Four students climb into a minivan–normally, the group is a bit bigger, but it’s midterms week at Point Loma, so only the very dedicated few are able to make it.
Jillian Dunn, a junior nursing major and the director of the Reality Changers tutoring ministry, which falls under the larger umbrella of community ministries at Loma, has been a part of this particular weekly Thursday evening event since her freshman year. It’s a big time commitment for all of the volunteers, so one is left to wonder what brings them back week after week.
The group makes the 30-minute drive from the largely affluent, beachside community of Point Loma, to the neighborhood of City Heights in downtown. San Diego is no stranger to highly diverse neighborhoods, and areas such as City Heights are widely considered to be growing and improving. Historically, however, the neighborhood has had anything but a stellar reputation. Known for its high rates of poverty and crime, its image is slowly beginning to shift.
Reality Changers, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization, has contributed to this shift since they began their efforts in 2001. The founder, Christopher Yanov, began tutoring four “at-risk” local high schoolers, helping to encourage them to strive for more in their lives by pursuing the dream of becoming first generation college graduates.
According to Reality Changers’ website, this past year, 100 percent of the high school students who completed the program went to a four-year university and finished at least their first semester of college. They have over 1,000 students experiencing their program every year, and their waitlist for the next school year is currently 400 students long.
Arantxa Sanchez, the lead achievement coach at Reality Changers, was a student in the program before going on to college and becoming an employee.
“As a student, I think that the biggest thing that we get out of it is exposure,” said Sanchez. “Us coming from low-income neighborhoods, usually working parents, all of those ‘at-risk’ things that they call us–we just get a safe zone, we get a family, commitment, people that can actually spend time with us.”
Point Loma’s small group of students who volunteer every Thursday night to help tutor Reality Changers’ students is just one small cog in the much bigger machine of the program. Every weeknight from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., about 50 students ranging from eighth to 12th grade pour into the space for an evening of community dinner, inspirational discussions and small group tutoring. The program’s pledge of integrity that the students repeat every night ends with: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”
Allison Harden, an adjunct professor at Point Loma has been volunteering at Reality Changers for six years.
“They have such a passion for learning at such a young age–they’re so much smarter and they know what they want to do in the world,” said Harden. “Some of them are from refugee families, and hearing their stories blows me away every time.”
“Our program is all about positivity,” added Sanchez. And that positivity is seen by every smile, every volunteer, every homemade dinner that parents drop off for the students and tutors.