Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bob Weir to Help Rex grantee Project Avary Celebrate its 10th Anniversary

If you are going to be in San Francisco on Wednesday, March 4th, please join Project Avary at the Great American Music Hall for an intimate evening that promises to be a literary and musical treat. Project Avary offers summer and family camps, field trips, and leadership programs for children with incarcerated parents. Founded by former Grateful Dead manager Danny Rifkin and supported from the beginning by the Rex Foundation, Avary is happy and proud to have seen so many of our children grow and thrive.

The festivities will include a conversation between KQED’s Michael Krasny and author Isabel Allende as well as a musical performance by Moonalice with special guests Bob Weir and Mark Karan. Your ticket also gets you dinner, entry to a silent auction, (which will include special signed collector’s items), and a chance to meet some of our children. Come and hear about their successes in college, the arts, the workplace, and the community! Just complete the online request for an invitation. Tickets are $100, with all net proceeds benefiting Project Avary's programs. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Perspective on the Digital Divide

In the latest Rex Foundation newsletter, Ken McNeely, President – External Affairs for AT&T California, suggests that there must be a “will to change” among the public at large with regard to broadband Internet service -- and the importance of ensuring universal access to that service. He notes it will take corporate political will, in combination with policy makers, to effect the changes needed to ensure digital inclusion.

Looking at earlier products or services that were deemed so essential as to require subsidized access for those who couldn't afford them, he asks, "Is broadband on the same level as subsidizing food and public education? Should every student have a computer and Internet access?"


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Monday, September 17, 2007

What Should Public Education Be?

Many schools across the U.S., particularly public ones, face budget constraints and challenges to beef up standardized test scores. As a result, they’ve severely cut, if not eliminated, music and arts education.

In the course of its 24-year history, the Rex Foundation, like many other philanthropic organizations, has helped to fund grassroots groups that find innovative ways to foster creativity in young people and serve as models for similar efforts elsewhere.

But to consider where the arts fit into public education, we first have to consider the nature of public education itself.

Over the centuries in which it's been a key component of American society, it's been perceived as (among other things) preparing the younger generation for the responsibilities of democracy, giving them the necessary job skills to support themselves and contribute to the economy, providing them with critical thinking skills, or helping them find their own most fulfilling path in life.

A key issue, of course, is that public education is funded by the taxpayers, who not unnaturally see themselves as stakeholders, and hence is greatly subject to the vicissitudes of political wind-shifting.

As you see it — as a citizen, a taxpayer, possibly a parent and certainly a former kid — what do you think the true job of public education is? Where is the current version measuring up? Where is it falling short?

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Project Avary: A Better Way

Project Avary: A Better Way

When a parent goes to prison, statistics show their kids have drastically increased odds of heading down the same path. Project Avary takes an intensive approach to breaking that cycle.

 By Mary Eisenhart

Back in the mid-’90s, Danny Rifkin, a longtime Grateful Dead family member and then the Rex Foundation’s executive director, was looking for a new challenge. “It was about a year after Jerry died,” he recalls, “and I was asking friends of mine whom I held in high regard for ideas for what I might next do in life.”

One of the friends he talked with was Earl Smith, who served as a chaplain at San Quentin prison. Smith told him that while there were some community-based organizations that helped former prisoners re-enter the community, and a few agencies to help families while loved ones were incarcerated, there were next to no resources specifically devoted to helping the children of incarcerated parents cope with the myriad issues that come with having a parent in prison.

The results, Smith said, were there for all to see, with sons following fathers following grandfathers into the prison system. But he had an idea of what might break the cycle — and who might want to do it.

Danny Rifkin, Project Avary founder

Rifkin recalls, “When Earl brought up the fact that there were no programs for children with incarcerated parents and that what would be good would be a summer camp and follow-up program, a light bulb went off in my mind. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and with my previous experiences at Slide Ranch and Camp Winnarainbow, I had the experience and potential staff resources necessary to get the project going.

I was, at the time, the administrator of the Rex Foundation, so I wrote a letter to the board asking them if I could use Rex as an umbrella organization until we could establish our own non-profit status and whether Rex would supply a $10,000 start-up grant. The response to both requests was positive. In addition, Caryl, Mickey Hart’s wife, happened to see my letter and offered an additional grant of $10,000 from her family’s foundation, the Ohrbach Foundation. This was very validating for me, and I knew I was onto the next right thing.”

Launched in 1999, Project Avary (Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth) began with Rifkin and a group of friends taking 32 kids to a week of camp in the Sierras. By the next year it had grown to three weeks, with a fourth added in 2004. But Avary’s work extended beyond just taking at-risk kids to camp — monthly Avary Adventure Days take kids on field trips throughout the Bay Area, there’s a Family Camp once a year, and twice-yearly celebrations gather the whole Avary community. There are leadership retreats and a mentor program to help older youth in the program work with the younger kids.

