Community Fund

1coverwebGiving. Transformation. These are the themes that four local nonprofits bring to life in our annual Community Fund issue.

How important are local youths to you? To the four nonprofits featured on the following pages, youths are a significant focus. Behold the four stars of our annual Community Fund issue: the Summer Youth Employment Program, Watsonville Wetlands Watch, Mariposa’s Arts and Food What?! These dynamic organizations have made tremendous strides working with young people—from offering diverse educational services to providing unique, one-of-a-kind opportunities. So, over the next few pages, take some time and discover the inner workings of these local nonprofits and learn how your own contributions to the Community Fund can be so vital—see page 27 for donation information. In the meantime, get involved, be inspired.—Greg Archer, Editor


Summer Youth Employment Program

Rare opportunities foster growth and life skills

Back in 2009, when MaryAnn Moya was 22 years old, the world was her oyster. Unfortunately for her and many other people her age, she was entering the workforce at the worst possible time—during the peak of the recession.

cover_sypBut with the economic downturn, came a glimmer of hope: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The stimulus plan allotted $1.3 million to the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a division of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (CoE) designed to provide young people ages 14 to 24 from low-income households with career training and life skills, at job sites around town.

During the first summer of the program, Moya learned about working for an insurance company and how to handle payroll. “It was wonderful to learn new and different stuff,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity.”

Today, Moya is a full-time employee at the CoE, where she works in the Student Support Services department, and is a member of the School Attendance Review Board—a job opportunity that came about following the completion of her time with the SYEP.

“Once the hours were over, I wanted to volunteer [with the program],” she explains. “But the people here said, ‘you’re doing a great job, why don’t you keep working here?’”

A poster child for the program and what its participants can achieve with hard work, Moya is an inspiration to many young people currently in the SYEP, which is now working hard to stay afloat despite a lack of stimulus funds.

“When we received funding through ARRA, we hit the ground running,” says JoAnn Allen, manager at the CoE. “The first year, we had 360 youth participants, and over two summers we’ve had a total of about 900. But that was when it was fully funded with government dollars—when ARRA went away, jobs went away.”

This past summer was the first time that the SYEP ran without the help of government dollars, and, as a result, could support only 70 participants, with many staff members volunteering their time. “I had to turn away a lot of families and youth,” says Allen. “A lot of youth who need this support are not eligible, but the need is still there.”

Allen believes that interest in the program is so high because of the life lessons learned during each participant’s 120 hours of summer employment.

“For me, it wasn’t just about giving them a job—it’s not just money in hand—it’s about dreams,” explains Allen. “My husband and I came from humble beginnings, so we know that for many of these kids the money is not used to simply buy things, but to help their families. [The program] is a reason to be reengaged in school—now they know they need a degree.”

Creating good relationships with work sites around town is key to the success of the program, which has enabled participants to receive hands-on work experience in the fields of medicine, law enforcement, hospitality, real estate, journalism, construction, and more, based on their interests.

For 18-year-old Jesus Aguilera, a program participant since the beginning of June, the SYEP has afforded him the opportunity to learn about camerawork, scripting, interviewing, and creating vignettes at Community Television of Santa Cruz County.

“It’s been really great—I’ve got to learn many new things, like how to edit and record videos professionally,” says Aguilera. “We’ve done three interviews so far: one with Joe Ferrara who owns a comic-book shop, one with a professor at UCSC, and one with a boxer in Watsonville.”

Aguilera believes video editing will just be a fun hobby—he’s thinking about a career in criminology—but he recommends the SYEP to all young people who could use some guidance. “It’s a good experience,” he says.

Though local businesses and the Youth Resource Bank—a local nonprofit that financially supports youth in need and manages the SYEP’s funds—have helped keep the program running without government aid, the qualifications for program participants have greatly reduced the size of the eligible applicant pool.

Today, participants must be age 14 to 24, meet the 200 percent poverty requirement, and have the right to work in Santa Cruz County. The cost of sponsoring one youth to participate in the program is $3,000, which covers subsidies, clothing, bus passes, a job readiness workshop, and whatever else their job training requires. For $100, one youth can get bus passes for a month. $500 provides clothing and equipment for one participant.

