Be bold. Make a positive difference. Start by learning more about four dynamic local nonprofits.
A team of resilient individuals assists young men with avoiding gang life and re-identifying themselves as athletes. One man, in an effort to protect kids, works closely with local teachers, parents and youth to make certain that school is a safe place for students that may be struggling with identity or suffering abuse. A local entity boldly addresses gang violence from a family health perspective—all in an effort to halt the cycle of violence. An inventive team of female volunteers works with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
This is but a glimpse of the local individuals and the organizations they serve spotlighted in GT’s annual Community Fund issue. Take note of the four organizations featured on the following pages: Aztecas Soccer Program, Safe Schools Project, Strong Families Program, and Monarch Services (formerly Women’s Crisis Support and Defensa de Mujeres). The resilient spirit operating within these local nonprofits is, indeed, noteworthy. So, here’s where you enter the picture. As you read the following pages, learn how your own contributions to the Community Fund, which comes to life here thanks to Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, are more vital now than ever before. In addition, note that 100 percent of your contribution goes to the nonprofit of your choice, and that the David & Lucile Packard Foundation will match those funds. See page 23 for donation information. Giving comes in many forms, but giving in a way that makes a positive difference—that is priceless. Read on …
—Greg Archer, Editor
LOVE DOESN’T HURT
Women’s Crisis Support and Defensa de Mujeres (Monarch Services)
While deep in the throes of a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, Yvonne Antuna, of Watsonville, remained secretive for years about her now ex-husband’s violent conduct. In many ways, she explains, her spouse was so manipulative that Antuna felt she was at fault and deserving of the treatment.
“When you’re in it, you can’t see the manipulations,” she says. “You almost think that you did something wrong—that you deserve it.”
Antuna, who married when she and her husband were just 16 and 17, kept the issues a secret from her parents and siblings, fearing that her husband would become even angrier if she told them. And also because she considered her marriage to be the decision she had made for herself.
“I felt I’d made the choice for my life, so I endured,” she says. “And I was terribly embarrassed. It was an ugly mess.”
Even when Antuna was pregnant with her daughter, who is now 17, her husband was like a ticking time bomb, she says. On one occasion, while carrying her unborn child, Antuna’s ex-husband went into a rage and dragged her around the house by her hair. And when she called her parents to be taken to the hospital, she lied, telling them she was just feeling sick.
In 2007 Antuna’s sister connected her with the Women’s Crisis Support and Defensa de Mujeres organization, which recently underwent a name change to Monarch Services.
Finally speaking with someone about the conditions she and her daughter were living in changed their life, Antuna says. Monarch Services has served Santa Cruz County and a portion of Monterey County for 36 years with the mission to create lives free from violence and abuse, says Executive Director Laura Segura.
A team of female volunteers works with survivors—mostly women, though, in some cases, men as well—of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, she says. Monarch Services has a confidential shelter, members who assist with legal services like attaining restraining orders and various court processes, a 24-hour response program, and counseling.
The organization’s programs, which help about 1,500 clients annually, are either free or low-cost and have niche services designed specifically to help teens and Latino farmworkers, Segura says.
Originally, Women’s Crisis Support (based in Santa Cruz) and Defensa de Mujeres (based in Watsonville) comprised a group of female volunteers who opened their homes as safe places for women suffering abuse, Segura says. Today, the organization has grown and incorporates a strong prevention program.
“We are serving a lot more teens and we’re trying to break that cycle of violence by reaching people at a younger age, helping to prevent future violence,” Segura says. “We go out and talk in schools and in community groups.”
A new prevention program that Monarch Services initiated this year is called “Campos Seguros,” which is a response to a high number of reports of rape by women and some men working field jobs at farms, Segura says.
“That project allows us to go out physically into the fields in collaboration with farms,” she says. “We provide information about our services directly to the farm workers.”
During the summer, “Campos Seguros” reached out to about 2,500 farmworkers, she says.
“We’re trying to reach as many people as possible,” she adds, “because we know that domestic violence and sexual assault does not discriminate and it affects every facet of life.”
