“These students have overcome tremendous odds”

By Pablo J. Sáinz

2015 Reality Changers, Gates Scholars. From left to right: Hiwet Weldeselase, Frida Durazo, Tania Barajas, Stephanie Bueno, Lesley Guarena, and Darian Martos.
2015 Reality Changers, Gates Scholars. From left to right: Hiwet Weldeselase, Frida Durazo, Tania Barajas, Stephanie Bueno, Lesley Guarena, and Darian Martos.

This year, seven students from the after-school, college-preparation program Reality Changers will become Gates Millenium Scholars, a competitive scholarship that will pay for their entire college education, up to a doctorate degree.

If Reality Changers were a school, it would rank 1st in California and 2nd in the nation in the number of Gates Millenium Scholars it produces.

“It’s really amazing,” said Reality Changers founder and president, Christopher Yanov. “The next school in California with the most scholars has only four.”

But Reality Changers, a role model for programs across the nation in college preparation and gang-prevention founded in 2001, has students like Lesley Guerana, who overcame her parents’ and her own health issues. She now plans to attend UC San Diego this fall.

The organization will host its 15th Annual Scholarship Celebration on Sunday, May 17th, at SeaWorld San Diego, where 300 high school seniors will celebrate earning more than $20 million in college scholarships.

Reality Changers will also congratulate its 8th to 11th grade students who earned scholarships to attend UCSD’s Academic Connections and summer leadership camp.

“These students have overcome tremendous odds,” said Yanov, who founded Reality Changers with just $300 to its name. “They are a testament to what one can accomplish with a lot of determination and some guidance along the way.”

The celebration at SeaWorld San Diego will include guests like Speaker of the Assembly Toni Atkins, Supervisor Greg Cox, City Councilmember Marti Emerald, and County Treasurer Dan McAllister.

SeaWorld San Diego, which is the presenting sponsor, will cover all venue costs, so 100 percent of ticket sales, sponsorships, and donations, will go to Reality Changers’ mission of building more college students.

“SeaWorld San Diego has long been committed to youth education, in fact, more than 9 million students have been through our park’s formal education programs over the past 50 years,” said John Reilly, SeaWorld San Diego’s park president.

“Reality Changers’ commitment to providing educational support and opportunities to students is not only commendable, but is also consistent with our park’s educational core values. It’s an honor to partner with an organization like Reality Changers that helps improve the lives of youth, including some of the lives of our own employees,” Reilly said.

Reality Changers transforms lives, schools, and communities by providing youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with the academic support, financial assistance and leadership training to become first generation college students.

Daniel Noriega is a junior at E3 Civic High School. He is one of the Reality Changers students who will be receiving a scholarship for UCSD’s Academic Connections summer program.

“It’s a great experience to be able to take college courses during the summer,” said Noriega, who has attended the program since for the past two years.

The City Heights resident said that after joining Reality Changers as an eighth grader, his parents have learned more about the U.S. educational system.

“They now are my greatest encouragement,” he said. “They tell me I can do a lot, through education.”

In January, Reality Changers launched its annual fundraising campaign. Yanov said it has been a success.

“So far we have raised more than in 2014, and we’re trying to reach $3 million by the end of 2015,” he said.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the program as “a model for the nation.”

To learn more about Reality Changers and the different locations it has in local high schools throughout San Diego, please visit www.realitychangers.org.

General Admission to the Scholarship Celebration is $25 per ticket and VIP Tickets are $150 each. For tickets and more information visit www.RealityChangers.org/Scholarship-Celebration

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