“This is subsidized work with meaning,” says Allen, who encourages anyone who wants to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth to get involved. “It’s so important to invest in young people.” | Jenna Brogan

Learn: about services, programs or current activities.
Connect: to the most pressing need or event.
Give: to the Summer Youth Employment Program through Community Fund online at cfscc.org or call 662-2000 or by mailing in the form on page 27 of the 11/23/11 GOOD TIMES.
Community Foundation Santa Cruz County Facebok page.

Watsonville Wetlands Watch

Bold education program trains youths in ‘all things wetlands’

There are a number of forces working against the six freshwater sloughs that stretch up into the Pajaro Valley and the wetlands that surround them. Impacts from nearby farming, the introduction of non-native species, and encroaching residential and commercial developments are among the modern threats to this historically rich and diverse habitat. For years, Kris Beall, who is the former executive director and current board chairperson of Watsonville Wetlands Watch, remembers seeing new construction crawl nearer to the water.

cover_wwet“Every week when I drove by, it seemed like the row of houses was getting closer and closer to the sloughs,” says Beall, who worked for the Elkhorn Slough Foundation at the time.

But luckily, there’s also a sizeable force working to protect the wetlands. Watsonville Wetland Watch was born in 1991 when a group of neighbors organized to protest plans for 1,600 homes and a golf course on 500 acres of what is now prime organic strawberry agriculture land. (It was recently acquired by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and will now stay agricultural land for perpetuity.) The group was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999, and moved into its current headquarters, the Fitz Wetlands Educational Resource Center (WERC), on the Pajaro Valley High School campus in 2005.

Watsonville Wetlands Watch is, in Beall’s words, “a very complex little organization doing a lot of different things.” It currently manages more than 1,000 acres of wetland habitat restorations, which involves planting thousands of native plants, removing invasive species, monitoring water quality, helping to boost native animal populations, and much more. Historically, the Watsonville wetlands were the breeding ground for tri-colored blackbirds, horned larks, burrowing owls, and numerous other birds, and the waters were once home to Western Pond Turtles and red-legged frogs. These are just some of the creatures that disappeared or stopped breeding in the sloughs over the years. But there’s evidence that efforts to bring them back are working, albeit gradually: thanks to a WWW pond restoration project, 18 red-legged frogs were recently counted in the breeding pond in which only two were counted last year. Two burrowing owls, a sensitive species, recently made a welcomed reappearance on the high school campus, and a handful of horned larks have once again been spotted in the area.

The organization’s mission includes a strong education component, as well. They work with 1,500 children a year through their educational programs, the flagship of which is Wetland Stewards. Each year, WWW selects six high school students from a large pool of applicants for this paid after-school internship. The students are “trained in all things wetlands, but also given a lot of training in leadership and what it means to be a good steward of the environment,” says Beall. As Wetland Stewards, they then work with elementary school children as mentors and wetland educators in the classroom and out in the field. In their eight weeks with the high school mentors, the children participate in inquiry-based and hands-on learning—one day they may go to the wetlands to observe aquatic invertebrates, and the next they may make sparkly and googly-eyed interpretations of the critters out of felt and pipe cleaner. But for the kids, some of whom Beall says have never seen the ocean despite living just a few miles away, it’s really about getting familiar with their own environment. “We want them to have fun and we want them to learn something, but we really want them to understand the value of these wetlands,” says Beall. Students also participate in the organization’s Project Tierra, a “Citizen Science Wetland Monitoring Program” that keeps tabs on water quality, vegetation and wildlife.

cover_watwet2Watsonville Wetlands Watch also offers a number of ways for the greater community to get involved. Every fourth Saturday of the month is volunteer day, when anyone is welcome to help sow seeds, plant native plants, or do whatever else needs doing. For those interested in taking their commitment to the next level, there is an eight-week training program for becoming a wetlands docent. There’s also a free lecture series and a “slough” of other WWW happenings to look out for.

“They are one of the last remaining and one of the largest freshwater systems on the Central Coast, so that makes them very precious,” Beall says of the local sloughs. “These sloughs are the lungs and the liver of the Earth. They’re cleaning up toxins and filtering out pollutants.”

