The late afternoon sun is just breaking through heavy rain clouds as high school student Jose Luiz Gutierrez gets to work. This week, the non-profit group Homie Scholars is working on the shoulder of Railroad Avenue, cleaning graffiti off the slats of a chain link fence.
“I always wanted to try something new to help out the community,” Gutierrez says as he picks a brush out of a bucket of water and begins to scrub at the paint. “It seemed like a program that I’d be really interested in, so I figured I would try it.”
Homie Scholars, an after school program dedicated to helping at-risk teens succeed, was founded by Ricardo Avlbel Lemus, who grew up in Winters. What begins as a series of discussion sessions at the local library continues on to community volunteering and college visits.
Current Homie Scholar Adrian Jimenez describes the program as, “a big open door for young kids that are trying to go to college, or just plan to make a good career and stay out of trouble.”
These days, the scholars are working on beautifying Railroad Avenue. Lemus wants to change the teens’ perspective on tagging and the gang lifestyle.
“It’s kind of perplexing that an individual will take pride in their barrio, and then destroy it,” Lemus says.
His goal is to inspire the students to take the pride that they have for their neighborhood and channel it into something productive.
“We’re going from rebuilding —to building something.”
While supervising the clean-up crew, Lemus wears the same shirt that students receive upon graduation from the Homie Scholars program.
“You have to earn the shirt,” Lemus explains. “If Bill Gates came to buy one for a million dollars, I wouldn’t give him one.”
Lemus earned his shirt the hard way. After serving two sentences behind bars by the time he was 25, Lemus decided that he was going to have to make a change.
Looking back, Lemus can see that the pattern of destructive behavior that led to his arrests and imprisonment began when he was a young student.
“I was a very violent individual,” Lemus admits about his past. “I had no problem-solving (skills).”
He used those experiences and frustrations to form the kind of program that he wishes he’d had when he was a teen.
“I don’t want other kids to fall into that hole,” Lemus says. “When one individual falls into gangs, you lose an engineer… a doctor.”
Lemus is no longer lost to incarceration. After he left prison for the last time, he went on to earn two associate degrees at Sacramento City College. He even delivered a commencement address at his graduation. He is currently working on a bachelor’s degree at Sacramento State University, and is planning on completing a Ph.D. before becoming a physical therapist.
Lemus knows that his story is inspirational, but he says that he doesn’t want the attention. When he talks about Homie Scholars, it’s all about his pride for the kids and the progress that he’s seen.
When enrolling teens in the Homie Scholars program, Lemus focuses on high school students who could be described as “at risk.” Drugs, incarceration, poverty, poor school performance — Lemus wants to get to these students before they fall through the cracks.
He begins the Homie Scholars curriculum with discussions about historic and often overlooked role models with whom the students can identify. From there they step out of the classroom to get involved in the community.
By the final level of the Homie Scholars program, the students attend discussion panels hosted by college students and professors, as well as tours of local campuses. Lemus wants the students to see that it is possible to make college affordable and accessible.
While Lemus himself would like to see most students go on to college, he knows that it isn’t everyone’s path. He suggests that the students aspire to go to college, join the armed services, or take up a vocation.
The first group of Homie Scholars are graduating soon, and Lemus has big plans for the non-profit’s future. In the next year, he hopes to have 30 students in the program. Lemus plans for Homie Scholars to branch out to other schools and age groups. He hopes that if he can prove the method works, it might even be adopted by non-profit leaders in other cities.
Evidence of the program’s power can already be found in the participants’ sense of pride and accomplishment in what they’ve been able to achieve so far.
“Being a part of the community in Winters is a big thing. It shows how much love I have for this town,” Jimenez says. “Homie Scholars has allowed me to show who I am”
For information about joining Homie Scholars as an adult volunteer or enrolling as a student, contact Ricardo Lemus, email@example.com or 530-574-3806.