Meant to Make It

Meant to Make It

By Shelley Hoss

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below.

Gabriel Sanchez is proof that every child deserves a chance to succeed in school and in life.

They said he wouldn’t make it. At 11, Gabriel Sanchez was already living on the streets. By 12, his attempts at survival had landed him in trouble with the law. By his 18th birthday, he would be incarcerated three times. 

Those statistics may describe Gabriel on paper, but they don’t come close to telling the story of a child faced with life-and-death decisions, when the hardest thing he should have been facing were his multiplication tables. 

With his mother in and out of prison, Gabriel’s aunt and uncle had taken him in as a young child. But instead of giving him a loving home, they gave him a rocky start rife with abuse and neglect. 

Gabriel recalls that he felt safer on the streets than at his own house: “I would find places that I thought were hidden so people wouldn’t find me sleeping there. I would steal food from the grocery store to eat.”

The streets ultimately took Gabriel in, introducing a way of life that would lead him to juvenile hall. 

Gabriel’s story could have ended there: an innocent child whose life circumstances became a downward spiral of despair and poor life choices, dooming him to a dismal and unproductive life. But a safety net appeared for Gabriel when he needed it most, and changed the course of his life for good. 

Once he entered the juvenile justice system, Gabriel became part of the Orange County Department of Education’s ACCESS

(Alternative, Community, and Correctional Schools and Services) program. ACCESS provides a second chance for nearly 17,000 Orange County students who might otherwise give up on their education altogether. For Gabriel, it was the key that unlocked his enormous potential. 

“School had always been an escape from reality for me — even the bare minimum I attended,” he said. “As a kid, I always loved academics. Math and U.S. history always intrigued me.”

Wanting to make sure he would stay on the straight and narrow even after he got his high school diploma, Gabriel’s ACCESS counselor introduced him to the Youth Development Programs, also known as YOW, operated by Community Service Programs (CSP). 

Hether Benjamin, CSP’s director of youth development programs, says YOW supplements the academics that ACCESS provides so students can complete other essential life tasks, like finding a place to live or getting vocational training to secure a stable job.

“YOW was a big help because they gave me hope for something better,” Gabriel said. “They saw the potential in me. No matter what, they said I was going to do something good with my life – that I was meant to make it.”

Together, ACCESS and YOW were game-changers for Gabriel. His ACCESS teachers and YOW counselors so motivated Gabriel that he graduated a year early, and found a job with a security company, where he quickly rose up the ranks to management. 

Once he had settled into his new life, Gabriel wanted to give back to the programs that had helped him forge his success. He called YOW to volunteer his time as a youth speaker. Instead, they offered him a job.

“I’m able to have a deeper impact on some of the youth who put up a fight because they think no one can relate to them,” he said. “So when I tell them I have walked in their shoes, they get more confident that they can do it, too.”

But Gabriel’s impact goes far beyond the youth he now works with.  He is a reminder to us all. “Be willing to give someone who seems like a lost cause a second chance,” he says. “They are worth putting the time and effort into.” 

If you’re interested in learning more about programs helping kids like Gabriel succeed in school and in life, visit ocnonprofitcentral.org

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Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at shoss@oc-cf.org.

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