Behind the center, Beall stands in the whipping wind and gestures out over the muted landscape. To the left is the group’s prolific greenhouse, where seeds sprout into beneficial native plants that will soon become a part of the surrounding wetlands. Beyond that is the high school, with its tidy square buildings and emblematic blacktop. The rest of the scene—from the WERC’s back door, straight to the horizon and expanding to the north on the right—is an undulating sea of patchy browns and greens. It’s plainness contrasts with the colorful sign erected to mark the lookout; an artist’s rendering shows the same view, but swelling with rich-colored grasses, brushes and flowers, filled in the center with water, and alive with birds, squirrels, and even the elusive native gray fox. “This is what we hope it will look like someday,” Beall says, looking down at the sign. “And it’s already starting to.” | Elizabeth Limbach

Learn: about services, programs or current activities.
Connect: to the most pressing need or event.
Give: to the Watsonville Wetlands Watch through Community Fund online at cfscc.org or call 662-2000 or by mailing in the form on page 27 of the 11/23/11 GOOD TIMES.
Community Foundation Santa Cruz County Facebok page.

Mariposa’s Art

Creative programs offer opportunities for expression

Adrian Torres wishes there has been something like Mariposa’s Art around when he was a kid growing up in Watsonville. The nonprofit helps children in underserved communities, like Live Oak and South County, by giving them after-school arts activities that can keep them out of trouble, develop their leadership and artistic skills and ultimately give them training and hope that they do have opportunities outside their difficulties.

cover_maryartTorres, 29, provides help to the youth in the community where he grew up.

He’s a part of the Art Teach program through Mariposa’s Art where he serves as a teacher and pairs up high school students with elementary classrooms, and oversees as the older kids provide art instruction to the younger ones.

These are children like Veronica, whom Torres has watched grow up from a high school student with a difficult family life to a young aspiring actress now studying at UC Santa Cruz. And then there’s another of his students, Hector, who also came from an underserved population, and instead of falling into trouble, he soaked up the opportunity to learn about art and now works for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

These types of successes are what Mariposa’s Art is all about. The organization launched about 12 years ago when a young woman named Theresa Stevens was unsettled about the arts offerings in schools. So she decided to create a curriculum—Mariposa’s Art—and it blossomed. Its main focus has always been to serve disadvantaged children by providing them with arts opportunities. The program has many layers—music and art classes offered to elementary aged school children, and leadership training to high school students. The program continued to grow and eventually in 2011 the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County took over leadership of the program. Now, Mariposa’s Art has a new home and complements the already intact arts education offerings through the Cultural Council, which teaches in-school arts classes through SPECTRA.

Two of the most interesting elements of Mariposa’s Art are its Art Teach and Guitar Teach programs. Within these programs, a student with an affinity for drawing, painting, water color or strumming the guitar can get connected with an adult such as Torres who trains these students how to run a classroom, how to work with students, how to teach artistic techniques to children and so on. Torres accompanies his trainees (who can also get paid for doing this work) to local elementary schools where they employ their training and help underserved children learn how to sketch, pick on a guitar, conjure up a song, or recreate the sky they see outside. It’s a successful, motivated learning structure.

There’s the story of a 14-year-old girl who spoke at an event last year about her experience with Mariposa’s Art. As she shared with people about how she previously had no friends and people didn’t respond to her, she started to weep. Then she explained how through Guitar Teach she had discovered the guitar and it changed her from the inside out. She became outgoing, she made friends and ultimately she was able to stand in front of this large group and tell her story.

It’s tales like these that keep Mariposa’s Art alive and people like Torres doing the work that he does so well.

“Not all students excel in scholastics and it’s a means to express themselves and do so in a safe place,” says Michelle Williams, the executive director of the Cultural Council. “Art is a place to be messy. It fills in a missing hole. Arts aren’t an ‘extra,’ it’s a part of who we are and how we develop.” | Christa Martin

Learn: about services, programs or current activities.
Connect: to the most pressing need or event.
Give: to Mariposa’s Arts through Community Fund online at cfscc.org or call 662-2000 or by mailing in the form on page 27 of the 11/23/11 GOOD TIMES.
Community Foundation Santa Cruz County Facebok page.


Food, What?!

Youth Empowerment, Food Justice and Farming

Eight months ago, 16-year-old Max Tejada was an at-risk youth, abusing drugs, partying and being apathetic about larger social issues in his community. Eight months ago, Edgar Garcia was ambling through his alternative high school, indifferent to his nutrition, schoolwork or future trajectory after graduation. Eight months ago is old news.

cover_foowhat2“I remember the first day of the spring internship,” says Max, a senior at Harbor High. “I was riding up (to the farm) with my homies, and we were in the car smoking cigarettes, and doing all this junk we weren’t supposed to be doing.” Max didn’t know, but he was driving toward the beginning of a three-season program where his involvement would precipitate a dramatic shift in his life.

