Recently separated from her husband, Yvette Martinez will mark a milestone Thanksgiving this year – the first with just her and her two young children.
For the Orange resident, Thursday, Nov. 23 will be special for another reason: Her son, Lorenzo, 10, earned a Thanksgiving feast for hitting all his goals at Handy Elementary School.
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, Martinez drove two hours from her job in Woodland Hills to share her fifth-grader’s moment in the spotlight as one of 30 students from Handy Elementary and Yorba Middle School who succeeded in the Orange County Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership’s (OC GRIP) 8th annual Thanksgiving challenge to improve attendance, behavior and grades.
More than a dozen deputies from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and officers from the Orange PD, as well as investigators, probation officers, and staff from OC GRIP agencies and the two schools, loudly cheered and applauded each student as they took turns collecting their dinners during an afternoon ceremony in the multi-purpose room at Yorba Middle School.
“Our kids cannot be successful without our partners,” said Tracy Knibb, principal of Yorba Middle School. “There’s something really important that goes into a kid earning something…and when it’s earning something for their family and not themselves, that’s even better.”
The hour-long event was one of several held throughout Orange County on Nov. 15 as OC GRIP honored 875 students who succeeded in the Thanksgiving challenge.
The youngsters, deemed by school and law enforcement authorities as the most at-risk of being lured into street gangs, had six weeks to step up their game and bring home the turkey and trimmings to their families.
“This is special,” said Martinez, a medical operations manager who still was wearing her office scrubs for the special moment with Lorenzo and her daughter, Alina, 12, a seventh-grader at Yorba Middle School.
“He went out of his way to do extra things and make this happen,” Martinez said.
Handy Elementary officials said Lorenzo is super smart, but he had to improve his behavior to win the dinner — enough to feed a family of 10.
“I just love it,” Lorenzo said of meeting that goal.
Top brass at the OCSD and OPD helped hand out the dinners.
“The kids get a lot out of it,” Undersheriff Don Barnes said after the ceremony. “It’s sometimes the first time their success is recognized by adult figures, which really reinforces and encourages them in ways to start down the path of success.”
Barnes noted that there are more than 200 street gangs in Orange County whose members prey on youngsters to recruit them.
“This program gives kids an alternative to going into gangs and shows them their worth and value to their families,” Barnes said.
Ryan McLellan, a seventh-grader at Yorba Middle School, walked up to a ring of law enforcement and other officials to collect his food, which was donated by Ralphs/Food 4 Less to the tune of more than $25,000 and sorted, bagged and delivered by volunteers from Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.
“Keep it up,” Orange Police Chief Tom Kisela told Ryan, who is being raised by his 23-year-old brother because his parents are out of the picture.
OC GRIP extended the incentive to students at 55 schools throughout the cities of Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Mission Viejo, Orange, Santa Ana, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton, and Tustin.
“They have earned the right to be here today, and we are here to celebrate them,” said Deputy District Attorney Lisa Grossman, who is in charge of the GRIP program at Orange schools.
In a statement, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas wrote: “Thanksgiving is the purest of the holidays that is focused on sharing gratitude and food between family and friends. Thanks to the generosity of Ralph’s/Food 4 Less, Saddleback Church, and the law enforcement partners of OC GRIP, families will be able to acknowledge good choices made by at-risk youths and give thanks to all of the positives in life.”
Also in a statement, Vanessa Rosales, director of corporate affairs for Food 4 Less and Ralphs, wrote: “We are proud to once again partner with the OCDA and the GRIP Program to make the holidays a little brighter for some very deserving students. Partnering with local law enforcement to help reinforce community programs in the areas where we work and live is a win for all parties involved.”
And Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren said in prepared remarks: “Saddleback Church is honored to participate with the Orange County District Attorney and Ralphs/Food 4 Less with GRIP in such an effective and transformative event. We appreciate and are grateful to be able to support and provide hope to at-risk children and their families across Orange County.”
Leslie Corrales, an eighth-grader at Yorba Middle School, improved her homework habits to win the turkey and trimmings.
“This means a lot to me,” Leslie said. “I never used to do my (homework), but now I do.”
Didiana Lomeli, Leslie’s mother, noted that her daughter also is doing well on the cheerleading squad.
“I’ve been pushing her to study and do good, because this is going to be her future, and I want her to be proud of herself,” said Lomeli, who has five children.
Leslie has big goals.
“I want to be either a teacher or a doctor,” she said.
Kisela said the OC GRIP Thanksgiving dinner handout is one of his favorite events of the year.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to really see how the program works — the success of it,” Kisela said. “Seeing these young kids meeting their goals and then being able to get a reward of a Thanksgiving dinner to provide to their families is probably one of the most fun times of the year for me.”
Kisela said the event also provides the opportunity for students and their families to enjoy some positive contact with members of law enforcement.
“And the message for these kids is,” Kisela said, ‘If you work hard and do the right thing, there are rewards.’”