Improved attitudes and performance earn Costa Mesa students Thanksgiving dinners in anti-gang challenge

Costa Mesa students beamed Wednesday as law enforcement officers handed them weighty turkeys and hard-earned pumpkin pies as rewards for their improved academic performance and classroom behavior.

Fifteen students at Wilson Elementary School received holiday meals to share with their families as part of a Thanksgiving challenge sponsored by the Orange County Gang Reduction & Intervention Partnership, an initiative between law enforcement agencies and schools intended to reduce young people’s susceptibility to gang influence.

Students identified by school faculty were recognized for making strides in attendance, behavior and grades.

Wilson Elementary Principal Mia King highlighted each student’s hard work and improvements that led to the recognition.

Kindergartner Angel Contreras, 6, wore a huge smile in photos showcasing his turkey dinner with his mother, Veronica Aguilera, Costa Mesa police school resource officer Jose Torres and several other law enforcement members.

Costa Mesa police Lt. Greg Scott offered Angel a fist bump when he claimed his pumpkin pie.

Police Chief Rob Sharpnack, who helped hand out meals to students, said he was “exceptionally proud” of the program, adding that it aligns with the department’s community policing philosophy.

The program aims to “direct children toward a successful path,” Sharpnack said.

Angel walked out of the school gym with bags filled with mashed potatoes, stuffing mix, gravy and sides, along with a pie meant to feed 10. He said the award made him proud and that he will work toward the opportunity again next year.

Aguilera encouraged him with a big smile, saying in Spanish, “You’re going to keep giving it your all.”

Second-grader Karime Cortez, 7, was recognized for making strides in Accelerated Reading.

Karime’s mom, Erika Aguilera, said her daughter previously was “a little bit behind” in reading but that she encouraged her to improve by reading aloud at home.

This was the first time the Aguileras had heard of the holiday-inspired challenge, and they said they felt good about the positive influence and encouragement it gave students. It left their kids feeling proud of their work, they said.

Nicole Nicholson, an Orange County assistant district attorney who oversees GRIP within the district attorney’s office, said a goal is for students to have positive interactions with law enforcement. One effect of police and probation officers celebrating students’ success is “we show them law enforcement is good,” Nicholson said.

Kids and parents warmly greeted Torres by name as students waited giddily outside the gym after school to take home their tasty rewards.

The GRIP program is in its second year at Wilson Elementary. It also will distribute meals at Costa Mesa’s Rea Elementary School this year.

GRIP plans to distribute a total of 950 meals to 57 schools across the county. The food and supplies were donated by Ralphs and Food 4 Less, and Lake Forest-based Saddleback Church facilitated packing and distribution.

The program aims to build not only students’ performance in the classroom but also their confidence in themselves and their academic potential. The program’s three pillars are academics, attendance and attitude.

When kids slip behind in those areas, “their confidence is reduced and [they] are susceptible to making bad choices,” Nicholson said.

Second-grader Lizeth Ambrosio, 7, said the recognition in the challenge made her happy as she walked out with her parents and siblings, an accompanying adult capturing the event in a cellphone video. She said she read a lot and especially liked the book series “Pinkalicious.”

“It was great motivation,” her mother, Cristina Esteban, said in Spanish. “It got us really excited.”

The family plans to save the turkey meal to share on Thanksgiving.