CHRIS YANOV TURNS DREAMS INTO REALITY
When Chris Yanov ‘03 (MA) spun that wheel on Wheel of Fortune, 15 years ago, he couldn’t possibly have predicted just whose fortune would be changing. Most people take their game show winnings and reward themselves. Yanov — who then was just 22 and a graduate student at USD — parlayed his $23,200 jackpot into an idealistic nonprofit that is literally transforming lives.
“I remember telling somebody back then if this doesn’t work, if it only lasts for a week or a month, then I’m done trying,” Yanov says, taking a rare break in his bare-bones City Heights office. “I’d been working with gang members unsuccessfully for five years.”
But his luck was about to change. While pursuing master’s degrees in international relations and peace and justice, Yanov managed to stretch his TV winnings over two years. Instead of having to work to make ends meet, he devoted the bulk of his spare time to developing a different approach with at-risk youth.
“I realized that focusing on negative influences, like telling kids not to do drugs or join gangs, was like telling a kid on a tightrope not to look down,” he says. “With Reality Changers, we decided not to talk about any of the negative influences. We focus on accomplishing our goals on the other side of the tightrope.”
To date, the soft-spoken and unassuming visionary has brought more than a thousand kids safely across that tightrope.
Like Daniela Conde ’15 (BA), all of Yanov’s Reality Changers are first generation college-bound kids, most of them immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. Conde was born in Mexico. Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 7. After they split up, she and her three sisters were raised by their undocumented mother, who moved the girls across the country in search of work and family support. They finally settled in Solana Beach, Calif. While Conde became a citizen at 11, her mother had to wait several more years before she was granted permanent residency.
“I saw education as a way to change many of the situations that I couldn’t as a child,” says Conde, who graduated from USD as the recipient of the Dr. Judy Rauner Award for Social Justice. She plans to begin a master’s program at Columbia University in the fall. “I saw my mom get taken advantage of at work. My family would get abused because they were undocumented. They couldn’t speak English. I had to fill out job applications when I was 10 years old.”
With the help of Reality Changers, Conde won a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers all of her college tuition and related expenses for 10 years. And she’s in good company: the organization has produced a total of 26 Gates Scholars. Reality Changers’ graduates have earned more than $100 million in college scholarships. They’ve been accepted to the country’s top universities and are carving paths most could hardly have dreamed about.
“There’s a girl who sold flowers on the side of the freeway to make ends meet for her family,” Yanov says. “She went to Northwestern and is now working in Washington, D.C. Another boy’s mom earned $8,000 a year cleaning houses. He went to Harvard and won a Fullbright Scholarship.”
Yanov only recruits at-risk youth from City Heights middle schools. Everyone else needs to apply, and the wait list is long. Applicants need to show they’re committed, not just to succeeding, but to setting an example for the younger inner-city kids. Admitted students are expected to attend intensive sessions one evening per week, where counselors and volunteer tutors run seminars, help with homework and act as mentors.
“It really did change my reality,” says Daisy Aguilar, an effervescent USD sophomore, also a Gates Scholar. “But it’s a big commitment. Not just to the program, but to yourself and what you want to achieve.”
Reality Changers operates out of a little patch of office space in the heart of City Heights. Yanov is constantly working, either directly with the students or behind the scenes, trying to improve on fundraising goals or devise better self-funding strategies. The organization has a paid staff of 30 but relies heavily on hundreds of volunteers. Some, like Conde, graduated from the program and are already back from college.
“There are a lot of nonprofits that work with underserved, at-risk, first generation kids,” she says. “But for me, what makes Reality Changers and Chris different is that he sees the students not as at-isk, but as high potential. That’s what I really love. That he’s able to see us in a different light.” — Karen Gross