Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College

Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College

by Barbara Davenport

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Grit and Hope tells the story of five inner-city Hispanic students who start their college applications in the midst of the country’s worst recession and of Reality Changers, the program that aims to help them become the first in their families to go college. This year they must keep up their grades in AP courses, write compelling essays for their applications, and find scholarships to fund their dreams. One lives in a garage and struggles to get enough to eat. Two are academic standouts, but are undocumented, ineligible for state and federal financial assistance. One tries to keep his balance as his mother gets a life-threatening diagnosis; another bonds with her sister when their parents are sidelined by substance abuse.

The book also follows Christopher Yanov, the program’s youthful, charismatic founder in a year that’s as critical for Reality Changers’ future as it is for the seniors. Yanov wants to grow Reality Changers into national visibility. He’s doubled the program’s size, and hired new employees, but he hasn’t anticipated that growing means he’ll have to surrender some control, and trust his new staff. It’s the story of a highly successful, yet flawed organization that must change in order to grow.

Told with deep affection and without sentimentality, the students stories show that although poverty and cultural deprivation seriously complicate youths’ efforts to launch into young adulthood, the support of a strong program makes a critical difference.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520284456
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/10/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Barbara Davenport has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Stanford Magazine, and alternative weeklies in San Diego, where she lives. She is also the author, as Barbara Rosof, of The Worst Loss. For more about her, please visit

Read an Excerpt

Grit and Hope

A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program that Helped Them Aim for College

By Barbara Davenport


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96007-7


Across the Water

A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops. Henry Adams

Fifty students churned around the ferry landing on San Diego Bay, laughing, scuffling, fist-bumping, hailing friends they hadn't seen for days. They chattered in English and Spanish, sometimes shifting in midsentence, the girls' voices rising and falling, the guys' rumbling an octave lower.

"Hermanita, ven. I've got something to tell you."

"Ooh, you're here. No sabía si vendrías."

"Dude. Que pasa?"

The girls wore tight miniskirts or cropped pants and, over them, royal blue scoop-neck T-shirts with the silhouette of a young woman in a mortarboard and gown against a city skyline and, underneath, the words Reality Changers. Their hair was piled in curving mounds on top of their heads or tumbled over their shoulders. They wore elaborate eye makeup and their earrings danced as they hugged and giggled; earbuds dangled from their necks, and cell phones were everywhere. The boys wore baseball caps with high crowns and broad, flat bills and baggy cargo shorts that ballooned past their knees. Their dark hair was gelled into baroque waves or shaved to an eighth inch of dense bristle. They, too, wore the Reality Changers T-shirts, with a boy in gown and mortarboard.

The following Monday was Labor Day, and school would start the day after that. Reality Changers' last outing of the summer always started with a ride on the ferry across San Diego Bay to Coronado Island.

Chris Yanov stepped out of his pickup. In cargo shorts and a Reality Changers sweatshirt, he looked like an older version of the students. The difference was the weight of responsibility settled permanently on his shoulders. Kids began swarming around Yanov, hugging, jostling, their hunger to connect with him palpable.

"Hey, Chris, where you been?"

"Chris, I got something I gotta talk with you."

"We gonna go now, Chris? We been waiting for you."

"What's happening man, how you doing?"

He bumped fists and watched as Grace and Jenn and Jonny, his young staff, handed out ferry tickets and herded students up the gangplank. They had it all covered. He didn't need to do a thing. After the years when he'd had to cover every base and solve every problem himself, it was a relief to show up and just watch things happen. A relief that left him at a loss: if he wasn't running the show, he didn't know what to do with himself. From the top of the gangplank, Jenn shot him a grin and a thumbs-up. He smiled a weak half smile and shrugged.

He pointed to two guys, signaling them to come with him to the upper deck. They followed him like puppies.

The huge marine diesels groaned; the ferry eased away from its mooring and turned 120 degrees toward Coronado. Out on the bay, the air was cooler. Sailboats glided across the ferry's path, and a V of brown pelicans cruised alongside, their wings just inches above the water.

