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Feast for the tummy and soul: At-risk kids earn Thanksgiving dinners for their families

Feast for the tummy and soul: At-risk kids earn Thanksgiving dinners for their families

Feast for the tummy and soul: At-risk kids earn Thanksgiving dinners for their families

By Greg Hardesty-Behind the Badge

The sixth-grader has an older brother in a street gang.

He also has a delicious Thanksgiving dinner staring him in the face.

His brother, 19, is a source of great concern for his parents.

The meal, which his parents also enjoyed, is a reward the kid received for not doing stuff that could send him down the same sad and destructive path his brother chose to follow.

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, Juan Ugalde, 11, and his parents, Simon and Silvia, dug into that meal in a multipurpose room at Topaz Elementary School in Fullerton.

Juan was one of 10 students at Topaz to get an early taste of Thanksgiving.

The 10 Topaz students were among 850 youngsters at 51 schools countywide who won a Thanksgiving dinner for their families after excelling in the Orange County Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership’s (OC GRIP) 6th Annual Thanksgiving challenge.

OC GRIP involves elementary schools, parents, faith-based organizations and corporate sponsors who work together to keep at-risk kids out of gangs.

The 850 students, identified by school officials of being at risk of joining a criminal street gang, won the dinners by improving their attendance, behavior and grades over a roughly two-month period starting in mid-September.

Most of the 850 recipients of the turkey dinners – which can feed 10 — took the goodies home to prepare for Thanksgiving. The dinners included an 8-inch pumpkin pie, instant mashed potatoes, stuffing, yams, gravy, cranberries, green beans and corn.

The kids at Topaz got an extra bonus: a turkey meal for their families made by school staff. Some families aren’t familiar with how to make a Thanksgiving meal, Topaz Principal Monica Berrera said.

“Last year when our school first did the Thanksgiving challenge, a boy who was one of the winners asked me, ‘Can you call my mom and tell her how to make a turkey?’” Berrera said. “A lot of our kids are used to eating pozole and tamales on Thanksgiving.”

At the turkey dinner last week, each Topaz student was introduced and called to the front to shake hands with FPD GRIP officers and cadets, school and city officials, and Fullerton PD Chief Dan Hughes — and to collect their frozen turkey and other Thanksgiving Day fixins. Fullerton Councilman Bruce Whitaker gave the kids with a patch of the city’s logo.

“I want you to know how very proud we are of your kids,” Hughes said. “We believe their involvement with this program will make them leaders of their communities.”

For this year’s OC GRIP Thanksgiving challenge, Ralphs/Food 4 Less and Saddleback Church donated more than 850 turkey dinners, compared to 400 in years past. The value of the donation this year totaled more than $25,000.

“I am truly humbled and grateful to Ralphs/Food 4 Less and Saddleback Church for bringing Thanksgiving to so many needy and deserving children and doubling the number of their generous donations,” Orange District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in a statement. “I am thrilled for the opportunity these children have to do something good for their families and praise them for learning that there are rewards for good behavior.”

On Nov. 18, Fullerton PD officers delivered the turkey dinners to students and their families at Topaz, Maple, Woodcrest and Richman elementary schools.

In addition to Ugalde, the recipients at Topaz were Kevin Ortiz, 4th grade; Eddie Zarate, 5th; Sarahi Brito, 5th; Alexis Garcia, 5th; Jonathan Sanchez, 5th; Jesse Barragan, 6th; Bryant Castro, 6th; Jonathan Estrada, 6th; and Randy Pacheco, 6th.

“It was hard for some, but they dug deep,” FPD Det. Joel Craft, a GRIP officer assigned to Topaz, said of the Thanksgiving challenge. “I’m proud of everyone here today who earned this.”

Deputy District Attorney Tamika Williams, a prosecutor with the D.A.’s OC GRIP, praised the Topaz students.

Williams urged them to “stay in school and dream big.”

Juan Ugalde’s parents are proud of him.

Simon Ugalde, a factory worker, said he expects his son to continue to excel at school.

His mother, who works at a hotel, said she’s “very thankful” for the Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s been a long time since I made a turkey,” Silvia Ugalde said.

Hughes, who gave each Topaz student a Challenge Coin, urged the youngsters to continue to be role models for their school and younger siblings.

“We are exceptionally proud of you, but we expect a whole bunch more from you (in the future),” Hughes said.