For several hours after the sun set last Thursday, three white, unmarked city-issued cargo vans snaked through the streets of Anaheim.
The vans pulled up to apartments and mobile homes in some of the city’s roughest areas, hazard lights flashing as they parked.
Out of the vans spilled Anaheim PD GRIP and other officers and cadets, as well as caseworkers from the nonprofit Community Service Programs Inc., school officials and members of Anaheim First Christian Church.
The visitors carried with them bags stuffed with all the makings for a Thanksgiving feast for 10 — the culinary rewards for at-risk elementary and junior high students who, over the last several weeks, kept their grades up, showed up to school every day, and didn’t act up in the classroom.
The three vans made stops at 58 homes Nov. 19 — the third and final day in which dinners were delivered to a total of 150 homes to mark the culmination of the Anaheim Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership (GRIP)’s 6th-annual Operation Turkey Leg incentive for at-risk youth.
Anaheim GRIP challenged 180 Anaheim students between fourth and eighth grade from 12 Anaheim schools to participate in the competition.
The students, considered to be at-risk for gang involvement, were challenged to maintain perfect attendance without any behavioral problems and complete all homework assigned for a set period of time.
The 150 students who achieved the goal earned a Thanksgiving meal for their families.
Anaheim PD Investigator Merisa Leatherman drove a van packed with 22 Thanksgiving meals.
The holiday comfort food was provided by the Anaheim First Christian Church, the Anaheim Police Department’s Chief’s Advisory Board, and Walmart.
Leatherman’s first stop in south Anaheim was at the home of Araceli Vazquez, the mother of Turkey Leg Challenge winner Saul Vazquez.
Saul, 12, had gotten all his grades up at South Junior High School to As and Bs.
He also is a junior cadet at the Anaheim PD.
“You know how to cook it, right?” Anaheim Deputy Chief Dan Cahill asked Saul of the 15-pound frozen turkey.
“Well, congratulations on your achievement,” Cahill said. “Good job.”
Chief Raul Quezada spoke to Araceli in Spanish, and she responded in Spanish.
“I’m very proud to see (Saul) continuing his education and staying on the right path,” she told Quezada. “If he chooses to go on the wrong path, I know who to contact.”
Cahill asked Saul what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“A soccer player,” responded Saul, who graduated this spring from the Anaheim GRIP program at Ponderosa Elementary.
“If you change your mind,” Cahill said, “come join us.”
Similar scenes played out throughout the evening, with families opening their doors to cops and others to share some holiday cheer and beam with their families as their achievement was celebrated.
CSP, a non-profit based in Santa Ana, provides case management services to the GRIP law-enforcement led partnership.
GRIP case manager Carmela Mendoza was among the CSP employees who accompanied the APD during the turkey drop-off Thursday.
“The reason he (Saul) is doing so well is because his mother works closely with him to do well in school,” Mendoza said.
Brandon Moran, a 5th-grader at Paul Revere Elementary, told the visitors he would help his mother prepare the Thanksgiving feast.
Inside her home in a mobile park she shares with her four sisters, a brother, her mother and grandmother, 6th-grader Angelique Mosqueda sat shyly on a couch as Mendoza touted her achievements.
“You’re awesome,” someone in the crowd told Angelique.
“Thank you,” Angelique said.
She was asked how she felt.
Benjamin Wolf, principal of South Junior High School, spent the evening with Leatherman’s crew.
“I think this is a real great opportunity for (South Junior High students) to really help their families economically,” Wolf said. “A lot of these families are struggling just to get by.”
Added Wolf: “This lets (the students) know they can earn something on their own — that they’ve achieved something.”
Yasmin Miranda, 13, a 7th-grader at South Junior High, has stopped being unruly in class and blowing off some homework.
For that, she earned a Thanksgiving dinner for her family.
When the cops and others left her house to head to the home of the next student, her older brother walked up to her and showed his love and appreciation for her efforts with a warm hug.
For several seconds they stood in silence, locked in a long embrace.