The realization that finally pushed Antuna to seek help was in 2007 when her 11-year-old daughter told her out of fear that she did not want to go home to her father. His abuse had begun to include physically harming their daughter, which Antuna could not stand for.
“That’s what it took to really open it all up and realize the gravity of the abuse and danger,” she says.
Antuna and her child left to live with her parents and, with the help of Monarch Services, acquired a no-contact order that continues to prevent her ex-husband from coming near either of them, she says.
She says it took the women at the center to help her finally get perspective on the cycle of abuse she and her daughter were living with and that she did not actually deserve what was happening to her.
Today, Antuna shares her personal story of domestic abuse and her escape with the community through her church in Watsonville, as well as fiscal donors of Monarch Services.
It’s her way of paying it forward, she explains.
“There are so many that need this help,” she says. “This organization is vital to help women—any people who are being abused.”
“I know that I am one of the lucky ones,” Antuna adds. “Now the cycle of abuse ends with me.” — Joel Hersch
Learn: about services, programs or current activities. Connect: to the most pressing need or event. Give: to Women’s Crisis Support and Defensas de Mujeres (Monarch Services) through the Community Fund online at cfscc.org.
ESCAPE TO VICTORY
Aztecas Soccer Program
When the players of the Watonsville-based Aztecas Soccer Program show up for a game, they are often wearing baggy clothing and exuding the persona of a gang affiliate, of which many of them may still be involved. But when they change into their soccer uniforms—shorts, jerseys, and knee-high socks—they undergo an immediate transformation, says Gina Castaneda, a deputy probation officer for Santa Cruz County and the Aztecas’ coach.
“It was amazing,” Castaneda says of the first time she witnessed it, “because they morphed into somebody else. And they ran around in their socks and their soccer shoes with the ball, and they became kids, and nobody would identify them as gang members.”
The Aztecas Soccer Program, which began five and a half years ago, comprises about 20 players, ages 14 to 20. These individuals typically lead high-risk lifestyles and become entangled in gang activity or violence and drugs, and often, the criminal justice system. The people who are gang affiliated and have already been in the criminal justice system are referred to as “deep end” youth, which are exactly the ones Castaneda strives to help.
The Aztecas team provides these young men with the opportunity to put the brakes on the dark, enveloping world of gang life, and the chance to re-identify as athletes, says Castaneda, who grew up locally with a family immersed in gang culture. For her, playing soccer at Aptos High School helped to set her on a positive course.
The program, which is run by eight trained volunteers, offers the players regular counseling, a reason to be proud of themselves and goals to strive for.
“They’re doing something fun—they feel good,” Castaneda says. “We take them off the streets during high-crime times and give them something positive and pro-social to do.”
After they become immersed in the sport, which the majority of these individuals played regularly before gang affiliation became part of their lives, many Aztecas players feel a strong desire to play for their high school soccer teams as well, which encourages them to make a real effort in their academic responsibilities, she says.
This fall, the Aztecas is taking big steps to bring the program into its full potential for the community.
Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA) became the Aztecas’ new fiscal sponsor in October and will allow the program to develop its own nonprofit status and expand into an entire academy. They plan to add an outdoor soccer team to their current two indoor teams and double their capacity for players.
Castaneda says the academy would work toward implementing new preventive measures for kids who are not yet involved with gangs, but possibly having problems at school and at risk of falling into the lifestyle.
Castaneda is currently having discussions with the County Office of Education about creating a school for Aztecas players on site. She wants to see the Aztecas program take on an entirely holistic approach to helping troubled youth: “Healthy mind, body and spirit,” she says.
Many of the kids on the Aztecas are or have been members of rival gangs, which makes collaboration on the field no easy task. The main idea, Castaneda says, is to get them to recognize each other as people with common interests and strip away that at-war mentality.
When the team began, their first sponsor was the Freedom Host Lions club, which provided the Aztecas with their purple jerseys. Later, one of the players commented that the color purple was what resulted after mixing blue and red—the colors of the rival gangs most prevalent in the area—Norteños and Sureños.
