As a 12-year-old growing up in southwest Modesto, Joel Preciado was heading in the wrong direction.
Then he discovered The Salvation Army's Red Shield Community Center.
"I remember the first time I went over there," he wrote in an essay that we published in 1998. "I was with my friends and we were all troublemakers. We were getting kicked out all the time. We always used to disrespect the staff."
Little by little, though, things changed.
"I got addicted to Red Shield," his essay continued, "It is like a dream come true. At Red Shield, they will give you help if you want to take it. I took it."
It was at the youth center that young Joel learned to play basketball. It was there that he learned to respect others. It was there that he was mentored by caring adults. It was there that he found Jesus. It was there that his family learned about God and made a commitment to Jesus. It was there that his struggling family was helped out at Thanksgiving and Christmas one year. It was there that his life turned around.
I caught up with Joel recently in Colorado Springs and discovered that the 12-year-old whose words appeared in this paper has grown into a quite a man.
He's about to turn 24, is married and is studying information technology in college. He served two tours of duty in Iraq during his 4½ years in the Army. He met his wife, Monica, in the service, and they plan to move back to California soon.
He still has a soft spot in his heart for the Red Shield Community Center.
Over the years he's stayed in touch with the staff, and often would stop by while home on leave from the Army.
"Southwest Modesto was a tough place to grow up," he told me during our phone conversation. The center was "a place to go and get away from it all. My future was in jail or there. It was a safe place."
There have been lots of kids like Joel, kids for whom the Red Shield was a haven of hope. Over the years, thousands of boys and girls have benefited from its various physical, educational and spiritual programs.
That's why since 1997 The Bee has supported the center with its annual Kids' Day fund-raiser.
This year's 13th Kids' Day is set for Tuesday; volunteers will be selling special Kids' Day editions of The Bee on street corners around town. Seventy-five cents of each $1 paper goes directly to the Red Shield Community Center; the remaining 25 cents covers our production and distribution costs.
We're hoping that the sales and other donations will add substantially to the more than $600,000 that's been raised since 1997.
Joel was fortunate, but some of his friends weren't — by their own choice.
"The staff was even willing to help my friends stay out of trouble and off the streets, but they didn't want to and (my friends) are still getting in trouble," he wrote in 1998. "I look back at them now and think, what if I had continued that life with my friends? Knowing me, how dumb I was, I would try to prove myself and I probably would be dead."
But he didn't, and he isn't, and today that boy is a man with a good life and a bright future, thanks to the Red Shield Community Center.
How You Can Help
Each year individuals, businesses and organizations join the Kids' Day team, and we hope that's the case again on Tuesday. Here's how you can help:
Keep a dollar bill or two handy in the car, and pull over and buy a Kids' Day paper or two from a volunteer.
Volunteer to hawk papers for an hour or two. Organizations and businesses can "adopt" a street corner.
Donate to the Kids' Day fund.
For more information, call The Salvation Army Red Shield Community Center at 538-7111 or go online to www.modbee.com/kidsday.