Underlying all of Avary’s work is offering “The Avary Way” as an alternative family structure and way of life to kids whose regular lives often lack both stability and positive influence. “The Avary Way” emphasizes five areas (see sidebar): Social skills in daily life, creative arts, environmental education, physical activity and nutrition, and life skills.  Along the way there are rituals, gatherings and celebrations to honor the kids and their progress.

Avary is a small, resource-intensive (for example, at camp there’s one counselor for every two kids) effort serving the San Francisco Bay Area — but it offers a clear demonstration that what it’s doing works. Remarkably, of approximately 300 kids who have attended Avary camp since 1999, 159 remain involved today.

Since that first startup grant in 1999, Rex has continued to support Avary with subsequent grants in 2002, 2004 and 2006, as Avary itself has continued to evolve. Says Herb Castillo, who became Avary’s executive director last year when Rifkin retired, “In 2004 there was a surge in teen involvement. Rex funding over the following two years was instrumental in helping Avary expand the Teen Leadership program’s capacity to accommodate the large number of children choosing to commit their teen years to Avary. Today, nearly 60 of the over 150 children and youth participating in Avary are teenagers.”

We recently had a chance to speak with Castillo about Avary’s work, the difficulties, and the rewards.

Herb Castillo, Project Avary Executive Director

Rex Foundation: What are the particular challenges kids with incarcerated parents face? Who are these kids — where do they live, what are their families like?

Herb Castillo, Project Avary: The families we serve are typically “multi-problem families” who face a range of interrelated challenges, including poverty, lack of a stable home environment, lack of educational resources, and physical and mental health issues.

Research tells us that children of incarcerated parents experience trauma affecting their emotional and even physical development. Their ability to trust is undermined. Other problems include anxiety, asocial behavior, and inability to focus or concentrate.

Also, the constant contact children have, through their parent or parents, with the criminal justice system can socialize a child, such that their life chances of incarceration can be as much as five times more than other children’s.

There are an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 children of incarcerated parents living in the Bay Area. Obviously we are only serving a fraction, but across a wide geographic area. The kids Avary serves live in eight Bay Area counties and in 39 cities.

Nearly 60% of Avary kids live with the remaining parent and another 20% with a relative, usually a grandmom. Most of our kids are low-income, live in tough neighborhoods where even a walk to the school is filled with risk, and usually suffer from inadequate health care and under-resourced schools. 

Rex: What’s the process for deciding which kids get to enter the program?

Project Avary: Summer camp is the primary entry point for a new child to join Avary. The child must be between 8.5 and 11 and usually comes to our attention through a teacher or social worker. Thereafter we strive to work with a child into young adulthood and base decisions around advancing into the Teen program on a child’s ability to thrive in our program.

We interview the parents and the referring party to determine a child’s maturity and readiness to attend camp, as well as fit into a community. Many of our kids have suffered emotional and physical abuse (in some instances even sexual abuse) and neglect. We want to be aware of potential problems, but do not screen out kids because they have problems. We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.

Rex: You've mentioned that teens are your fastest-growing constituency. To what extent is this the result of kids starting the program at an earlier age and sticking around? And was this part of the plan from the beginning, or an unexpected evolution?

Project Avary:: Avary accepts only children between ages 8.5 and 11. Their commitment to remain involved in our program begins to form with their first summer camp, when they are introduced to our values and practices.

They are told that during the first two years of their involvement with Avary, they will be held to one-week sessions at summer camp; that if they wish to graduate to two-week status and ultimately enter the Teen Leadership program, they must show that they are meeting the objectives under our Personal Responsibility goal. When they reach 13 and 14, they are considered for entry to the Teen program.

However, while in the program, they demonstrate progress in achieving Community Responsibility objectives. In short, we present to our kids values and goals; we support them in achieving those goals; and, as you can see, many strive to meet these expectations.

Was this part of the plan? Yes and no. Yes, because we saw early on a number of the older kids stay with the program. No, because I don’t think Danny or anyone else was prepared for the number of kids who would ultimately stay with Avary into their teens.

Rex: Avary’s long-term, family-like commitment to the kids who enter the program is very striking.  Could you elaborate on how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: What impressed me most when I joined Avary was the constant reference to “the Avary Way.” The Avary Way is based on values and practices that promote healthy lifestyles and appropriate youth development.

When children attend their first summer camp, they learn that Avary focuses on five areas of development: social skills for daily life; creative arts; environmental education; nutrition and physical fitness; and life skills training.

For children to advance through our program — which means graduation from one week to two weeks, entry to the Teen Leadership Program, and graduation to senior staff — they must demonstrate progress in each of these areas.

Surrounding these expectations is a sense of family, which for us means showing our appreciation and committing our support for one another. We take this mutual responsibility seriously.

