How Reality Changers Won Big by Betting on Longshots

How Reality Changers Won Big by Betting on Longshots

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Eduardo Corona, a Reality Changers alumnus and staff member, gives students a motivational talk.

Here in this corner of City Heights, busted childhoods are rewritten. The stories are reframed, polished and packaged as college entrance essays, winning tickets that get them out, anywhere but here.

“When bad things happen to kids, it makes for a great personal statement,” said Reality Changers president and founder Chris Yanov.

At 35, Yanov has been named by San Diego Metropolitan magazine as a new civic power broker and has helped 485 low-income or at-risk students find $40 million in scholarships.

And the Mid-City after-school tutoring program is always looking for the next good story.

Yanov has a knack for betting on the troubled teens and coming out ahead. Longshots like Eduardo Corona, the gangster turned program poster child who now serves as a program director.

At age 21, Corona has already mastered the art of a well-placed pause when he leads class, so that his words fall softly, affecting even the hardened, ambivalent teenagers. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who faced six years in jail when he was 14 for tearing apart a classroom, just for fun.

If you saw the PBS documentary he was featured in, you might already know all this. But you might not know that it was San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten’s school he vandalized, back when Marten was the school’s principal. Marten was one of the first people to find the carnage, the paint spilled across the floor, the broken computers, the remains of the classroom snake that had been set on fire and left to die.

Marten has since become one of the program’s — and Corona’s — high-profile advocates. She introduced the PBS documentary at its San Diego premiere, testifying to the changes she’s seen Reality Changers inspire.

It’s beautiful irony, but it’s not so uncommon around here.

Land on Reality Changers’ website and you’ll see Bertin, the kid who used to stretch a bowl of rice into a weeks’ worth of meals before he earned a $300,000 Gates Scholarship. Or Michael, who was homeless between the ages of 7 to17, then earned a $100,000 scholarship to UCLA.

Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has applauded the program, calling it a “model for the nation.”

It’s hard to argue that something unique is happening in City Heights. But what makes it work, and more importantly, can Yanov replicate its success and grow it into the large-scale model Duncan said it could become?

The Exclusivity Factor

Yanov counts the time he spent in college volunteering at a community youth group as one his life’s great failures.

Sure, he helped raise the students’ self-esteem, he said, but he found that the more he told students to not join gangs or do drugs, the more they fell into the lifestyle.

“Every time I talked about a negative issue, I legitimized it,” Yanov said. “It was like telling a kid on a tightrope not to look down. It’s well-intentioned advice, but they’re going to look down, fall,” he said.

Two lessons Yanov took away from that experience: Anti-drug talk is mostly just great advertising for drug dealers. And promotion is better than prevention.

In May 2001, Yanov set out to test his theory. He opened Reality Changers with four students and $300.  The goal was simple: to help the four students become first-generation college students. They decided they were only going to focus on college — not street life.

He found humble success at first. But when he expanded the program to 12 students, and told the other neighborhood kids they weren’t invited, “that’s when I really knew I had something.”

The first night the class met, neighborhood kids surrounded the old building where they studied, throwing rocks and trying to break down the door.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, these guys are trying to break into a Spanish-speaking church to study for three hours?’” said Yanov. “By telling them, ‘No you can’t come in,’ they wanted in. I wasn’t a psychology major, but I figured that out pretty quick.”

Even today, after the program has expanded to include more than 450 students at a time, the appearance of exclusivity is still an important element.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The program’s waiting list is sometimes 300 students long, which as Yanov notes, can be a drawback as well as a strength.

“It’s good because it builds anticipation for students. It’s bad because students might have to wait a year, or even two years,” Yanov said.

The length of the waiting list is more practical than it is programmatic philosophy. Reality Changers employs 24 staff members, and runs the show on a $1.4 million budget. The bulk of that money is raised through fundraisers and individual donations.

The program pays rent for 1,470 square feet it rents from the San Diego Workforce Partnership. The agreement allows Reality Changers to share parts of the building such as the computer lab that job-seekers use to search for work during the day.

Even though, as Yanov points out, every student they save from dropping out keeps dollars in the school district’s pocket, they receive no regular government support.

Indeed. If the San Diego Unified School district spends around $7,600 on each student annually — per its attendance-based funding formula — for  every 40 ninth graders who Reality Changers prevents from dropping out, the districts keeps over $1 million.

Investing in Great Stories

Reality Changers has two main programs: The College Apps Academy, designed to help high school seniors prepare for college and apply for financial aid, and College Town, structured classes and one on one tutoring for eighth to 11th graders.

