want to start their own Reality Changers. Oceanside would like to start a program. Austin and Phoenix have programs in the planning stages.
Yanov is proud of what he’s built, and a little restless. Golden Hill’s gentrification is nearly complete. The lowriders and their bumping music that would wake him at 3:00 a.m. are now gone. Only three Reality Changers kids live in Golden Hill this year; the cheap apartments where Mexican families used to live are converting to upscale condos.
He’s no longer carrying Reality Changers on his back. He’s hired two former tutors, Grace Chaidez as program manager and Jennifer Schaller as program designer. They’ve picked up substantial pieces of the day-to-day work and made their own connections with the students.
Both Jorge and Edgar know they still need Yanov. He has been father, big brother, and counselor, both men say, the person who sustains them as their own adult selves grow. Though they’ve told him often how much he matters, Jorge and Edgar both think that Yanov doesn’t fully get it, how essential he’s been to their making it.
It’s Tuesday night at the Iglesia Presbiteriana, and Yanov’s offering the dream to this year’s kids. They slump on the couches facing him. Most have been up since before 6:00 this morning, at school and sports practice and work; they’ll be here until 9:00 tonight. The fatigue shows in their faces. Behind him a banner with block letters spells out REALITY CHANGERS. Waist-high shelves hold 46 fat binders, each with a student’s name on the back. Confident teenagers smile out from group photos, and framed news stories and photos of Reality Changers graduates, listing their colleges, assure the students in the room that they can do it too.
Michael, a handsome boy in an oversize sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves, plaid shorts, and a flat-billed baseball cap, slouches, whispering while Yanov talks. He’s an eighth grader, new to the program. Yanov asks him to quiet down and pay attention. He assigns a short writing exercise, a paragraph using this week’s vocabulary words. Finish it, and they can go in to dinner. They rummage for pens and open their notebooks. No one protests; they know the drill. The room quiets. Michael thrusts his hands in his pockets and stares at the ceiling. Yanov looks at him inquiringly.
“I don’t have a pen.”
Yanov walks over and hands him one.
Fifteen minutes later, everyone else has turned in his paragraphs and headed for the dining room. Michael says he’s not finished.
He hasn’t started.
Yanov settles his solid frame onto the couch beside Michael, folds his arms, and says, “I’ll wait.”
Michael exhales deeply and starts to write.
Author’s note: All the stories are true. A few names have been changed because of the characters’ circumstances or immigration status.