When Hilda Ambrocio takes her 10-year-old son to school, she doesn't simply drop him off and leave.
Rather, before the clock hits 7:30 a.m., Ambrocio takes up her post at the gates at Monte Vista Elementary School and tugs on a bright orange vest. "Mustangs Greeters," it reads.
Ambrocio is part of a small army of parents who have been asked to volunteer as school greeters at campuses across Orange County to boost the self-worth of young students, make them feel welcome when they walk onto campus and — if possible — help them steer clear of the gang life.
The greeter program is viewed as being most critical at schools like Monte Vista, which is wedged in a dense neighborhood of apartments and duplexes and where more than half of the parents never graduated from high school. Over the years, gangs have claimed some of the local streets.
The effort to get parents to serve as school greeters is an outgrowth of the Orange County Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership, which formed in 2007 and includes prosecutors, police, educators, businesses and faith-based organizations. Together they work on gang prevention programs, leadership courses and monthly gatherings with at-risk students.
Under the group's supervision, parents now volunteer as greeters at 50 schools county-wide, some that have as many as 40 greeters working at a time. The idea is basic — get students to stay in school, focus on their classes and set a goal of going to college.
Troubled youths in Santa Ana used to draw the attention of law enforcement when they were caught skipping school, vandalizing property or drinking, but the parent greeter program aims to reach them before that behavior starts, said Kevin Ruiz, an investigator at the Orange County district attorney's office.
In parent meetings, Ruiz warns moms and dads to keep their kids away from violent video games and be wary if their young children start shaving their heads, flash gang signs in photos or hang out on the street. Even the posters they put in their rooms could be a telltale sign.
"You need to know what's in their room," Ruiz said.
He held his arms up to mimic the shape of a roof over his head. "Your house, your rules," he stated.
Earlier this fall, as Ambrocio stood at her post, the trickle of schoolchildren began slowly. A pair of girls arrived side-by-side, one with her backpack slung over her shoulder. Then came a smaller child, carried in a parent's arms.
They passed through a human funnel of greeters that stretched toward the street, a bilingual chorus welcoming each one.
"Buenos dias!" 42-year-old Ambrocio said cheerily.
An upbeat Taylor Swift tune blared from the phone of a fellow volunteer. Another greeter, Adriana Macias, 33, swayed her hips and shook a blue and silver pompom, a recent addition to the ensemble.
Like cheerleaders, they energetically rooted on each of the 650 students arriving at the front gate.
"Bienvenidas!" Macias sang. "Morning!"
The group plans to hand out candy canes around Christmas time. But even a basic compliment goes a long way, says Macias' sister Mayra Pastor, 26.
Grouchy faces and averted eyes will transform when she says something nice about a child's shoes or backpack, she says. They'll look up, smile and sometimes give her a high-five.
"That's a great start to their day, you know?" she said.
And that's not something to brush away, said Principal Meg Greene.
"For kids, the more people they know are on their side, the easier it is for them to make the right choices," she said. "If that person isn't available at home, then hopefully that person is available at school."
Plus, she said, "How many of us get greeted with a smile and a pompom every day?"