In 2010, the team raised their first funds for Adidas warm-up shirts by challenging the Watsonville Police Department, the officers of which Castaneda says were at first very reluctant to accept, to a soccer match and charging a fee at the door.
The game was a big success and has taken place again each year with the Watsonville PD and the County Probations Department. On all three occasions, the Aztecas have won, she says proudly.
That 2010 fundraiser was one of the first steps toward helping the Aztecas players to change their outward appearance into that of soccer players, as well as cast them in a whole new light before the police.
“It’s established this great relationship [between the authorities and the Aztecas],” Castaneda says. “The police communicate with the kids and see them as positive—just young men. And the kids get to see the police as people who aren’t just harassing them and arresting them.”
She explains that this young gang population is often seen as a lost cause, destined for the penitentiary or an early death. But she knows from experience that that is not the case.
She says, “I want to show them that there is still hope.” — Joel Hersch
Learn: about services, programs or current activities. Connect: to the most pressing need or event. Give: to the Aztecas Soccer Program through the Community Fund online at cfscc.org.
Strong Families Program
Sometimes, within the insulated communities of immigrant farm workers, a population that faces a wide spectrum of social obstacles—poverty, language barriers and gang affiliation among its youth—the most effective way to support deep healing and change is from within.
For 25 years in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, the nonprofit Center for Community Advocacy (CCA), based in Salinas, has helped advocate for improved healthy living and housing conditions for Latino immigrant farm-working families. About five years ago, the organization launched a new initiative under its existing health agenda, called the Strong Families Program.
It was a direct response to the realization that gang violence was tearing apart these families and paralyzing their communities, says Karina Lehner, a nonprofit evaluator for CCA who researched the Strong Families Program. “Families were getting broken up, there was widespread violence, and kids were getting incarcerated,” she says.
The Strong Families Program essentially addresses gang violence from a family health perspective. To interrupt the cycle of violence that can get passed down through generations and create change, the program works to connect with and recruit members of the farm-working community, who are then trained to become “Promotores Comunitarios” or, “Health Promoters.”
Through the CCA, these volunteers learn about best health practices, how to promote family values, and curb both domestic and gang violence.
“The program aims at teaching people strategies that they can use within their families so that children become anchored in the family, as opposed to something outside—other agents that could get them in trouble,” says Juan Uranga the executive director and attorney for the Center for Community Advocacy.
In Santa Cruz County, the Strong Families Program has about 20 neighborhood leaders disseminating the CCA curriculum—always in Spanish—at local schools, churches, and throughout their neighborhoods, effectively helping to strengthen their own families and community from the inside out.
The ethos of CCA is empowering the farm workers, who have a grounding in the core values of their community and have already built personal relationships, to serve as social leaders and guidance figures.
The idea of Strong Families Program, Uranga explains, is to address and improve the way family members treat one another, particularly in the relationships between parents and their children.
Several years ago, the CCA received a grant from the United Healthcare Foundation that allowed them to narrow the focus of their family health outreach program, making the Strong Families curriculum more comprehensive and also accessible for a population with a very low literacy level.
The program zeros in on young people who are engaging in anti-social behavior or rebelling against their families, and strives to help mend the fabric that holds them together. In some cases, that distancing from the family core can result in kids looking for a support system outside the home, which commonly is found in the form of gang-affiliation, Uranga says.
Strong Families teaches parents what to look out for in their children’s behavior and how they can take an active, positive role in their kids’ lives. “It’s less about being an authoritative figure and preventing children from doing things, which was actually making things worse, and more about learning how to create limits with love and be a balanced family,” Lehner says. “It can be very dangerous to be overly controlling. It can push kids further into gang life.”
One unexpected result of the Strong Families Program has been a surfacing of many parents’ own histories of trauma, which has provided more clear routes for healing and improvements in their children’s understanding of their family’s needs.