If College Town participants earn at least a 3.5 GPA, they’re eligible to attend a summer course at UCSD where they earn college credit.

Students can enter College Town in one of two ways. The first is a traditional seven-page application and essay.

The second route is more interesting. The program holds school-day assemblies at nearby middle schools and invites all eighth graders earning a 2.0 or below.

“As you’d expect, it’s madness at first,” Yanov said. “But we give them pizza and soda. We have name tags set for them. We treat them really respectfully, like they’re kings and queens. Some of them have never had their names written down for something positive in their entire lives.”

Then he turns them over to Corona. Once the reformed troublemaker tells his story, Yanov tells students that whoever gets their grades up the most in the next month are the newest members of the program.

“What we tell them is that they’ve been chosen because we’ve heard that they have great stories to tell. And if you’re living in City Heights with below a 2.0 GPA, the chances are pretty good that you do.”

It’s clear that Yanov has found a winning formula. But for now, the success can be replicated only to a certain extent. Effectively creating a college-going culture takes the right combination of students and trained staff, he said.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photos of successful Reality Changers alumni adorn the walls.

The more appropriate question would be whether Yanov wants to expand the program.

“Ah. We’ve spent the past few years wrestling with that question,” said Yanov.

The College Apps Academy is more of a self-driving program based on a curriculum, and it’s ready to be further expanded. There are already 19 College Apps sections across San Diego, which accept up to 20 students at a time.

The immediate goal for College Town is to have a deeper impact, growing it to include more students, but still having it based at its City Heights headquarters.

The College Town model, for now, will stay put.

The folks across the nation who are already calling him, saying they want the program in their city, will just have to wait.

Playing the Longshots

Yanov, it seems, can’t lose. In fact, he won the money that he later used to open Reality Changers when he was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune.”

Yanov grew up in Oxnard, near the strawberry fields and the migrant workers who tended them. Sometimes he wonders why he was so affected by the migrants’ disadvantages.

Yanov isn’t Latino, but his Spanish is agile. He can cuss, he can use slang, he can speak with parents and assuage all kinds of fears they have about their kids and the future.

He graduated college in 2 ½ years from UC San Diego, earning two degrees. But he’s no geek. He was even stabbed once while trying to de-escalate a domestic violence situation. That’s permanent street cred.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Chris Yanov, executive director of Reality Changers, talks to students about writing their college essays.

Barbara Davenport, who’s worked as an adolescent and child psychotherapist, was so impressed by Yanov that she’s spent the last few years working on a book about him.

“One of the things that’s very impressive about him is his willingness to play the longshots. These are kids, the wild, highly ambivalent boys, who people just roll their eyes at. But Chris goes after them, and it’s terribly endearing,” Davenport said.

Yanov is an amazingly savvy marketer, she said. In addition to Yanov’s ability to recognize the wonder kids, he realizes that the students’ stories create a sort of branding that benefits the kids as well as the organization.

Reality Changers regularly beats the fundraising drum by holding speech tournaments and spreading the word on students’ personal narratives.

For two straight years the group won VOSD’s Politifest Idea Tournament, in which a panel of judges heard proposals for civic improvement, and then the crowd voted on winners. No cash was awarded those years, but Reality Changers took away the trophies and bragging rights.

“But beyond that, the promise of what Chris is holding out: Show up, work your tail off, and in four years, you’ll get where you never dreamed of getting. That’s an offer of hope and promise,” Davenport said.

‘My Only Way Out’

Luck might ride with Yanov, but this isn’t a game to him. He doesn’t fear failure anymore — the program has had too many successes at this point — but he’s driven by the kid who is arrested for murder at age 16 and gets 40 years-to-life in prison.

The motivation isn’t hypothetical. Yanov’s prize possession is a piece of art that he keeps on his desk, drawn in prison by a former student who killed somebody in Clairemont a few years ago. By the time he and Yanov met, the student was too immersed in street life for Reality Changers to offer him enough support.

“How come the program wasn’t strong enough at that point to reach him?” Yanov said.

But the program wasn’t lost on 18-year-old Osvaldo Berumen, who currently attends Hoover High. Before he moved to San Diego, Berumen witnessed his brother murdered in East Los Angeles, a victim of gang violence.

“I knew my only way out was through education,” he said. “I’ve overcome this. This program’s helped me overcome this.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Osvaldo Berumen works on his personal statement for college admissions at Reality Changers.

Tutors helped him rewrite and polish his personal statement for college essays, which he said helped him come to terms with his brother’s death. He’s written over 10 drafts.

“In order for me to understand how my past shaped my personality, I have to write about it,” he said.