The long arc of the Coronado Bridge lay off the boat's port side. The bus that brought the students to the landing could have driven across the bridge and delivered them to Coronado in half the time it took the ferry to cross. Yanov made this annual outing on the ferry for the pleasure of being out on the water on a summer night, and because for some students the Coronado trip would be the first time they'd ever been on a boat. Yanov understood the power of symbols to make a strong impression on his students, most of whom, when they joined Reality Changers, couldn't have told him what a symbol was.

Coronado Island is the northern end of a peninsula where the navy maintains an amphibious base, an air station, and home port for several aircraft carriers. The ferry docks at a town of prosperous homes and immaculate, tree-lined streets that evoke a Hollywood vision of 1950s America. Admirals come to Coronado to retire, and tourists come to enjoy its small-town feel and its downtown of upscale boutiques and restaurants and antique dealers. Closer to the ferry landing, souvenir shops, burger stands, rib joints, and a park with formal plantings and a fountain greet the tourists.

Yanov gathered the students on the Coronado dock. "Okay, listen up. You've got an hour to get something to eat and look around. Take a look over there. That's the park. Be in the park by seven o'clock."

Students headed off in search of fast food. After they ate they walked around the park's fountains and manicured flower beds, and as the sun sank they gathered and sat on a grassy berm near the water. From here they could look across the bay to San Diego's downtown skyline, where the city's lights twinkled like promises.

Yanov stood on a bench facing them and handed out awards for achievements from their week at Forest Home, a camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. The week's theme was "Be a Hero," and the camp awards were plastic discs on gauzy black ribbon, a star on one side, the word Hero on the other, ten for a dollar at the ninety-nine-cent store across the street from Reality Changers' offices. He presented awards for the best speech, fastest mud racer, likeliest to die of laughing, friendliest, most helpful, cleanest bunk, most gel in hair. He named every student, recognized something special about each one. The kids laughed and teased each other, memories of their week burnished by their medals.

The sky deepened to purple, and a fingernail of a moon drifted in and out of clouds. Yanov handed out the last medal and stood silent. Giggling and talk trailed away. The kids leaned toward him. His voice was low and strong.

"We've come across the water tonight to mark the end of our summer. We cross over the water to symbolize the separation between our summer and the year ahead. Tonight on Coronado we're still in summer, remembering the fun we've had, the friendships we've made. This summer we've kicked back and enjoyed ourselves.

"When we cross back over the water, we'll hold on to our memories and our friendships, but some parts of summer we'll leave behind, like sleeping in and taking it easy. When we step back onto the dock, we step into the school year. We'll get serious.

"Every one of you has important work to do this year. How you do your work will make a difference for the rest of your life. What you do this year will permanently shape who you become and what you achieve.

"You all know this year's theme: 'What's Your Message?'

"For you freshmen: This is where it starts. This year you begin to make your mark. You build your foundation in academics and in your character. At school. In your family. In your neighborhood. This year you'll get clear what your message is, and how you'll use your message to take a stand, live your commitment to yourself, and become a model for others.

"Sophomores: This year everything counts. College admissions officers will look at your sophomore grades. You're building the message about yourself that your peers, the people in your school, and those admissions officers will see. Think about the message you want to send. Think how you'll live that message.

"Juniors: You're starting the most important year of your life. The workload kicks up, and you'll have to step up to meet it. The quality of your work, the grades you make, and the way you serve your community, including your peers, will make the difference in how you're seen at school, how colleges see you. Know your message. Live it every day.

"Seniors: It all comes together this year. All that you've done, the message you've crafted, and the legacy you've built. In just six months, 180 days from now, you'll know where you'll be spending the next four years of your life. You have serious work to do this fall. Make your message clear. Make it count.

