Hosting a public open house, Rite Track, a diversionary program for at-risk youth under the multi-state Rite of Passage organization, celebrated 10 years in Imperial County at its office at 2299 Adams Ave. in El Centro on Oct. 17.
At Rite Track youth learn social skills, vocational-technical competence and independent life skills that enable them to lead successful lives. Completing two years’ probation in January, Julieta Velasquez, 17 a Calexico High School senior, was caught smuggling marijuana from Mexico when she was 15. Her success with the program garnered an invitation as a keynote speaker for the anniversary.
Julieta began working as a drug courier to augment family income while living with her single parent mother who was often at work as a teacher's aide. At 14, she began smoking pot and using prescription pills, often truant from school.
"It all started with parties and I started smuggling because it was really hard for my mom working as a teacher's assistant," said Julieta. "It went well for a few months. I was surprised to get caught. I had not considered the consequences. And it was frustrating because I did not want to come here. I heard about its bad reputation."
The rehabilitation regimen was challenging, Julieta recalled. Every day after classes at the Calexico Academy, a continuation school (with flexible schedules to allow students to earn their credits at a slower pace), she would be picked up and taken to Rite Track.
"It was time consuming and I had to give up the friends I associated with," she said. "I got drug tested every week and they monitored my grades and attendance at school."
But Rite Track proved helpful to Julieta. "It gave me a different perspective when I saw the first report and read about the positive changes in myself. I also was doing therapy at (Imperial County) Behavioral Health. And it was good because I could talk to somebody about my situation."
Marysol Medina, Rite Track program manager, explained the reason for the open house was to help the community understand how lives the lives of wayward youth can be improved. It is typical there is a negative bias about Rite Track due to who they help, but their clients are vulnerable children who need guidance and counseling, she said.
"With positive reinforcement and behavior modification we can really help students to flourish into the positive, contributing members (of society) they were meant to be in the first place," said Medina. "We need to guide and mentor them because they are our future."
William Large, Rite Track program director, said the youth programs are about achieving long-term results.
"It's a cliché, but it really does take a village to become a better community," he said. "We don't want to just offer services but we want to become a part of the community. We've helped kids for over 10 years and every year we've gotten better. But it is only because of our collaborations."
Dan Prince, Imperial County chief probation officer, noted Rite Track necessarily has a close relationship with his department.
"It's really about forming partnerships," he said. "Our department and Rite Track are joined at the hip. We use our resources to help support them. And we're very appreciative of Marysol and her staff for all the success they've achieved in the last 10 years."
Gina Estrada is a parent of another Rite Track success story--her 15-year-old son, Omar. Estrada, a single parent since her divorce, was working 14 hour days as a Best Buy connections manager and was focused on earning the bread and butter but not on her children, she conceded. Omar became truant and when at school got involved with fighting.
"I asked Omar what I could do," Estrada recalled. "He said he needed my support and time. I wanted to put him on the right path but nothing will change until we change ourselves. Thanks to Rite Track, they've gone above and beyond."
Estrada got a new job managing a house for developmentally disabled adults, working the evening shift and devotes her days mentoring her children. Omar this past year has had perfect school attendance and a grade-point average of 3.2.
Julieta, who revealed she thought Rite Track initially was a waste of her time, said she now sees its value.
"I felt like quitting at times but they encouraged me to better myself," remembered Julieta. "This program is super helpful. You learn to use your time wisely. I thank the staff for helping me learn. If it had not been for the program I would not have succeed."