Rex: Also striking is the fact that Avary has its own rituals, rites of passage and so on. Again, could you talk about how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: We think that rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage should be used to signal major stages and achievements in our lives. When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.

This is key: the sense of mutual responsibility towards one another. Isn’t this what we mean with all the talk of a civil society? It is more than being respectful; it also means being supportive and available to cheer or help when needed.

Rex: Obviously, for reasons ranging from financial to geographic, Avary can’t help every child of incarcerated parents. Does it have ripple effects with kids and families outside the program? Could the model be adapted elsewhere?

Project Avary: Avary is a very unique organization. We have blended enrichment, mentoring and counseling, environmental stewardship, professional training, and leadership development into an integrated array of activities that promote positive and healthy youth lifestyles.

We see firsthand the positive effects of Avary when our kids commit to Avary in their teen years; when siblings and relatives of one Avary child seek to enter our program; when our older kids enter college or survive multiple foster care placements to live stable and productive lives. I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.

Rex: The kids who started in 1999 would be approaching adulthood now. What’s become of them?

Project Avary: I can only comment on the kids who remain involved with us.

The two oldest are on full scholarship at San Diego State University. The next oldest is in community college and living independently. She is a former foster care child, which makes her current circumstances especially laudable.

Next is a young woman we have integrated into our senior summer staff who will be attending San Francisco Community College in the fall and whose tuition at SF State, where she will continue after finishing with the JC, will be covered by the company with whom she is currently employed.

Rex: One of your recent developments is a mentoring program. How does that work, and do you need more mentors? If so, what qualities are you looking for?

Project Avary: Actually, we launched the mentoring program three years ago with the aid of a federal grant. Those funds have ended, and while we will continue to support the mentoring relationships that are currently active, we intend to focus our energy on developing a mentoring program from within.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.

In the same vein, we intend to develop a buddy system where our older teens are matched to our younger participants for the purpose of providing guidance and support. We think this is more in line with the sense of family that has developed at Avary.

Rex: By your own calculations, you’re serving maybe 1/1000th of the Bay Area kids in this situation. How, if at all, could the Avary model be expanded to serve these other kids without losing quality of service?  What issues are involved?

Project Avary:That’s a good question, and I’m not sure it would be possible — to maintain the same quality of service, I mean. We could expand, bring in more kids, but I’m not sure we would be able to maintain the same feeling of family and community.

In fact, I’m looking at ways to deepen and intensify our familiarity and relationships with the current kids in the program, but that would involve seeing our kids more even more often than we do now.

Rex:Avary seems to be very much about quality rather than quantity. Unlike a lot of weeklong programs that essentially have no contact with kids for the rest of the year, Avary sees the bonds formed at camp as essential and puts a lot of energy into fostering them. Which, in turn, entails a huge commitment of time and energy from not only the kids themselves (and their families), but the staff and volunteers. How do you sustain this energy?

Project Avary: First and foremost, once you become acquainted with the challenges confronting these kids and witness their desire and effort to overcome those challenges, any claim at emotional or physical fatigue is pretty silly.

While I’d been with Avary for nearly a year, I hadn’t attended summer camp until this summer, and I was absolutely unprepared for the profound emotional impact it would have on me.  If I didn’t think so before camp — and I’m sure I’m speaking for many of the summer camp staff — I am particularly resolved, especially after having experienced camp, not to let down these kids regardless of the effort or work required of me.

We call ourselves the Avary family and the Avary community. I believe that referring to and thinking of ourselves as family and community fundamentally determines how we act in relationship to our kids. 

Also, when I interviewed for this position with Danny, he talked about how some day we’d be able to select an executive director from the ranks of former campers. So OK, that’s how I’ve approached this job from the beginning, that our training, expectations, services, and care we provide our kids meet our mission of crafting a safe place where kids will realize their potential.

Why? First, this is the only way that kids with a heightened likelihood of experiencing incarceration sometime in their lives will develop the vision, confidence, and skills to avoid following in the footsteps of their parents. And second, this agency belongs to them — and if this Avary belongs to them, they need the skills and tools to manage it.

“We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.“ – Herb Castillo

“When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.”

– Herb Castillo

Tools and Skills for Life

Avary’s five focus areas provide the skills and tools children need to develop their emotional intelligence and express themselves successfully in the Avary community and in their lives.

1. Social Skills in Daily Life: All program activities emphasize cooperation, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Avary’s approach is child-centered rather than curriculum-centered. Counselors are trained to exploit “teachable moments“: When conflicts or meltdowns occur, they are mediated immediately — within the group or in focused conversation between the counselor(s) and the child or children involved. The conflict resolution skills they learn at camp are tools they can take back to their school playgrounds.