"The question now, my heroes, is ... what will you do? How will you meet the challenges you're facing? You'll answer that question every day this year, and how you answer will write the story of your life. We're here to support you in becoming the hero you can be and making this year the best in your life."

The kids sat lost in their own thoughts. One by one they stood up and walked toward the landing in the dark, thoughtful and slow, as though they were coming out of church.


Senior Academy

I don't know how I'm going to do all that and do the stuff you're talking about, too.

Robert Silva

Daniel Merced's father pulled off the freeway onto University Avenue, the main street through City Heights. University Avenue ran through blocks of tiny, sagging bungalows with blistered paint and apartment buildings of crumbling stucco. In San Diego's punishingly expensive housing market, immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, from Thailand, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and fifty-six other countries came to City Heights for housing they could afford. The California Correctional Authority also knew about City Heights; it placed so many parolees here that the neighborhood was known as the parole capital of Southern California. Anything you'd want to smoke or snort or shoot was for sale on University Avenue. The murder rate was the highest in the city.

City Heights was familiar territory to Reality Changers' students. Many of them lived here. For the others, it looked like their own neighborhoods — the small houses and crowded apartments, guys hanging out on the corners, friends whose lives were going nowhere. Trouble could happen in daylight, in plain view, right on University. Sergio, a junior with a broad chest and powerful arms, who looked like he could handle anything, talked about walking eleven blocks on University from wrestling practice to Reality Changers. He said, "My head's on a swivel. I have a different feeling for every block, and I watch my back the whole time. When I finally get here, I feel like I can breathe."

Daniel's father drove past 43 Produce, where Mexican papayas the size of footballs were stacked out front, and past the grocery that sold halal meats. In front of Café Doré, old men sat in white plastic chairs and studied their mah-jongg tiles. Café Doré sold banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches of chicken or any of six different cuts of pork on a baguette, with pickled carrots and cilantro and daikon; and at the GiroMex counter, you could send your money order to Mexico or Honduras. At the bar next door a soccer game was always playing on the TV in the dark interior. Somali women in headscarves and caftans that covered them to their shoes and men in dashikis and in guayabera shirts shared the sidewalk with kids in gangsta clothes and earbuds.

They passed the Mid-City Church of the Nazarene, a big white stucco building with a red tile roof. The church distributed food on Tuesday afternoons, and Daniel saw two hundred or more people — Asian, Hispanic, African, Anglo, African American — waiting in a line that stretched past the church's facade and more than a block down University. Hunger came in every color and nationality.

His father turned onto Thirty-Ninth Street and turned again, into the drop-off area behind the Workforce Partnership Building, where Reality Changers had moved this summer. Across the street, kids younger than Daniel lounged outside the Kwik Corner Liquor Store, smoking and passing a bottle in a paper bag. The lights in the roof's overhang were yellow fluorescents that gave brown skin a greenish cast and turned white skin gray. Smears of blackened gum were stuck forever on the sidewalk, and the grass between the sidewalk and the street was flattened and brown, littered with cigarette butts. Kill enough afternoons outside the Kwik Corner and you'd believe your life was as blighted as the grass.

Daniel threw a glance over his shoulder at the kids and hurried into the building. The Workforce Partnership Building was new, built to provide office space for nonprofits. It was four stories of no-frills design: neutral colors and hard surfaces, materials that could be cleaned easily. Its public areas were small and poorly lit. A security guard's desk dominated the small lobby; the rest of it was a waiting area in front of the two elevators.

Daniel was solidly built, with dark eyes and skin the color of caramel, and a smile that could light up a room. His wiry brown hair was still wet from swim practice, and he wore his favorite T-shirt, one that read: "Building a Championship Is an Everyday Thing." He'd been up since five that morning, and he figured, after RC finished that night, he'd still have a couple of hours of homework.

