OVYF takes stock
by Jesse Phelps
The Ojai Valley Youth Foundation needs your help. It has just
completed its five-year mission to instill improved social health
in the community and has exhausted the grant that launched that
mission. Executive director Caryn Bosson says she thinks the
citizens of Ojai are ready to take the next step.
"Where the Youth Foundation fits in is providing a solid
layer of prevention activity," said Bosson, "while
continuing to activate our entire community and collaborating
together so we are woven so tight no child can fall through."
But Both Bosson and OVYF board member and Nordhoff 10th-grader
Caitlin Smith say they love watching the foundation's accomplishments
grow wings in the forms of lives changed and a community awoken.
"It just changes the way people think. And it doesn't have
to be done by us, it just changes how the community thinks,"
OVYF was born in 1996, when a collaborative made up of the Ojai
City Council, the Ojai Unified School District and the Ventura
County Sheriff's Department created the Ojai Youth Master Plan.
"At that time," says Bosson, "there were a lot
of youth issues. 1995, '96, there were racial tensions, fights.
Gangs were simmering even more than they are now. There was a
lot of pressure on some different areas."
More than 1,000 local residents contributed to the formation
of the plan, which outlined goals including working together
to support a safe, healthy, nurturing environment for families
and the community, to increase valley-wide enrichment activities,
to prepare youth for the future through educational and employment
opportunities, to foster respect and communication among people
of all ages, races and backgrounds and to locate and create resources.
It was "a way that the community could sort of systematically
address what the youth really need," said Bosson. "People
were so ready. It was really neat, it was so grassroots. And
out of it came these goals and objectives and 90 percent at this
point now have been met. Because, this was like this, it just
blasted us off."
In the beginning, the twin challenges of funding and the logistics
reared their ugly heads. "We had this fabulous plan at the
end of 1996 and then came the hardest moment," remembers
Bosson. Money was hard to come by. "I mean, we cleaned out
closets at Chaparral High School."
Yet because "all kinds of good things were happening in
the community with volunteer effort," the OVYF received
a million dollar grant from the California Health Foundation.
"We had all these committees," Bosson laughs. "We
had a planning committee and a marketing committee and a leadership
committee. And we had to follow their guidelines and it was about
health." After taking a good hard look at the needs of the
community, OVYF focused on social health and the idea of bridging
"The social health issues that we addressed were the divides
among people of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities,"
Bosson said. "But especially, and the main point was, that
young people were resources. In being involved and improving
the community's well-being, they were improving their own well
Bosson says people don't see the whole effect of the foundation
because each child takes from it what he puts in. "People
want to see the building," she laughs. But the foundation
didn't spend its money on construction. It is housed in a modest
three-room office on Church Street and the money has gone to
programs and projects.
The One-on-One Mentoring Program matches responsible adults with
youth in the fourth through eighth grades, aiming to create matches
which benefit both mentor and mentee. The mentor serves as a
role model, gives encouragement and support, and helps the mentee
become more involved in positive activities. The matches meet
on their own schedule for at least two hours a week, after school,
in the evenings or on weekends for a period of at least a year.
Generation Communications (GenCom), an in-house but now self-supporting
graphic design company, has a long-time professional at the helm
and the staff is rounded out by three students. It takes independent
contracts and is fully self-funded.
OVYF's Youth Planning Group instituted the youth fitness center
at Sarzotti Park and the foundation reinstated Ojai's Youth Employment
Service. Student participant Wendy Velasquez coordinated student
diversity days, which inspired the insertion of diversity studies
into the curriculum of Ojai's schools.
Smith says the formation of the "ABC" or Anti-Bias
Club was another offshoot of the foundation's focus on diversity.
Smith also lauds the Action Club as a positive opportunity for
kids to work together across age lines. An after-school program
in which Nordhoff students act as mentors to kids from Matilija,
action gives the kids role models and opportunities to engage
in community service projects as well as artistic endeavors such
as the suitcase project, an activity where the kids "are
fixing up, decorating and making works of art out of old suitcases."
In January, 2002, seven youth and two adults were sworn in as
the City of Ojai's first Youth Commission. The commission is
funded by the city and training is provided by the foundation.
Modeled after the City Council, the commission provides an outlet
for Ojai's budding politicians to practice their chops.
Bosson says, "We make it fun. We just get people into a
frame of mind where they feel comfortable."
Intern programs include graphics, writing, Web, video, drama,
GenEvents and photography. As an example of activities undertaken,
graphics interns are trained to design and produce a wide range
of materials including posters, invitations, brochures, ads,
logos and greeting cards. Youth participants are mentored by
experienced professionals and in many cases are launched on professional
GenCom has a client list that includes Ojai Rotary, the City
of Ojai Department of Public Works and the Ventura County Department
of Public Health Anti-tobacco Fund.
Former participant Severo Lara,
Bosson says, was in danger of becoming a victim of gang violence
before he tried expressing himself through the foundation. Now
he's a successful inspirational speaker.
In the last year, more than 1,000 community members directly
participated in OVYF programs and events. The list of donors
to the foundation reads like the Ojai phone book. The foundation
truly is a community-wide phenomenon and Bosson is excited that
Ojai has become a model for other towns looking to begin youth
programs of their own.
"If you go to the conferences, you'll see we're way out
ahead," she said. The foundation will continue on but without
the aid of grant money, the need for community donations is at
an all-time high."This wonderful grant money that came from
outside of the community funded five years of research and development,"
says Bosson. "Now, we are looking more and more for community
contributions." In 2001-'02, community contributions made
up only 22 percent of the total budget, while the now-defunct
grant accounted for 47 percent. This year, that money will have
to come from other sources. The foundation's goal is to raise
$40,000 by year's end and they are within about $8,000 of reaching
it. Interested community members can contact the foundation for
information about becoming a patron.Bosson says the loss of grant
money can be looked at as a positive because the foundation can
now determine its own direction more and listen to the needs
of the community without a predetermined focus on health.But
OVYF's mission to promote positive and creative connections between
youth and adults for the well-being of the community isn't likely
to change. Career and job exposure and mentoring will continue.
Bosson says the foundation is all about working "with youth,
not just for youth." In her view, it's very important for
teens to connect with adults, "not necessarily their parents,
but community adults. There's the adult world and there's the
teen world and there's a really important interlocking point,
and that's where health happens," she says.Smith agrees.
"There's a completely different way that you can relate
with your peers. It's a different world. And we need to see what
comes after this."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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