2. Creative Arts: Training in the arts offers a variety of benefits, including opportunities for reflection, self-expression, and communication, comfort with speaking and performing in public, and opportunities to discover and explore talents. Campers get a respite from television and other mass media and learn crafts, graphic arts, music, dance, improvisational acting, and storytelling. In past years, they have collaborated to write and perform skits and work on a community mural that celebrates multicultural awareness.

Children are supplied with two journals — one that Avary keeps for them to use for Adventure Day art lessons and reflection time; another in which they can collect friends’ signatures and their private writings and drawings.

3. Environmental Education: Many of these girls and boys have little opportunity to spend time out of doors. Lessons and experiences are designed to help them feel comfortable in nature, appreciate its essential importance, and develop a sense of their own role as stewards. Nature walks, storytelling, mini-science lessons, “eco-treasure hunts,” and an “Interdependence Day” celebration teach the children about the plant and animal life native to various local eco-systems.

4. Physical Activity and Nutrition: Avary participants are among the millions of American children affected by the epidemic of “diseases of lifestyle”— obesity, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. As participants in our programs, they are introduced to good eating habits and a wide variety of sports and physical activities — from indoor rock climbing and ice-skating to deep-water swimming lessons and aikido classes to traditional sports such as volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Cooperation, teamwork, and fitness are emphasized over competition.

Children sit down every day to three family-style meals preceded by group appreciations, singing, and community announcements. Kitchen staff use fresh wholesome ingredients and only minimally processed foods, and do not use refined sugar. Each of the main meals and two daily snacks includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Candy and junk food are not served.

5. Life Skills: Children learn practical skills they can use to serve themselves, the Avary community, and the community at large. The program has included classes in gardening, First Aid & CPR and cooking. At camp, children are responsible for cleaning up their cabins and are assigned to do chores in common areas, and help with meal preparation and cleanup.

—Project Avary

Xavier Meets His Mentor

From the Project Avary newsletter

“One of the great things about the Avary community is the chance to see synergy happen; to witness connections made between campers, families and staff arise in surprising ways. A great example of this phenomenon occurred at our 2005 Camp Reunion and Holiday Party.

“Pete Sears, a longtime friend of Danny Rifkin and father of one of our counselors, offered to play the piano for our party. We felt very lucky to have the donated time of a professional musician, providing ambiance for the event. When Pete arrived, he happily began playing what seemed to him to be background music for the Avary families, staff, and supporters in attendance.

“While the rest of the children waited for a Bingo game to start, Xavier took an interest in what Pete was doing, and asked if he could play too. It wasn’t long before the pair was jamming together, with Pete establishing a structured baseline to support the boy’s improvisational spirit. They quickly gained the attention of the whole room.

“Most surprising, the young man — just 9 years old — had never had piano lessons. The pair formed an instant musical friendship and Pete soon approached Avary with a request: could he help Xavier develop this talent?

"In 2006, we were able to purchase a used piano for Xavier and match him with Pete as a mentor. Unlike other mentor matches, where meetings are a chance to get out, Pete and Xavier spend most of their time in Xavier’s home in front of the small upright piano that sits at the base of the stairs. Sometimes they just improv jazzy riffs, but often they work at whole songs.

“Recently, Xavier played ‘Amazing Grace’ for his church and received a standing ovation. His grandma says it’s amazing how he’s excelling at the piano. We think the difference a caring adult can make is amazing.”

—Project Avary newsletter

“Many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future, and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.” – Herb Castillo

Maria Schell, Project Avary Program Director

Rex Board Perspective

Rex Foundation and Project Avary board member Cliff Palefsky says: “Project Avary is an extraordinary program that is trying to provide a sense of community and continuity to good young kids who are very much victims of their parents’ misconduct. Rather than be a high-level policy group, Avary literally is out there trying to break the cycle of violence one child at a time.

“There are several components to the program. The summer camp is the entry point where the kids get a chance to get away, commune with nature instead of an inner-city environment, and spend time with other children in similar circumstances. The camp helps create the feeling of community and exposes the kids to the culture of mutual respect and non-violence, and tries to help provide them with the skills necessary to navigate the world. The staff is composed of some wonderful, nurturing and well-trained counselors. We have psychologists available to help in individual cases.

“During the year there are monthly Adventure Days where a group of kids get together for participatory activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, and rock climbing in addition to some educational or skill building sessions. We’ve had a mentoring program, which has had a profound impact on the lives of some kids and their mentors.

“This community, families with incarcerated parents, is not among the most sympathetic classes of folks out there, and they’re often neglected by other funders and donors. The foster care system is broken, so these innocent kids are truly victims of the system. That is why it is so important for Rex to support this kind of program.”

“I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny (Rifkin) and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.”