In writing it all down on paper, he can step away from it, and realize he’s separate from his past.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a publication that wrote about Chris Yanov. The publication was San Diego Metropolitan.

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Mario Koran

Mario Koran

Mario reports on hospitals, nonprofits and educational institutions, digging into their impact on the greater San Diego community. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

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21 comments
Keith Mautner
Keith Mautner

great article, but the total dollar amount of scholarships claimed has me reeling - this would work out to an AVERAGE scholarship of more than $80,000 per student. is that truly accurate?

Keith Mautner
Keith Mautner subscriber

great article, but the total dollar amount of scholarships claimed has me reeling - this would work out to an AVERAGE scholarship of more than $80,000 per student. is that truly accurate?

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Nice piece Mario.
Obviously a needed venue

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Nice piece Mario.
Obviously a needed venue

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

What is the gain from hand feeding a guy who committed criminal activity and tortured and killed a defenseless animal so that he gets a scholarship that would otherwise go to someone more deserving?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

What is the gain from hand feeding a guy who committed criminal activity and tortured and killed a defenseless animal so that he gets a scholarship that would otherwise go to someone more deserving?

Nancy Witt
Nancy Witt

Wonderful program! and glad to read about it. Every inner city should know about it.....and hopefully someone to step up as Chris Yanov has. Thanks, Mario, for the great report.

Nancy Witt
Nancy Witt subscribermember

Wonderful program! and glad to read about it. Every inner city should know about it.....and hopefully someone to step up as Chris Yanov has. Thanks, Mario, for the great report.

Mario Koran
Mario Koran

Thanks, Keith. That amount is for scholarships from all sources, not given away directly by Reality Changers. That's why I wrote helped them "find." The amount they've given away as an organization is closer to $4 million, I believe.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Jones: Aside from doing good, which is good in and of itself, a selfish "gain" is breaking the cycle of violence to which you allude. That would be a huge societal benefit.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

I think we can all heed the lesson of the Bible: Let he who is without sin get the first scholarship! And the second. And the 1,009th.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

Because he did this when he was 14 and because scholarships exist to help people like him and because he deserves a chance at a new life.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Jones: Aside from doing good, which is good in and of itself, a selfish "gain" is breaking the cycle of violence to which you allude. That would be a huge societal benefit.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

I think we can all heed the lesson of the Bible: Let he who is without sin get the first scholarship! And the second. And the 1,009th.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Because he did this when he was 14 and because scholarships exist to help people like him and because he deserves a chance at a new life.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Jones: I don't think there's any evidence that another kid would start and finish far better off with the scholarship. I think you are stuck on the idea these kids may have, in some instances, done bad things. That's true of rich kids who get into college too. As a libertarian I would think you would be of the view that anyone is welcome to teach their kids, their neighbors, their enemies, or whomever they like to become better qualified to compete for the opportunities in life.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Chris, there are two issues with that, first is that there no strong indication giving someone with a penchant for setting small animals aflame and crimes against property a scholarship will change their violent nature, so instead of breaking a cycle of violence we might simply be creating a better educated, more capable evil.

Secondly, doing good isn't really doing good if you are choosing to minimize the impact of the good you do. There are lots of kids more deserving and better able to make use of a scholarship than kids who have marginalized themselves through the choice of violence and crime.

I have nothing against helping these kids get straight and productive, but to train them for a scholarship that another kid would start and finish far better off with is not really doing good in the big picture.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

But that chance is coming at the expense of someone more deserving, someone with more regard for life and property and law. Basically this miscreant is taking the place and opportunity that should belong to a better human being.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Jones: I don't think there's any evidence that another kid would start and finish far better off with the scholarship. I think you are stuck on the idea these kids may have, in some instances, done bad things. That's true of rich kids who get into college too. As a libertarian I would think you would be of the view that anyone is welcome to teach their kids, their neighbors, their enemies, or whomever they like to become better qualified to compete for the opportunities in life.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Chris, there are two issues with that, first is that there no strong indication giving someone with a penchant for setting small animals aflame and crimes against property a scholarship will change their violent nature, so instead of breaking a cycle of violence we might simply be creating a better educated, more capable evil.

Secondly, doing good isn't really doing good if you are choosing to minimize the impact of the good you do. There are lots of kids more deserving and better able to make use of a scholarship than kids who have marginalized themselves through the choice of violence and crime.

I have nothing against helping these kids get straight and productive, but to train them for a scholarship that another kid would start and finish far better off with is not really doing good in the big picture.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

But that chance is coming at the expense of someone more deserving, someone with more regard for life and property and law. Basically this miscreant is taking the place and opportunity that should belong to a better human being.