One child at a time
Daniel Diaz, an 18-year-old senior at Oxnard High School, spends his afternoons working at the Boys and Girls Club of greater Oxnard and Port Hueneme. He’s been going to the club for 10 years, since he was 8. Diaz says he wasn’t at all interested in school before then. His mom would often come home from work in the evenings to find her son sitting on the couch. He would have been watching TV and playing video games all afternoon, not having done any homework at all. That all changed when his aunt suggested that he start going to the Boys and Girls Club after school.

In elementary school and junior high, he would go after school to get help with his homework while his mom was at work. He ended up checking out the art department, the computer room, and playing sports with others kids. He says he also developed an interest in school, which he previously had not put much effort into. As a result, he’s now preparing for college and wants to study to be a meteorologist.

2Diaz says, “I definitely would not be getting ready for college right now if I hadn’t found the Boys and Girls Club. I’d probably be getting into things that aren’t good for me, but I definitely wouldn’t be going to college.”

The staff began talking to him at a young age about college, and sparked his interest. They guided him through the application process. Now he’s hoping to go to the University of Miami because of its atmospheric science program, something he doubts he would know much about without the influence of the club.

Diaz and his mom were so grateful for the positive influence of the Boys and Girls Club, they began volunteering whenever they could. When Diaz got to high school, he began volunteering as a junior counselor and was recently hired as a staff member. He now helps to provide the same kind of positive influence for younger teens. He says that after everything the Club has done for him, he feels it’s his duty to give back. He says the friends he’s made there have become like a family to him, and he’s sure that the Boys and Girls Club will always be a part of his life. He tells younger kids who ask how they can become staff members, “You have to be committed to the club and just be there.”
As Daniel Diaz has discovered, the Boys and Girls Club provides a safe environment for kids to develop leadership and life skills. Tim Blaylock, chief professional officer of the Boys and Girls Club of Oxnard and Port Hueneme (BGCOP), says these programs help youth create goals for the future and provide opportunities to explore educational enhancement and explore a variety of career options. The goal is to help young people develop into caring, responsible and contributing citizens. Club programs help them to set goals and become successful at achieving them. BGCOP manages to do all that while collecting membership fees of only $15 a year. It relies heavily on community support.

According to the 2010 census, 209,578 residents of Ventura County are younger than 18 population. All of the Boys and Girls Clubs in Ventura County serve 22,683 youth, or about 10 percent of the juvenile population.

According to Blaylock, more than 30 percent of U.S. students don’t graduate from high school. But for Latino, Hispanic, African-American and Native American students, the number is dramatically worse, an alarming reality for those at the BGCOP considering that 70 percent of the participants are Latino. While only around 63 percent of students are graduating on time in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, 93 percent club participants graduate.

Low graduation rates lead to increases in unemployment, crime, poverty and poor health. Blaylock says, “By focusing on academics, health and fitness, and leadership and service, the children clubs serve will be better prepared to graduate high school and thrive as adults.”

BGCOP youth are also less likely to be arrested, less likely to be repeat offenders, and less likely to give birth as teenagers. In Ventura County, the arrest rate for youth is 11 percent but only 4 percent for BGCOP youth. Ventura County youth repeat crime rates are at 60 percent but just 9 percent for BGCOP participants. And while the Ventura County teen pregnancy rate is 14 percent, 10 percent above the national rate, it is 0 percent for BGCOP teen girls.

3The one stop, one shop nonprofit
The Ventura County Community Foundation is an invaluable resource for Ventura County nonprofits. The Center for Nonprofit Leadership is a project of VCCF that provides workshops for board members and staff of local nonprofits, teaching them how to run a nonprofit in the most efficient way possible. Last year, the center provided more than 100 workshops on nonprofit management to 2,000 participants from 500 organizations.

It has recently built a technology center for some of the workshops where participants can bring in projects they are currently working on and get assistance from the community experts who serve as the center’s faculty. Since the lab was completed in 2006, it has held 189 workshops for 1,398 attendees.

CEO and President Hugh Ralston says that over the last decade or so, the climate for nonprofits has changed dramatically for a variety of reasons. People are being extremely careful about which organizations they give to. They want to make sure the organization will be around year after year, so they are seeking out the most efficient, well-run organizations. The result is that, while many nonprofits are struggling to stay open, those that are changing and becoming more creative about their approach are coming out stronger and more resilient. They are much better prepared to weather any storm that may come, and VCCF helps nonprofits to figure out what they need to do to keep their doors open and become the most efficient at what they do.

4Conquer hunger first
Bonnie Weigel, president and CEO of FOOD Share, describes a seventh-grade boy who waits once a week in the FOOD Share grocery line. He lives with his grandmother and both parents, who all work full time and can’t afford to miss work. The only conceivable way for them to get the groceries they so badly need is for the seventh-grader to miss school and wait in line for his family. Sadly, this has become an all too familiar reality for many of the 73,000 people that FOOD Share serves every month.

FOOD Share is run by a few hundred volunteers who work with 150 nonprofit partners to help feed Ventura County.

Weigel says feeding people is one of the easiest things we can do to help those in need. While it would be very difficult to help so many individual families pay their rent each month, it is much more manageable to give a struggling family a few bags of groceries. According to Weigel, for a family of four living very modestly, it costs $84,000 a year to live in Ventura County, a nearly impossible figure to reach for those making minimum wage. That $100 or so each week of groceries often means the difference between a family being able to keep their home or being out on the streets.

