Rickey Ramirez was at a point in his life where he could have taken the right path or the wrong path.
For a while, the wrong path seemed like the way to go.
Ramirez was a sixth grader at Santiago Middle School in Orange when the Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership (commonly known as GRIP) stepped in.
A program led by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office with law enforcement participation, GRIP takes a multipronged approach to reshaping the lives of at-risk youth or those on the verge of joining gangs.
The Orange Police Department is among five county law enforcement agencies that administer GRIP in their cities.
Ramirez, who was 13, had been making some poor choices and was called into a meeting at Orange PD headquarters.
Orange PD Youth Services Officer T.J. Lockwood, Deputy District Attorney Tracy Miller, Ramirez’ parents, school officials, social workers, and probation officers were present.
“I remember him as being skeptical of what was going on,” Lockwood said. “Standoffish.”
They encouraged Ramirez to save his own life.
They encouraged him to join GRIP.
“He kicked a chair and his exact words to me were ‘(expletive) you! I’m going to join a gang,’” Miller recalls.
Miller didn’t sugarcoat her words when she told Ramirez he’d be dead or in prison within 15 years if he didn’t take the opportunity he was being given.
“She told me I have no future whatsoever right now,” said Ramirez, now 19. “She told me, ‘You know what … You care about your friends more than your parents.’ That really hit me. After that, I said I need to start changing my ways.”
Ramirez was still a bit reluctant, but he went along with the program.
He showed up to school on time, worked with a tutor, and met with a mentor.
His parents attended parenting classes.
Lockwood met with Ramirez about once a month, checking on his grades and issues.
“It’s really hard as a police officer to build a rapport with someone who grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood,” Lockwood said.
But as time went on, Ramirez developed trust and began to open up, Lockwood said.
Ramirez excelled in GRIP’s annual soccer camp. The GRIP team discovered Ramirez was passionate about soccer, but his parents couldn’t afford to sign him up for a league, so GRIP paid for his registration.
By the time he got to El Modena High School, Ramirez played on the school team.
His attitude and outlook were completely refocused.
“Little by little, I started falling away from (old) friends and I started making new friends,” Ramirez said. “I started just hanging out with my soccer friends. That is something that really helped me too.”
Ramirez had hope for his future, Miller said. He got a job working in a law office and with his first paycheck, he took Miller to lunch and bought her flowers.
“She is like a second mom to me,” Ramirez said. “She changed my life. I appreciate everything she has ever done for me.”
Ramirez graduated from El Modena High School and is now taking online classes at Santiago Community College. He is excelling at his job with a cell phone provider.
Ramirez lives with his parents, but is planning to move out soon and buy a home with his older brother, Carlos. And he recently purchased his first car.
“You feel good about yourself, making your own money, paying your own bills and not relying on anybody,” Ramirez said.
He’s also learning about investing.
“I don’t need to go party,” Ramirez said. “All I need to do is make money, invest, and go to school. If you don’t make money when you sleep, you can’t win.”
Ramirez is still involved in GRIP, but now he is giving back to the program. He sees kids that are exactly the way he was.
“They have no vision for themselves, just like me. I changed into a whole new person,” he said. “I got lucky and I got GRIP to help me switch my ways and go another route. I want to help kids go another route as well.”
Lockwood said you can’t reach every kid, but when you see one like Ramirez, that “makes it worth it.”
“We really touched his life in a positive way,” Lockwood said. “He really gave 100 percent and became successful because of it.”