– Herb Castillo

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Wounded Warrior

Wounded Warrior

Project Disabled Sports USA

by Mary Eisenhart

Back in the late ’60s, Kirk Bauer, a decorated soldier, a lifelong athlete, and the kind of guy who had frequently cut school in his native Oakland to go surfing in Santa Cruz, lost a leg in combat in the Vietnam War and endured a grueling convalescence.

“After struggling with seven operations and six months on my back,” he recalls, “they put me back together at the hospital. It was a pretty frustrating experience — a lot of pain, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence about what I would be doing with my life.”

Into this private hell came the National Amputee Skiers Association, launched a few years earlier by other disabled vets.  “Some fellow veterans visited me and got me out of the hospital and took me up skiing,” Bauer recalls. “I really didn’t think I could do it, but I went up anyway just to try it.”

It turned out to be a life-changing event, and a planned one-day trip extended into four. “I was able to actually make a turn down the slope on the first day,” he says. “It was the biggest high in the world to be able to move again, go fast, feel the wind against my face — it was a transforming experience for me, and I couldn’t leave.”

The ski trip made such a difference in Bauer’s life that he immediately signed on as a volunteer. Today he’s served for 23 years as the executive director of the group, now known as Disabled Sports USA. The group has expanded its offerings considerably, with a variety of sports rehabilitation programs around the country for those with permanent disabilities. It also sponsors competitive events.

Most of the organization’s work over the years has been with civilians, but in 2003 DS/USA had an opportunity to return to its roots. A group called the Wounded Warrior Project, which was working with seriously injured vets returning from the Middle East, asked about forming a partnership.

“Both of us were at the hospitals serving the severely wounded,” Bauer explains. “They are there to provide counseling and financial assistance to the family, clothing and so on. They saw what we were doing and said ‘Hey, we love what you do. We look on this as part of what we want to do. Let’s be partners.’

“DS/USA is a sports organization for people with disabilities, primarily civilians and not military. They realized we were doing a great job and wanted to support it; we were looking for funding and they’re one of our major funding sources. So we’ve come together as partners for the Wounded Warrior Disabled Sports Project.

“We’re focusing on those who have lost, or lost the use of, something for the rest of their lives,” he continues. “People with amputations, visual impairment, spinal cord injury, head injury, where they’ve become permanently, severely disabled. That numbers in the couple of thousands so far in this conflict.” Since the project’s launch in 2003, it’s worked with over 700 vets and 400 family members. In 2005, the Rex Foundation, which had previous given DS/USA a grant in 1995, contributed funds to support the project specifically. Rex presented Bauer with a check at that year’s Black Tie-Dye Ball in D.C. — “lots of tie-dyed shirts,” says Bauer, “but not so many black ties.

“We couldn’t do all of this without people like the Rex Foundation,” he adds. “What I find gratifying, quite frankly — and it’s very different from what happened during the Vietnam War — is that no matter whether somebody is for or against the war, they all want to help the guys who’ve been severely wounded who’ve given the most to this country. I am very grateful that the American people have pulled behind this project and supported it. We rely on private sector donations — we do not get federal funding.

“This program is changing lives, there is no question about it,” he continues. “It is making a difference very early on, and helping to set the vets on a good positive track. And it needs support.”

Rex Foundation: Who are the vets you’re serving today — and why have sports turned out to be such a great tool for rehabilitation?

Kirk Bauer, Disabled Sports USA: My experience as a vet back in the ’60s is still very typical of hundreds of these guys that we serve— they’re very active, many of them were and are athletes, they’re big into stamina events like marathons and army 10-milers. So for them, the comedown of being permanently disabled is even greater.

When these guys crash, they really crash. They’ve come from being trained to take cities to lying flat on their back. When I first visit them they’ve got tubes coming out of them, they’ve got pins in them, they’re in pain. The comedown is a huge, huge hit. It tends to create a mental state that involves depression and despair and a lot of other negative things.

We go in there and start talking to them real early, introducing them to the idea that they can be active sports people no matter what, even with a severe disability — and here’s how we’re going to do it.

I’ve had people ask me to leave the room; that’s OK, they’re not ready for it. But it plants a seed early on. Then later on, sometimes only a few months later, we’re actually able to get them out and get them to do something. And that early experience helps to turn their confidence, their mindset around, so they can basically build their lives again.

One of the beauties about sports is that we can introduce it very early. In some cases we can take amputees who haven’t even gotten their leg yet, and we can get them out skiing or water skiing or bicycling without the prosthetic aids.

People say “Gee, you’ve got a triple amputee here, how are you going to teach them to ski or water ski?” And not only can we do it, we can almost do it faster than with a person with all their limbs, because of the adaptive equipment available and because of the trained instructors; they get individualized instruction, which helps.

Recently we had 58 young men and women at a ski event. In order to get on a chair lift you have to be able to make a turn and stop so you don’t kill yourself. You learn how to ski the first day, then we take you up in the chair lift. Every one of them got up on the chair lift the first day.

