Fresno Academy Helps Families Escape Poverty

By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

At age 23, Nick Valencia of Calwa is a high school dropout and out-of-work father of two young kids. But he's motivated to make a better life for his family.

Valencia is among the first clients of the Fresno Bridge Academy, an experiment in two Fresno neighborhoods aimed at helping families bridge the gap from chronic poverty and public assistance to becoming self-sufficient, productive contributors to society.

Organizers say that by providing a cocoon of support, ranging from academic and vocational education, counseling and job placement to social and family services, the Bridge Academy removes obstacles -- and eliminates excuses -- for people who are accustomed to failure and futility.

Valencia said the academy is a turning point in a life earlier punctuated by drug use, homelessness and hardship.

"It's easy to say, 'I quit,' but this makes it easy to say, 'I'll make it.’”

The academy was conceived in 2003 by the Fresno Regional Jobs Initiative. But it had what Bridge Academy board Chairman Peter Weber called "a long gestation," first because of other priorities and, later, a lack of funds.

Now, armed with more than $300,000 from the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission, the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and AT&T, Bridge Academy launched this summer as an 18-month pilot effort in southeast Fresno and in the Lowell Elementary School neighborhood north of downtown Fresno.

Addressing many issues

Weber said organizers expect to serve 120 families in the two neighborhoods over the next year and a half.

At the same time, program leaders hope to help area employers find reliable workers for available entry-level jobs -- mechanics, health-care support, forklift operations and warehouse positions -- that require relatively short training periods.

"It's a comprehensive family effort," Weber said. "What we have found [in earlier programs] is that we can train the adults, even place them in jobs, but they still have family issues they don't know how to cope with."

Problems like finding baby sitters and transportation, medical care, a lack of workplace skills and poor money management can be stumbling blocks as serious as a lack of education and training, said Luis Santana, executive director of Reading and Beyond. Reading and Beyond is the lead agency managing the Fresno Bridge Academy, serving clients in the southeast while the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership is working with families in the Lowell Neighborhood.

What's new about the Bridge Academy approach, Santana said, isn't the scope of services -- many of which are already provided by such agencies as the county Department of Social Services, the Workforce Investment Board and others.

But putting roots down in neighborhoods, marshalling the entire array of vocational and social services and simplifying the referral process is different from what's been tried before in Fresno, Santana and Weber said.

While Bridge Academy has taken cues from similar successful programs in such places as Stockton and Oakland, where the focus is on social services, Weber said he's unaware of any that have merged as many agencies and services with job training and placement into such a unified effort.

"It's ambitious, but we think it's the right way to go," Weber added.

Case managers interview prospective clients not only to learn their job skills and what vocational training and placement services they need, but also what social-service help the clients and their families need -- from drug or alcohol treatment and bus tokens to food stamps, child care and literacy tutoring for children and adults.

"We're not just helping someone find a job," Santana said. "We're supporting the entire family."

Bridge Academy managers will coordinate that safety net of support to families for at least a year after job placement. "The idea is to set them up for success," Santana said.

But progress is slow. While more than 100 people have had initial eligibility interviews since the program started in May, only eight clients have been fully enrolled -- certified to participate in existing job-training programs through the Workforce Investment Board's Workforce Connection.

Starting slowly

Weber said a challenge is identifying people who want to make a serious effort to reach self-reliance. "There's a social contract," he said. "We tell them, 'There's a lot in this for you, there's a lot that we're willing to do, but you've got to do your part.' "

Recruiters for Reading and Beyond and FIFUL are canvassing neighborhoods and, when school opens in the fall, will work with school administrators to identify families as candidates for participation.

Because it's a social experiment, organizers will carefully track participants' success through the 18-month pilot period, looking for what works and what doesn't, Santana said, and fine-tune the program as it moves forward.

If it does what it's supposed to, "this can be replicated and expanded to communities throughout the Valley," Santana said.

Even more important than the program's commitment to job-seekers, organizers said, is the job-seeker's commitment to themselves.

"The ones who get some kind of help and are motivated are the ones who will succeed," Santana said. "At least those who fail won't be able to say the barriers weren't broken for them."

Motivation isn't an issue for Valencia, who grew up in Southern California but was given up by his parents and came to Fresno, alone and homeless, at age 15.

He attended Cambridge Continuation High but dropped out without a diploma because of the hardship of working at a nursing home to make money and living on the street.

"I slept under the bridge at Highway 99 and Ashlan Avenue," he said. "I've eaten out of garbage cans. I've had to guard my clothes from the other homeless guys."

A second chance

Now, Valencia hopes the Bridge Academy can help him make up for lost time. The academy's case managers have arranged for him to take classes to finish his high-school diploma, get new eyeglasses so he can see better to study, and have organized child care for his young sons, Nathaniel, 2, and 5-month-old Dominic, so he can attend classes and go to job interviews.

After he gets his diploma and finds a job, Valencia said, he wants to continue on to college and study for a career in computer technology and graphic arts.

"I want to go to college and be the one who says, 'I made it,' " he said. "I want to make a better life for my kids. I don't want them to see what I've seen."

Officials say they're mindful that some people may consider Bridge Academy a case of throwing money at an insurmountable problem.

But Santana said he believes the cost is a modest investment in people's lives and Fresno's future.

"We want these people to be able to contribute to society, not just consume services," he said. "If their situation never changes, it will cost us more. ... We want to break the cycle and produce a generation that can provide for themselves."

Valencia said he also knows skeptics will be watching the program.

"The only thing I can do," he said, "is thank people by showing them it's not going to be a waste."


This article was published in The Fresno Bee Newspaper and its website on July 25, 2010.