“Participants have learned communication, how to release stress in healthy ways—like exercising together as a family—and an overall shift from intensity in the household, to more positivity and calmness,” Lehner says. “It’s been a way for people to get over their wounds, and to keep from repeating them.” — Joel Hersch
Learn: about services, programs or current activities. Connect: to the most pressing need or event. Give: to Strong Families Program through the Community Fund online at cfscc.org.
HAVEN OFFERS HOPE
Safe Schools Project
Two years ago, Ron Indra, a teacher at Harbor High School in Santa Cruz and director of the Safe Schools Project for Santa Cruz County, received a phone call in the evening from a local student in need of urgent help.
“’You don’t know me,’” the child said. “’A friend of a friend gave me your number. My parents just went out to dinner and a movie, and I have a full bottle of Ambien [sleeping pills] from my mother and a bottle of Jack Daniels,’” Indra recalls. “He said, ‘You have 15 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t take it.”
It was not the first call Indra had received of that kind and it would not be the last.
The 13-year-old child knew he was gay but, amidst ruthless bullying at school and a sense of not belonging, he was not “out” about his sexual orientation, Indra says. He was struggling terribly and had come to feel entirely isolated.
“I did about a two-and-a-half hour dance on the phone,” he says. “I talked to him, I counseled him, I joked, I laughed, I cried—I did everything I could to keep him on the phone until his parents came back.”
Later, Indra was able to connect the teen with the Gay-Straight Alliance network at his school and a youth group at the Diversity Center, which eventually helped him to openly embrace his identity.
Indra’s job description within the Safe Schools Project is, in a nutshell, to protect kids. He works closely with local teachers, parents and youth to make school a safe place for students who are struggling with their identity or, worse, suffering abuse.
Being a teenager is an incredibly difficult time of life, he says. Add to that the confusion, fear and intolerance from other teens that can come when a young person who has or displays an alternative sexual orientation—LGBT, or anything for that matter—then the world can start to seem pretty hopeless.
The Safe Schools Project was founded in 2004 to better implement Assembly Bill 537, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000. The safety measures are means of maintaining schools as one of the few places students going through difficult times can feel comfortable and protected.
“Kids don’t learn if they don’t feel safe,” Indra says. “If I’m worried about getting to the next class without getting bullied, beat up, harassed, whatever—I’m not paying attention to what the teacher is doing. And sometimes, for a lot of these kids, the classroom is the only place they feel safe. They don’t feel safe on the streets or at home. And school is the one place they can hold on to.”
AB 537 officers, as they are called, work to protect young people who are questioning or have an alternative sexuality, as well as allies to the LGBT community, and students who are simply perceived as LGBT, Indra says.
“This extends to kids who are bullied because of the clothes they wear, the way they look, or the way they wear their hair,” he says.
Indra also works directly with the bullies themselves, who, he notes, are often dealing with a variety of very difficult issues themselves and may need just as much help as the bully’s target.
With the overturning of DOMA, (the Defense of Marriage Act), and campaigns addressing homophobia in communities, Indra says there has been significant progress for LGBT populations, but that intolerance continues to be an issue.
“We have more kids coming out earlier,” he says. “And I think that’s because they’re perceiving it’s safe to do that. But as that happens—coming out earlier—it trips more triggers on people’s intolerance, and creates more situations where we have to intervene and educate.”
Cynthia Hawthorne, a board member of Santa Cruz City Schools, says the Safe Schools Project, and Indra in particular, has a huge, positive impact on schools throughout the county.
“If you’re having a hard time adjusting to who you are, whether in school or in the community, or in your family, Ron is the guy you can go to,” she says. “The difference in our schools is amazing. Obviously we haven’t solved every problem. But what we have is an avenue to address the issues and actually intervene when kids aren’t feeling safe.”
Indra says the Safe Schools Program is about a lot more than just establishing tolerance.
“I believe kids deserve much more than tolerance,” he says. “They need to be accepted. They need to be embraced in the community. And they need our support.” — Joel Hersch
Learn: about services, programs or current activities. Connect: to the most pressing need or event. Give: to Safe Schools Project through the Community Fund online at cfscc.org.