There were eight double amputees in that group. There were men, there were women, didn’t matter. We were able to get them going, and right away they had a successful experience, just a little thing like being able to turn a ski. This starts to rebuild their confidence: “Hey, I can do this.” It really is a tremendous tool for rehabilitation.”

Rex: How long do you typically work with each vet?

DS/USA: We do whatever it takes to get that person to a point where they feel independent, confident and fit, and ready to take on the world.

The first stage is just to teach them a skill and let them focus on becoming accomplished in that skill. That’s the rehab part — they focus on something positive, and it really begins their road to recovery. That can take place literally within a few months of their injuries. Over the next months and years we make available to them every opportunity they want to take advantage of to learn sports skills. We can teach them over 20 different sports — golf, cycling, rock climbing, fly fishing and many other sports besides skiing.

When they become proficient in one or more skills, we turn information about them over to our local chapters. When the vets get discharged and go back into civilian life, they can take advantage of the programs locally or continue to take part in the project. We are still serving some young men and women who were injured in 2003 and 2004.

The big thing is, once they learn those skills and get that adaptive equipment, they can do that sport anyplace in the country, with anyone. The ideal is to give them the tools to do it anywhere, with or without an organized group like DS/USA. They can do that — they can go skiing anywhere, they can go cycling anywhere. So we sometimes stay with them for not months but years. Our commitment is open-ended until they are back and fully confident in their mobility.

Rex: What’s changed over the decades in terms of who your clients are, and what resources you have available?

DS/USA: Everything.

First of all, let’s talk about opportunity and availability. DS/USA as an organization really reflects the transformation. We started out as one chapter in California doing one sport, winter skiing, basically for one group of disabled amputees. And now DS/USA is 90 chapters operating in 36 states, offering over 20 different sports activities year round.

Also, as far as opportunities are concerned, the cities and counties are starting to open up their recreation programs to people with disabilities and trying to accommodate them. There’s still a long way to go, but the movement is in the right direction.

The second thing that’s really changed is equipment. Using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, some of the space-age materials, and using some of the engineering that’s been developed around motorcycle cross-country racing, and running dynamics and aerodynamics that are literally performed in wind tunnels for wheelchair devices — you now have a piece of equipment available to all the sports we offer, everything from adaptive prosthetic devices to adaptive vehicles like racing chairs or hand cycles, to adaptations such as swiveling chairs that can be used so a disabled person can operate a sailboat single-handedly.  All those things, developed in the last 40 years, have transformed the availability of adaptive sports to people with disabilities.

The third thing that’s changed is the trained instructors. Back in the late ’60s every time we taught a student we had to reinvent the wheel. Somebody would teach an amputee in California and then somebody else would do it in Colorado, and they’d both be stumbling around trying to figure out what’s the best way to make this happen. Many more teaching programs exist now that enable professionals or volunteers in the field to teach the latest adaptation and to know how to do it before they go to teach a student, so they don’t fumble around. There’s a certification program offered by the Professional Ski Instructors of America, there’s a certification of instructors in SCUBA, there’s certification for instructors in skiing and sailing.

We have a new a program with the PGA — we have trained 36 of their professionals near a hospital where severely wounded vets are being treated, and they’re going to be able to provide continuous instruction free of charge to any wounded warrior who wants to learn golf. They’ve been trained to teach somebody who’s in a wheelchair, somebody who’s blind, somebody who has one arm or one leg, to play golf.

We just employed the American Canoe and Kayak Association to teach the instructors at a new amputee center for wounded warriors. So the opportunities are greater because of more trained instructors.

Rex: It also seems that in contrast to the days of the Vietnam War, everybody seems to support the troops, whether they support the war or not.

DS/USA: That’s true. People now are much more aware that these young men and women are here to serve their country, that’s what they want to do. Back in the days of Vietnam, when people turned against the war they turned against the soldiers as well. That’s not happening in this war, and I hope that continues, because they’re deserving of our support no matter how you feel about the war.

Rex: In the Vietnam days, a lot of the troops were draftees. Today some of them are career military, but a lot of them are also ”citizen soldiers” from the reserves or National Guard. Do you see that making a difference for the vets you serve and the issues they’re facing?

DS/USA: Well, the first thing is attitude. All of the people that are serving did volunteer to serve. Their attitude is much more “I signed up, I knew that I might go to war, and in war you do get injured. What I want to do is learn to how live with this.” That attitude is much more prevalent.

That does not mean that they don’t suffer depression, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have setbacks, but they seem to be more willing to try to move on and accept what happened to them, and try to make the best of it.

The biggest change, though, is the women. Quite frankly, as a male who has seen the war, it’s distressing to see women who are amputees coming back. They are serving on the front lines right along with our young men, and doing this valiantly and heroically. My heart goes out to them for their service, but it’s probably the toughest thing for me personally to witness.