On the third floor, he pinned on his Reality Changers name tag and headed down the hall to the Senior Academy room, where the seniors met, separate from the underclassmen. It was a computer lab with gray commercial carpeting, rows of oyster-colored monitors and keyboards on faux wood-grain tables, and low-end office chairs. To the seniors, accustomed to sagging couches at the iglesia and working two to a computer, the new digs looked great. Everyone got their own computer with a broadband connection, more than many of them had at home. Chairs that rolled were cool. They arm wrestled and played bumper cars in their chairs and checked each other out on Facebook, but they weren't feeling cool. Senior year was when Chris promised that their hard work would pay off and the doors of college would swing open. Now they were starting their senior year and they didn't have any idea how they'd get to college. They felt as young and clueless as their first day at Reality Changers.

Debbi Leto, who ran the Senior Academy, greeted every student by name and welcomed them all. She was a pretty blonde woman in her fifties with the confident air of a sports mom. She'd volunteered at Reality Changers for five years, and she'd known most of the seniors since they were eighth graders. She had a master's in Asian history from Berkeley, and she'd launched her own two daughters to college. She was warm and caring and bossy. She'd ask hard questions and badger the seniors as much as necessary to get them to do what they needed to do.

"It's how we do it as much as what we do," she said. "Kids see that we're paying attention, watching to see that they're doing what they need to do. And that they're getting the help they need."

Preparing for and running Tuesday night's Senior Academy; following up during the week with seniors' questions about their applications; taking phone calls, especially from the girls, who saw her as a second mother; riding herd on guidance counselors and admissions departments who lost documents or otherwise dropped the ball; and consulting with Jenn Schadler, who ran the Thursday night Senior Academy — Debbi figured that she gave Reality Changers about thirty hours a week.

"My parents didn't go to college, and my brother and sister didn't go," she told the seniors on this night. "My parents didn't see the point. I'm the only one in my family. I drove down by myself from LA to go to UC San Diego. I know that I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't gone to college."

She introduced the three other tutors: Alli, her daughter, a paralegal who'd tutored as long as her mother had, and Walt and Martha, retired teachers with decades of experience in college applications. All of them were volunteers. Tutors for the underclassmen were mostly college students, but Debbi insisted that the seniors needed the most experienced and skilled tutors. She and Alli and Walt and Martha knew every aspect of the application process, and they'd seen every pothole and washout and hairpin turn that could crop up on the road to college.

"We have a lot of work to do this year," she said. "We've given you your senior profile to complete." She reached into the rolling file box stuffed with folders for every student and held up the five-page green form.

"Remember this one? It's in your packet. You need to fill it out this week. This. Week. It'll help Chris and your teachers and anyone else you ask to write a recommendation for you. You'll also need to register for your SATs.

"Everyone should have opened a Gmail account. If you haven't, raise your hand and we'll help you do it tonight. You need to start learning your way around the Cal State and UC websites and get started on those applications. Some of you are applying to private colleges, and you'll need to work on the Common App. You've got essays to write. They'll take up most of the fall. Chris'll be in later to talk to you about the essays."

Daniel pressed his palm against his forehead. He was taking Advanced Placement classes in physiology and English lit. Two-a-day swim practices Monday through Friday. Already there weren't enough hours in the day.


Excerpted from Grit and Hope by Barbara Davenport. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author’s Note
Cast of Characters

1. Across the Water
2. Senior Academy
3. Looking for a Home
4. Inventing Reality Changers
5. Dangerous Enough
6. Uphill
7. Doing RC: How It Works
8. Breaking Faith, Breaking Free
9. A Great Small Organization
10. Undocumented
11. Three-Day
12. Essay Crunch
13. Santiago Milagro and the Four-Year Plan
14. Walking on Water
15. Reset
16. The Guy Inside
17. Rocks on Her Legs
18. Stars and Projects and Everyone Else
19. Going the Distance with Eduardo
20. The Guy Outside
21. Getting In
22. The Costs of Their Dreams
23. Reckonings
24. Scholarship Banquet
25. The Evolution of Reality Changers
26. Epilogue


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