As a freshman at John W. North High School in Riverside, Diego Cabrera was looking to be accepted, validated and forge friendships that would last forever.
But Cabrera’s friends that year were leading him down the wrong path.
“Smoking marijuana, skipping class, not doing my schoolwork – it was not a good crowd,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera, now 16, and his father, Andres Cabrera Garcia, eventually turned to the Opportunity With Education program, which includes 14 weeks of classes, community service and character building to help straighten out wayward youth. It is sponsored by the Riverside Police Foundation.
“It was like he lost interest and he was lost,” said Cabrera Garcia, who discovered that some of his son’s new friends were facing expulsion and that others were gang members.
He worried that Cabrera soon might join a gang.
One incident, in particular, prompted action.
During a football game one Friday night when Cabrera was a sophomore, campus security found drugs on some of the boys in the teen’s group.
North High Principal Lynne Sheffield called the family that night and said he would be expelled if he didn’t stay out of trouble.
“We immediately started searching for programs that would help Diego,” Cabrera Garcia said.
The family turned to Riverside police Detective Brian Money, who runs the Riverside Police Foundation’s judo club. Cabrera had been a member of the club in his youth. Money referred the family to Officer Ryan Railsback, coordinator of the Opportunity With Youth program.
The program runs twice a year, February to May and then September to December. The free program is open to ages 12-17.
Participants and their parents spend 14 weeks taking classes, including juvenile law, drugs, alcohol, gangs and social media, and touring hospitals, juvenile detention facilities and coroner’s facilities. Sessions also include community service, physical fitness, character building and counseling.
Each Saturday, parents or legal guardians and their children meet with Railsback and his team at Riverside City College.
“I really appreciated all the experts,” Cabrera Garcia said. “The counseling really helped us to talk to Diego. Now we’re much better.”
Railsback said parental participation is key to participants’ success.
“What that means is they have to be there,” Railsback said.
For adolescents to be accepted into the program, parents or guardians have to commit and participate every Saturday with their children. Parents receive counseling and parenting classes and attend the topic lecture for that class along with their children.
“If the parents aren’t going to commit, then the kids aren’t going to commit,” Railsback said.
The program, which started in 2011, enrolls youth who have never been arrested, who have pending criminal cases or who are on probation.
Started as part of Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz’s initiative to keep youth from becoming negatively impacted by the criminal justice system, the program has helped hundreds of at-risk youth like Cabrera get back on track.
“We started to notice the change little by little,” Cabrera Garcia said. “It’s like he’s the old Diego again. It’s a good program.”
He said his son is doing better in school, his grades are up, he helps more around the house, he helps with his nephews, is back at judo club guiding younger children and challenged athletes and has joined the Riverside Police Explorers since graduating from the Opportunity With Youth program in December.
“His dedication is remarkable,” said Railsback, who remembers the teenager who first showed up to the class in September and has seen the change in Cabrera since. “He wants to make a better life for himself. We just needed to help him make better choices.”
Diaz invited Cabrera on March 17 to speak at the fifth annual Riverside Police Foundation Chiefs breakfast. In front of a crowd of elected officials, the 16-year-old shared his story of overcoming gangs and drugs and choosing the right path.
Diego said that after the speech, members of the audience came up to tell him they were proud of him.
“It feels good,” Cabrera said. “I know I’m on the right track.”
Riversiders commitment to making one-other’s life a little better is a great example of Riverside acting as a unified city. The actions of all the participating organizations and people demonstrates that Riverside is a caring community that has compassion for all of its inhabitants, and engages with one another for a better life for all.
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