Rex: Does the fact that more of them have families and adult responsibilities have ripple effects on your work and the problems you’re trying to address?

DS/USA: It does and it doesn’t. We’re still seeing a lot of young people, but we’re also seeing a lot of middle-aged people in the National Guard and the reserve, and we also see more who have families. In that respect, they have more responsibility, more pressure on them.

One of the things we’re committed to — and thanks to our partners we’ve been able to meet that — is that no matter what program we offer to them, everything, once they go out with us, everything is paid for. Instructions, lodging, airfare, everything that it takes for them to take part in the sport is paid for. We realize that some of these guys and gals are young, low-level NCOs and enlisted people. They don’t have a lot of money, they’re trying to raise families, and they could not take part in these programs without the cost being paid for. So we are much more sensitive to their financial needs and try to respond to that by making this free of charge.


Rex Board Perspective

Rex board member Diane Blagman says: “The mission of the Rex Foundation is to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, and assist others less fortunate than ourselves.

“The original Rex Foundation grant to DS/USA was many years ago, in 1995. One of the strongest supporters of this grant was Jerry Garcia.  He sat next to me at the board meeting and spoke up to support this proposal.

“I was really proud of Rex when they approved funding for the Wounded Warrior Project/Disabled Sports USA.  Kirk Bauer is an amputee and a Vietnam vet.  He received no federal funding for this project — he simply and quietly went out and helped those who were returning from  Iraq and Afghanistan and suffered loss of limbs.  He showed them that there they can have a productive and fulfilling life, and literally changed so many lives.”

Meet Orlando Gill

Born in the Bronx, Orlando Gill was 19 when he enlisted in the Army in 1992. Over the course of his service he traveled around the world, and was in his second tour of duty in Iraq when he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Ramadi. The explosion amputated one of his legs at the knee.

That was in October, 2004. When he got to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C., he quickly got a visit from Kirk Bauer of DS/USA. “We came down to the fact that I like snowboarding and snow sports, that I was a snowboarder before,” Gill recalls. “He said he’d get me back up on the mountain.

“And sure enough, in January of 2005 he had me back out on the mountain again. We went to Vail, Colorado. They gave me an instructor and started teaching me how to relearn how to snowboard again. It was great!”

Today Gill, who married a soldier he met at Walter Reed and has a son, is retired from the service and living in the D.C. area. He volunteers full time with DS/USA, helping other soldiers in the program — transporting them to events such as the newly launched golf clinic, helping in the office, and especially visiting wounded vets in the hospital. “I do get all kinds of different responses when I talk to them about doing things,” he says. “Some guys, they’re not ready for this, but we still talk to them, trying to get them into doing it. And then others are all excited and really want to get into the swing of things.”

Gill reports that the golf clinic is turning out to be a big hit with the vets he’s working with. “A lot of them are really excited. When they first go there they don’t know what’s going on — and then they’re all up for doing it again, and asking if I’m going to pick them up next Saturday.”

And it’s not just the vets themselves who benefit — the program helps their entire families, who can all get involved in the sports activities. This is a real boon to overall morale — “It gives the family something to do besides just sitting in the hospital,” says Gill.

While the program has benefited many and received huge support, he says, there are always more vets in need than there are resources.

“The support the American public has given to the soldiers is incredible,” he says. ”We have a lot of support from everybody.

“But there’s never enough to help out somebody; there’s no such thing as ‘I’ve done enough.’ It’s about, ‘What else can we do for somebody?’”

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Monday, May 14, 2007

More Than A Cooking Class

For San Francisco’s Nextcourse, food is a tool for building a better world, and better lives

By Mary Eisenhart

“We believe it is our social responsibility to make healthy food accessible to the entire community, and we are dedicated to preserving local farms and farmland. Chefs are offering up their skills not to make a better chicken, but to make a better world.”
– Nextcourse founder Larry Bain

Once a week at the San Francisco County jail, about 20 women inmates participating in the SISTER (Sisters in Sober Treatment Empowered in Recovery) program leave their cells and gather in a classroom. After listening to some information on health, nutrition and food choices, they join the instructor and pitch in to prepare and eat a meal together. Criteria: the meal is made from fresh, healthful, locally produced ingredients; the meal is delicious; the cost per serving is $5 or less.
Nextcourse founder Larry Bain recruits some Mission High kids to help out at his healthy hot dog stand, Let's Be Frank.

For these women, it’s probably the only decent meal they get all week. As in many institutions, the jail’s food service is the province of a contractor whose offerings are mass-produced, heavily processed, short on taste and nutrition — but highly profitable to the vendor. Ironically, this takes place at a time when California’s prison health care system is so lethally dysfunctional that a federal judge took control of it, so anyone unfortunate enough to land in the system gets a double whammy of food that’s bad for their health and substandard care when they get sick.

