Johnny Rodriguez grew up in a neighborhood where gangs and drugs were a prevalent force in society. The experience of navigating through the challenges associated with his youth would become the impetus for Rodriguez to create a program designed to help at-risk youth “learn to successfully navigate through life and effectively cope with adversity.”
“All youth are at high risk of being involved in gangs,” said Rodriguez, executive director and founder of the non-profit organization “One Day At A Time” (ODAT).
In a recent interview in San Quentin, Rodriguez said he was fortunate to have guidance that led him to achieve good grades and become a three-time state wrestling champion. However, Rodriguez recalled, “Nobody told me there was anything after high school.”
When the “glory days” associated with his academic and athletic success in school were over, he found himself idly spending his days without much direction in life.
Two years after graduation a friend who served time in prison told Rodriguez, “You make your own choices in life.” That friend encouraged Rodriguez to do something more with his life. Shortly after, Rodriguez received a call from his high school counselor who offered him a job mentoring at-risk youth. Rodriguez agreed, and that experience propelled him to develop the ODAT curriculum.
From 1997 through 2002 Rodriguez implemented the program in middle and high schools across east Contra Costa County. In 2002, One Day At A Time was established as a non-profit organization.
Focusing on students in grades 6–12, ODAT utilizes a mentoring process that develops relationships based upon trust that ultimately “provides a framework for helping young people learn to successfully navigate through life and effectively cope with adversity.”
The nine-month program teaches a multitude of positive skills, including: self-discipline, personal responsibility, substance abuse prevention, cultural awareness, and maintaining positive relationships.
Program participants generally have higher rates of school attendance and lower rates of truancy and disciplinary actions, the ODAT web site reports. Additionally, most enjoy the benefit of increasing their grade-point average.
Activities are designed to develop trust among participants. One recent graduate, Vanessa Lanzaz, recounts that she was initially “hesitant to open up,” but soon found herself trusting fellow participants. Vanessa now serves in a leadership role in the program. She reminds others of one valuable lesson she learned: “You are going to miss 100 percent of the opportunities you don’t take in life.”
Rodriguez sees the success of ODAT as dependent upon providing “positive opportunities to the youth and adults who might otherwise make wrong choices in life.” That achievement comes through supporting participants in becoming future counselors for the program and community leaders, he said.