Johnny Rodriguez was headed for a criminal career when a friend helped him turn his life around. Now he’s helping at-risk youngsters fi nd positive, productive futures.
One Day at a Time, an organization founded by Johnny Rodriguez 17 years ago, shows kids what alternatives there are in life.
“We don’t just take our kids to visit prisons to show them where they could end up. We take them to Berkeley and Stanford to show them that they can also end up in college,” said Rodriguez.
The program “showed me that life was full of endless possibilities,” said one graduate, Maria Rafael. “One of the most memorable experiences I had with the group was a visit to Tracy State Prison. That day was a reality check for me…and I knew I needed to make better choices in order to continue to keep my freedom.”
During one of three visits to San Quentin in the last two years, Rodriguez told a group of prisoners that his organization changes kids’ lives by addressing the effects of poverty and discrimination that many youth face in their communities, as well as drugs, violence, and gangs.
Rodriguez said the Contra Costa County organization doesn’t use the scared-straight approach.
“We try not to be too radical and not scare people away,” said Rodriguez. “Yelling and screaming doesn’t work. Kids have heard all that before. I want to help every kid, but some are not ready. Some have to go to prison.”
One of the many fi eld trips the organization sponsors is water rafting, one of which involved 65 youths. The trip was designed to teach kids to work together.
“If a kid falls out of a boat, he doesn’t care who it is that saves him,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said kids learn self-esteem, communication skills, and helping each other.
“Before you know it, we’re breaking barriers,” said Rodriguez. “We have to empower the kids to change.”
One Day at a Time encourages participants in its program to volunteer for community service. It also assists participants with developing marketable job skills and the search for employment.
Some of the other services of One Day at a Time is gang tattoo removal and tutoring participants, grades 6 to 12.
According to the One Day at a Time web site, many participants have higher attendance rates in school, and lower truancy and fewer disciplinary actions.
Rodriguez says One Day at a Time also does random home visits, which help to establish dialogue with kids and parents.
As a non-profi t organization, One Day at a Time receives no state or federal funding. All money received is through donations.
“When you receive government funds, they want to dictate how you run your program,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez worked on One Day at a Time for eight years without pay, eventually building it to a $300,000 a year budget. He says he is trying to hit the million-dollar mark.
“It’s not about the money, but with more money, more services are provided,” said Rodriguez.
About 2,500 kids are currently in the program. Some 900 kids have already graduated, according to Rodriguez.
Many graduates come back to mentor and teach in the program, said Rodriguez.
“You can’t change kids; all you can do is offer them the opportunity to see the truth,” said Rodriguez. “My homeboy told me the truth, and that’s what saved me.”