“Never in my wildest imagination did I think it would last this long,” observed Dan Drass, founder of Making the Right Connections, as he broke into a high-pitched belly laugh, before explaining himself. “Here’s what amazes me the most. I have never been funded for multiple years for MTRC. And for 25 years I have raised the money, spent the money, been broke at the end of our fiscal year and have to start all over. How in God’s name that has happened,” and he broke up again, “it’s beyond my comprehension.”The 57-year-old man was standing on the edge of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills, gazing at 17 yellow school buses unloading chatting and giggling kindergarteners through eighth-graders. He was still smiling, shaking his Mr. Clean bald head from side to side, as 950 kids ran onto the grassy part of the 401-acre urban oasis bordered with Eucalyptus trees and native Costal Sage scrubs. Teachers and their teenage assistants diligently went about setting up beanbag toss, hula-hoop, sack-racing and other carnival-like games, while the children spread across the long meandering lawn in small groups. A dozen junior high boys staked out an area and started kicking a soccer ball around. First- and second-graders claimed the sand box swings. Middle school girls lined up to have their faces painted. Nobody seemed to mind how this late July Friday morning was uncharacteristically overcast and chilly. Maybe it was because the kids were still jazzed from the combo talent show/pep rally they had come from at St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood. Or perhaps the inner-city children were just happy to be outside goofing around with friends. “I had been a DRE [director of religious education] at three inner-city parishes, and I had had all these experiences of kids being hurt with the gang issue, the drug issue, the crime issues,” Drass continued. “And religious education wasn’t really touching issues related to gangs, drugs and violence. That’s why I said, ‘There’s got to be some kind of a program where you actually address those issues specifically.’”Life lessonsSo the energetic special ed teacher, who studied theology at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and also in Rome, created Making the Right Connections (MTRC) in 1988. Over a quarter century, 33,000 kids have attended the six-week education enrichment program at 17 urban parish sites. This summer St. Odila and St. Turibius in Los Angeles, Our Lady of Victory in Compton and St. Philip Neri in Lynwood hosted the program.MTRC counters the allure of gang life with positive connections — or relationships — within family, school, church and community. Classroom lessons zero in on gang awareness, drugs, conflict resolution and value clarification. These academic exercises are reinforced by speakers, including former gang members, and field trips. The prevention program actually targets kids who either have older siblings involved in gangs, or who simply live in neighborhoods where gangs thrive and the answer to “Where you from?” can determine one’s life or sudden death.Like a marginal major leaguer with a series of one-year contracts, Drass has funded his beloved enterprise with mostly single-year grants from foundations and corporate gifts, along with “donations” from parents. This summer he asked dads and moms or guardians to pony up $70 per child; the real cost is actually $350. And he’ll wave the fee for families who can’t afford to pay a dime. Still, during his 25-year run, he’s raised some $8.5 million. The Ahmanson and Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundations have been his bedrocks, funding the innovative summer program every year of its existence. He says it’s a fulltime development job, with new foundations to research, lengthy online applications to fill out, sites and staff to recruit and evaluations to gather. For all this toil, he’s lucky to make $20,000 annually.And his MTRC work somehow has to be squeezed in besides his regular fulltime job that actually pays the bills to support his wife, Rosario, and 18-year-old son, Nathanial. For 18 years he’s worked as a special ed teacher for the County of San Bernardino Superintendent’s office. His current “alternative school” students are a “Welcome Back Kotter” mix of special ed pupils, English language learners and kids just out of juvenile hall still on probation. The one thing they all share is either being suspended or expelled from their regular high schools. InterventionThe fact that one of his jobs deals with prevention and the other intervention has not been lost on Drass. “In my county job, kids come and kids go, with the average stay being 35 days. Many still have probation officers. Obviously, there’s a percent who either drop out from alternative education, run away, commit suicide or get killed. At my last count, I’m right around 27 former students of mine who are diseased. So I’ve outlived 27 teenagers that I know of with 18 years with the county,” he reported wearily.But then his tone goes up a couple notches. “Now if you can keep a kid with you for like the entire school year, your chances of success have jumped one hundredfold. And that’s what I try to do, and I have a good success story on that. The majority of the 1,000 kids I’ve taught have actually turned themselves around and have gotten back to regular school or put themselves on a better path.”Drass says his work with younger kids at MTRC has been equally rewarding. Here success is measured by the number who return to his summer school year after year, the number who go on to be volunteer teacher assistants in the program, and the number who have become teachers and even principals like Claudia Moreno at St. Turibius School. “Now I can’t say every one of the 33,000 kids we’ve had in 25 years has stayed away from gangs and drugs,” he acknowledged. “But we are absolutely convinced that the majority of kids stayed away from those problems. And we know how many kids want to stay with us as volunteers when they get to high school. Why? Because they now want to become teachers and many have. And some have gone on to be principals. So that says something about our program.”Dan Drass has labored assiduously to make MTRC what it is today. He does this in the evening, on weekends and vacations. Last year during a two-week winter break, he just took off Christmas Eve and Day. The rest of the time, he put in eight-hour days on the program. And when his wife asks why he works so hard for so little pay, he has a ready answer.“I have a regular job with San Bernardino County and I do my best,” he said. “And I love the kids that I work with. I really try to help them. But MTRC for me is a ministry, and it brings me deep personal self-satisfaction. “So I love being a teacher. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But this is another way that I can express, you know, my care and concern for the children in my area of influence. Part of the meaning I find in life is having done this project that nobody really asked me to do. I do it because it brings me deep meaning and purpose in life as a human being. And it’s a form of a ministry. That’s what I tell her.” ‘Meaningful life’After looking around at kids gathering up their knapsacks and heading back to the waiting schools buses, the son of a traveling salesman has one final observation. “I’m very interested in the creator of us all and how God expects us to interact with each other, and how we’re to live in this world and what we’re to do,” Drass mused aloud. “In the end, most of us won’t end up being president or pope, or a famous athlete or entertainer. But we can have a very meaningful life by the choices we make, by actions that we take and by the things that we do. “And then I think when we close our eyes at the end, we’ll be at peace: ‘I had a meaningful life,’” he said. “What else can we look for?” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0802/mtrc/{/gallery}