Max is one of a number of at-risk youth involved in “Food, What?!” The organization, which comes out the UC Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Life Lab, is a youth empowerment and food justice program. It uses food, sustainable agriculture and health as the vehicle for teen leadership development and personal growth. Food, What?! partners with Santa Cruz County teens to grow, cook, eat and distribute sustainably raised food. While they are growing healthy food for themselves, their families, and other members of the low-income community, they are becoming confident leaders in their daily lives. “It provides us a space to be leaders because it puts us in leadership roles with a lot of support, and that sets us up for leadership in other spaces,” says Max.

Last spring, these high school seniors joined Food, What?! through the first of their three seasons of programming. Occupying a space on the UCSC campus, the Food, What?! Farm is nothing short of breathtaking. Don’t be fooled by the rows of produce and flowers that line almost every inch of the space, or by the fact that all these crops were planted by students involved, Food, What?! is not a farmer training program. “I get it all the time,” says director Doron Comerchero. “‘So you’re teaching farming? Oh, it’s a farmer training program?’ No. We farm, we eat, we cook, we do a lot of food justice, but at the heart of it, it’s about [them]. It’s about youth empowerment.”

For Max, continuing with FoodWhat?! from the spring internship into the Summer Job Program meant quitting drugs and focusing in on the program. “It catapulted me into a new phase of my life, where instead of fooling around, I’m thinking more about myself, I’m thinking about what’s healthy for me and the people I’m around.”

Food, What?! youth puts this sentiment into practice through the many food justice projects they work on in the community. Each project offers them valuable job training and leadership skills. The youth grow, harvest, and market fresh, affordable produce to the low-income community in the Beach Flats. Last summer, the youth volunteered more than 600 community service hours at the Homeless Garden Project. They learned quality control and enhanced their work ethic on the Freewheelin’ Farm. They built raised beds at the downtown Teen Center and prepared half a dozen neglected gardens at local schools for the start of the new academic year. And although they are dedicated to making positive change in the wider community, the more subtle change (with huge impacts) is happening on the level of the youth and their families. As part of their summer job, each youth is growing a weekly share of top quality organic fruits and vegetables for their own family.

“They are engaging in a food justice project in their most inner circle,” says Comerchero.

Youth are offered the tools and support to tackle food justice issues, something neither Max nor Edgar are strangers to. Max—“I care about [food justice] because my mom used to work as a farmer in the fields, and so did my dad. And I don’t like that kind of mistreatment happening to my people, or any people, or to the earth.”

cover_foowhat1Edgar was born and raised in Mexico among a family that worked predominantly in farming as well as growing their own food. “When I was little I used to go work with them, take care of the fields. [It helped me understand that] food justice is good. Everybody needs food, and to eat healthier. No one [should have] to eat a lot of chemicals.”

There are other parts to the magic of Food, What?! “I’ve heard multiple times from our youth crew that this becomes a safe space for them,” comments Farm and Program Manager, Abby Bell. “[It’s] a respite from the rest of [their] lives, where [they] can take a breath of fresh air, and forget all their troubles and worries, and be present and be who they want to be and grow with the plants.” Comerchero adds, “It’s really a place to build your confidence and your skills so that when you return—which is every day—to your community, to your life, to your challenges, you have the tools and the techniques and the confidence to be who you really want to be.”

Today, Max is truly a leader. Bell and the Food, What?! Crew recently attended the three-day Bioneers Conference (‘breakthrough solutions for people and the planet’) where Max was chosen to speak on a panel about his relationship with food justice. He has also been motivated to seek out a career path where he can help make changes in the world after school.

For Edgar, things are markedly different as well. After his involvement in Food, What?! Edgar noted that he has a brighter future: “[Food, What?!] helps me in school to stay focused, because I want to graduate, get my diploma. I’ve worked a lot of jobs in the past, worked with family friends, I was always just asking for help. Now I say tell me what to do and I’ll take care of it.” | Jenny Simeone

Learn: about services, programs or current activities.
Connect: to the most pressing need or event.
Give: to Food, What?! through Community Fund online at cfscc.org or call 662-2000 or by mailing in the form on page 27 of the 11/23/11 GOOD TIMES.
Community Foundation Santa Cruz County Facebok page.

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