Empowering At-Risk Students to Succeed

11/27/2017 .
Saddleback Church

It takes love, compassion, and commitment for a community to fight against gangs and gang-related crime. The lifestyle is one of violence, drugs, and imprisonment – and once you’re in, it’s difficult to leave.

But what if something could be done to keep kids out of gangs with incentive, encouragement, and support to succeed? What if God's family reached out to vulnerable children with a message that they are seen, they matter, and they have purpose?

For over a decade, Saddleback has been sharing that message with at-risk kids by partnering with the Orange County District Attorney’s Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership (GRIP). Operating out of the District Attorney’s Office, the GRIP program works in partnership with law enforcement, schools, and community groups including Saddleback Church.

Together we bring hope and purpose to elementary students who are at-risk for gang recruitment. By monitoring their grades—and rewarding them for their achievements—school attendance has increased, crime rates have dropped, and more children are pursuing dreams they never thought were possible.

“We love being part of this program,” says Michelle Thune, Manager of PEACE Community Outreach. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the church to show up and partner with the government and schools to see real impact in our community.”

Pastor Rick refers to this balance of business, government, and church as the “3-legged stool,” with all three working toward large-scale transformation. Through this unified effort, GRIP hosts a variety of incentives throughout the year to encourage kids to make successful choices. Not only has this directed students toward a brighter future, but it has also helped change the trajectory of hundreds of lives.

Among those incentives is the annual GRIP Thanksgiving Meal program, organized in partnership with Saddleback Church. Held on November 15, the event brought together 850 students from 55 schools across Orange Country. To celebrate their achievements, 100 Saddleback volunteers helped package, deliver, and present meals to the 850 students who earned Thanksgiving dinners for their families.

The event involved two days of volunteer efforts, starting on November 14 with food donated by Ralphs and Food 4 Less. Both companies sent a semi-truck full of Thanksgiving fixings including 850 turkeys, canned green beans, corn, gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pies, and boxed mashed potatoes and stuffing. Helping lift the load were approximately 10 employees from Ralphs & Food 4 Less, 50 personnel from GRIP, and 100 Saddleback volunteers. Together the teams sorted and loaded items onto pallets, and stored packages into refrigerated trucks.

The following day, Saddleback volunteers transported meals from Saddleback Lake Forest to our campuses in Rancho Capistrano, San Clemente, and Anaheim. Saddleback volunteers were able to serve at any one of the four campuses by delivering meals to the assigned elementary schools.  

While the Thanksgiving GRIP program began at Saddleback Lake Forest—and in recent years expanded to the Anaheim campus—this year Saddleback Rancho Capistrano and San Clemente were also part of the distribution.

Directed by Volunteer Leaders, Carl and Charlene Leggieri, Saddleback Rancho Capistrano took ownership for three schools located in San Juan Capistrano by recruiting volunteers from their campus to carry out the tasks.

Getting in on the action, San Clemente recruited volunteers from their Men’s Ministry. Led by Brian Weaver and Ron Randle, the two rallied men to serve by transporting and presenting meals to the four San Clemente schools.

“This gives greater opportunity for a campus to love its own neighborhood,” says Michelle. “It also allows us to better connect families to other resources like our Food Pantry and Homework Club that are right there in their community.”

At all 55 Orange County schools, award ceremonies were held for selected students who were given turkey dinners and certificates from Saddleback for their achievements.

Written on the certificate were the words: All of your hard work and determination has helped you earn your family a Thanksgiving Dinner! You are an amazing, responsible student and have proven that achieving your goals is worth the effort! You are special! Keep up the hard work!

Present to cheer on the students were their parents, law enforcement officers, Saddleback volunteers, and school personnel including superintendents, principals, and teachers.

“I have been doing this incentive program with GRIP for 10 years, and it never loses its luster,” said one principal of an Orange County school. “It’s always powerful when children can earn meals for families. We are thankful to Saddleback, to our law enforcement, and to our school’s mentors for the ways they invest in the lives of these kids.”

Following the ceremony, one San Clemente student ran out of the auditorium with a huge smile on his face saying “I’m going to show my friends!” while waving his certificate from Saddleback.

Saddleback volunteers were equally touched, with feedback ranging from “Everyone had tears in their eyes when the presentations were made,” to “My heart was filled with so much hope and love for our Orange County community in need.”

Another volunteer stated: “Both parents and children were very grateful. Parents, school personnel, and law enforcement we're proud of the children and encouraged them. I loved bringing smiles to the children's faces. I even got a couple of hugs from the moms that I'll never forget. My sons also got to see first hand God at work and all he can do.”

The uniqueness of this GRIP outreach is that not only does it demonstrate kindness, but it also encourages and empowers students to make changes in their lives.

“The church exists to love the world,” says Michelle. “When we do this, we get to stand arm-in-arm with others who aren’t believers and say ‘here is our common ground’. We all care about kids, we all care about making a difference, we all want our communities to be the best they can be. It gives us an opportunity to reflect what the church is like, what God is like. The church isn’t about a building and hearing messages, the church is about love, face-to-face, in real tangible ways, especially with people who don’t yet know how great God’s love is.”  

For more information about serving at a future GRIP incentive event—including the Spring Incentive Angel Game or next year’s Fall Thanksgiving Incentive—click HERE. If you have a heart for at-risk students, you can learn more about our 12-week mentoring opportunity in Santa Ana high schools by emailing Steve at steveb@saddleback.com.