But FOOD Share is going beyond just handing out canned food donations. The organization understands that a balanced diet is the best kind, and that can’t always be found in a can. It has partnered with local growers and grocers to help bring fresh produce and healthy food to families.

FOOD Share also hosts workshops on healthy eating and childhood nutrition. It is all about health and a more holistic approach. Weigel calls it “a great, respectful way to talk about the issue of hunger.” In 2010, 1,901 children and adults received nutrition education through workshops, demonstrations and health fairs. It has started a children’s farmers market to teach children about long-term nutritious habits, gardening, and the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables. It works with 100-156 children at each farmers market. Weigel says that nutrition education goes hand in hand with hunger alleviation. It will often send a volunteer home with a family and show them how to cook a nutritious meal with the donated food and use it to supplement what they already have.

Last year, 5,634 people received 36,226 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables a month, free of charge, through their monthly mobile Community Market program. The Brown Bag Program provides supplemental groceries to 1,713 low-income senior citizens at 36 sites around Ventura County. The Snack Attack program provided healthy after-school snacks to 2,200 children a day at 21 sites throughout the county.

FOOD Share helps to feed the community by finding a diverse supply of food from partner grocery stores, food drives and local growers. Monetary donations to Food Share go to keeping basic food on the shelves and for emergencies. It says that with every dollar donated to FOOD Share, it can provide $7.15 worth of food to hungry families. Last year, it gave out 8.6 million pounds of food and are on track to give 10 million pounds this year. Although this varies by season, more than a third of the food each month is fresh produce.

5Making the best of First 5
Although it is actually an independent government entity and not a nonprofit, First 5 Ventura County has partnered with many local organizations to bring Ventura County parents the resources they need to make the most impact in their children’s early years. Funded by the tobacco tax, First 5 California says that the first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial. Throughout the county, they serve 32,000 children and 52,000 parents by connecting them to local services and providing them with health and educational resources. Most neighborhood centers report a waiting list for their services.

First 5 aims to educate parents before their children get to school, in the years when it says we can have the most impact. First 5 Ventura County Community Outreach Director Robin Godfrey says that in these years, 85 percent of a child’s brain is formed. It is this time in a child’s life that should be the focus for parents. After age five, parents and teachers will have to increase their efforts to make the same kind of difference in a child’s learning habits and education. First 5 says that the earlier we start, the greater is the chance that the child will become healthy, successful, and productive.

First 5 believes in focusing on developing the whole child. If children have access to great education but their teeth are falling out or they’re going to school hungry, then they do not have the best chance to become successful. First 5 provides information to parents and connects them to the best local care and resources.

First 5 Rio, one of the 11 Ventura County neighborhood centers, has partnered with FOOD Share to provide fresh produce along with diapers, clothing and other nonperishables for which 500 families wait in line each month. More than 1,400 children attended First 5 Ventura’s preschool programs last year. Ninety-one percent of the participating children had mastered the developmental skills necessary for kindergarten readiness by the end of the year.
Research shows that by focusing on the early years, we’ll start to have fewer special education placements, higher graduation rates, better grade progression, higher income potential, and eventually greater tax contribution as well as less crime and less need for welfare and public assistance later in life.

Finding home sweet home
Aspiranet is an organization that has partnered with the County of Ventura to help supplement the number of foster care families to meet the overwhelming demand. It operates as an overflow system for what the county doesn’t have the resources to do.

6According to Aspiranet Ventura County District Director Kris Bennett, there are approximately 780 children in the foster care system, on average, each month. Aspiranet is working with the county of Ventura to help ease the effect on children of being removed from their families by placing them in loving, permanent homes. On average, the county of Ventura places about 600 children in foster care in a year. Aspiranet finds homes for additional children, usually between three and 12 children, on average, each month, although it sometimes has to turn away up to 12 children a month because it lacks an adequate supply of foster families.

Because it is dealing with foster care on a smaller scale than the county, it is able to spend more time with each child and family. It does thorough evaluations of the families in their network, usually a revolving group of about 50 who may have space for a new child. It determines which child or children would be good matches for particular families, which often leads to more successful matches and even permanent homes for many children.

She describes the organization as a family-finding agency, although it provides other programs in addition to foster care services. Its main function is to create a support system for the families who decide to take on foster care children, and help guide them through the process, which can be difficult since many of the children it is dealing with are considered “high needs.” It can always use additional families because, very often, the families in the network decide to adopt their foster children and are no longer able to accept new ones.

Aspiranet’s ideal outcome is reuniting the child with their birth parents. In the meantime, they seek to keep the child from moving around from home to home. This can often be prevented by providing foster families with guidance and a network of support. If the child cannot return to his or her birth parents, Aspiranet aims for adoption by the same foster family, if possible, to avoid any further disturbance.

Bennett says moving around damages children and affects their well being. They can lose trust in adults and feel unwanted and become unresponsive to authority. But when children are placed in safe, stable and permanent environments, they are more likely to transition better.

Bennett compliments the efforts of the Ventura County system and says she thinks both the county foster care system and Aspiranet have been able to be so successful because they work well together. She says Ventura County does a great job of looking at the entire continuum to provide a collaborative and effective effort to benefit the kids in Ventura County.    

Get involved!
For more information about any of the aforementioned nonprofits and organizations go to their websites:

Boys and Girls Club of Oxnard and Port Hueneme

Ventura County Community Foundation

FOOD Share

First 5 Ventura County


Also, Daniel Diaz recently won the Youth Awards: