The part talent show, part rally kicked off the 15th-annual “Come-Together” field trip for Making The Right Connections’ summer enrichment, gang-prevention program for inner-city kids. Some 30,000 disadvantaged girls and boys, many who spend their summer vacations largely holed up in sweltering apartments, have been MTRC campers since its inception by special ed alternative school teacher Dan Drass 23 years ago.“It’s fun,” Vireyma blurted with a smile. “I like going on field trips and doing work in class, too, especially math. I’ve been to the movies to see ‘Cars 2.’ I liked when we went to the Natural History Museum. I saw insects and learned about a lot of them. There was, like, a long worm that had 200 legs. And I like this field trip when we danced, because I like to dance because it has a lot of excitement.”The outgoing, streetwise-beyond-her-age 9-year-old already knows enough to stay away from gangbangers. She mostly plays inside from June through August, which she says isn’t really hard because she likes to read all the time. “I’m looking forward to having a good school year and passing with good grades,” she declared. “I want to be an artist or a teacher. I like doing art, like we do here at camp, a lot.” Vireyma was one of about 1,000 youths, from kindergarten through eighth grade, who were present at St. Mary’s Academy, and then were bused to the park for a picnic lunch, to get their faces painted, play games and simply run around in the grass. The Friday outing was near the end of the six-week summer program that first included a week of community building and training for some 45 teachers. The teachers, many from local urban Catholic schools, form the core of the enrichment experience through classes and workshops. Most of the program involves working closely with children on social activities like values clarification and conflict resolution, cultural activities (art, drama, music, dance and storytelling), along with academic work such as language arts, computer literacy and math skills. Age-appropriate gang awareness and prevention curriculums, like “Project Yes!” and “Mission S.O.A.R,” are also put into practice. But in addition, there's quest speakers as well as field trips to sporting events, museums and historical missions; nature walks and beach outings and even visits to businesses and factories. Teaching assistants from high school and college, some of whom are compensated by the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Youth Employment Services of Catholic Charities, help keep all these activities running smoothly under the watchful eyes of site coordinators. This summer there are 1,250 children, teenagers and adults at five Catholic school sites: St. Vincent, St. Odilia, St. Cecilia and St. Turibius in Los Angeles, plus Our Lady of Victory in Compton. The 55-year-old Drass’ “regular job” with San Bernardino County schools is as an alternative teacher, helping troubled kids coming out of juvenile hall get back to “regular school,” he explained. “MTRC is a prevention program where we try to take the younger brothers and sisters of known gang members — because that’s the number one predictor of getting into a gang — or kids who are just growing up in gang-impacted areas and give them this opportunity to engage in really positive, productive, constructive activities.“And if you give them a chance to really connect or relate to family, church, school and community — the basic institutions of our society — they’re less likely to get involved in this other stuff that is so detrimental to them. We only get them for five weeks, but we get them for five weeks year after year after year. And it’s those kids that we have the best chance of helping to really influence their attitudes and behaviors about their future.”Drass points out that more than a third of all his teaching staff was encouraged to make education a career because of their experience as first campers and then teaching assistants for MTRC. Over the program’s two decades-plus existence, he estimates more than 100 individuals have gone on to be teachers and even principals in local Catholic or public schools.“I like that every week we go on field trips,” said Jessie Becerra, 10, who is going into fourth grade at St. Vincent School this year. “But my favorite thing that I really like is the park. My grandpa would take me to the park, but he died of cancer. So now this is great.” Jessie skillfully hand-glided a mini-vintage fighter airplane to a friend before adding, “We talked about how to make friends and stay together and not fight. So I’d never join a gang. I want to be a scientist, or drive a big blue bus like my grandpa.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0722/mtrc/{/gallery}