Merced man goes from life of gangs and drugs to Man of the Year award

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 23, 2013 

— Sam Rangel’s life changed when he spotted a front-page story in the newspaper about two of his children.

Rangel’s children were taken away because of his involvement in gangs and drugs, and the 22-year-old was sleeping in a public bathroom and looking at the photo of his youngsters in the Merced Sun-Star.

The article featured his two boys with a headline about another person raising the “unwanted” kids.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rangel, now 41. “I just broke and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ It was a wake-up call, definitely.”

Almost 20 years later, Rangel started two nonprofits, wrote a book and was recently recognized as the Man of the Year by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The award represented validation, fulfillment and a new-found motivation to reach his goals, Rangel said. It has also lit a fire under him to keep helping youths who might be headed in the wrong direction.

“It meant that there are no limits in life, because the next achievement is to be the father and husband of the year,” Rangel said. “I think the (chamber of) commerce giving me that award did more than what they probably thought. Now I just want to pass it on – that you can do anything.”

Thirteen years ago, Rangel co-founded Distinguished Outreach Services, a nonprofit that empowers Mercedians to advocate for their community, and another nonprofit last year named Mentoring Odd Jobs Organization, or MOJO.

MOJO gives at-risk youths ages 15 to 24 the opportunity to work odd jobs for pay, teaching them the value of hard work and giving them something to do after school.

The 25 youths in the program do lawn work, clear gutters, clean garages and other such jobs.

“If kids have nothing constructive to do, then they’ll do nothing constructive,” Rangel said. “We’re giving them something constructive to do so they’ll feel proud. And residents now feel like they’re not paying for a service, they’re investing in our youth.”

Ten families in Merced and Atwater are using the services of MOJO youngsters, and one of them is Merced Mayor Stan Thurston’s family.

Thurston has hired MOJO youths three times, most recently to clean his home’s gutters and hang outdoor Christmas lights. In a couple of hours, he said, the group finished jobs that would have taken him half a day.

He paid each of the three youths $30.

“Half of them said they are putting the money away in savings for school or shoes, something that was a necessity,” Thurston said. “You can see the look on the faces of these kids when they get payments; there’s nothing like it. It makes me feel good because they’ve already learned the value of work.”

Rangel said the experience of working for the mayor changed the kids’ lives and they will not stop talking about it.

“Someone with status accepted them no matter what,” Rangel said. “Most of these kids go their entire life without a dignitary paying attention to them. That experience changed their life and how they view politicians.”

Rachelle Abril co-founded both nonprofits with Rangel, calling him a “great motivator” who deserved to win the Man of the Year award.

“I would say the person he is now is someone to look up to. He’s a very strong leader and activist,” Abril said. “To me, being awarded Man of the Year means he’s stretched himself and has gone above and beyond to try and collaborate for the better of Merced residents.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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