The determination to do something about this problem came from a somewhat unlikely quarter — a group of chefs and food professionals who, in their day jobs, cater to a very different, very upscale clientele. In 2003, restaurateur Larry Bain, who among other achievements pioneered the introduction of grass-fed, sustainably and humanely raised beef at his Acme Chophouse, decided to do something about healthy nutrition for people who were unlikely ever to be able to afford fancy restaurants. He soon attracted other like-minded food professionals in the Bay Area, and Nextcourse was born.

Offering nutrition, food preparation and camaraderie, Nextcourse’s classes in schools and jails, taught by chefs and other food professionals, provide a potentially life-changing resource to people most likely to be on the receiving end of a food industry more focused on profitability and convenience than nutrition and health. In addition to meal planning and cooking skills, they show how to take advantage of local farmers’ markets to create tasty dishes that are at least as affordable as overprocessed supermarket and fast-food offerings, and which kids will happily eat.

One project where the kids themselves are involved is at Mission High School in San Francisco, where a pilot project last year was such a hit that its participants are now Peer Leaders to this year’s crop of students. They’ve spread the word to friends and family by word of mouth and, most recently, in a community newsletter.

In 2006, the Rex Foundation gave a grant of $5,000 to help support Nextcourse’s jail program, which is perennially strapped for funds. “Rex was a lifesaver for us last year,” says Susie White, Nextcourse’s project director, who took over the running of its community projects when Bain decided to focus his energies on the Food From the Park program, another Nextcourse project.

Nextcourse instructors and food pros Megan Hanson (left) and Rania Long (right), in aprons, teach Mission High School students about fresh produce.

We recently spoke with her to learn more about Nextcourse, its work, and the challenges it faces.

Rex Foundation: What inspired the creation of Nextcourse?

Susie White, Nextcourse: Nextcourse was founded in 2003 by Larry Bain, who at the time was the general manager for Jardinière and Acme Chophouse restaurants. Larry had worked for many years in the Bay Area restaurant community modeling green business practices, particularly in the area of using sustainable foods — fresh, local, seasonal, free of chemicals, humane and just.

Larry and some of his like-minded colleagues were well aware of the growing food divide in this country and wanted to take the message of sustainable eating to people who needed it the most: low-income communities where the risk of hunger is high. Their belief was that eating in a sustainable manner can be more economical and healthier than a diet based on convenience and processed food, and no one was out there advocating this approach of food education.

Because many of our founders were professional chefs, cooks, and restaurant people, and we utilize cooking as a means of teaching people about food, we are often referred to as a cooking class. However, our true focus is to provide people an opportunity to acquaint themselves with fresh, whole foods, and to begin a new and conscious relationship with their food.

While sustainable food philosophy is at our core, our message is consistent with good nutrition, and some of our programs, like Mission High, operate under the heading of nutrition education. We think we have a more effective way to teach people about eating healthy, starting by raising awareness of how our food system has changed. We talk a great deal about the difference between whole and processed foods, and just a small bit about hidden sugars and good fat. Most traditional nutrition education programs spend much of their time reading labels; however, we encourage people focus more on foods that come without labels — whole, fresh foods.

Our belief is all people deserve the highest quality food available, and the best food available is grown locally, picked when it is at its peak of flavor and nutritional content, and doesn’t have harmful additives that detract from good health and well-being. Our low-income communities are under siege by food corporations selling cheap and empty-calorie foods. The people in these circumstances are most in need of what we have to offer, and need inspiration to act on their own power to change things.

Mission High students discover the joy of pie.

Rex: You have quite a few projects addressing different aspects of food and nutrition issues. Given that there’s always more to be done than resources to do it with, how do you decide which projects to pursue?

Nextcourse: We are asked all the time to conduct cooking and nutrition classes for various groups, but in terms of our mission, the educational piece is only the first step. Our choice in projects is based on the potential to involve our participants in improving their own food system. This requires organizational partners that recognize the need for change and have a genuine commitment to our philosophy.

We not only want people to be able to make healthier changes in their own lives and to understand that their choices can be votes for better food, but to also begin to identify ways they as a community can effect change.

Rex: Particularly in view of the much-publicized dire state of California’s prison healthcare system, and the contribution of bad food to the prison health problem, how does Nextcourse’s program at the jail make a difference, and what difficulties does it face?

Nextcourse: The fact that the jail system doesn’t see the correlation between what people eat (or what people are fed, in this case) and the implication for health is just a reflection of that same disconnect in our larger society. We also see this same thing in public schools and the declining health of our children.

When people come to jail, they are usually at their lowest point. They have not tended to their health, may have abused their bodies, and are generally just a mess. Healthy food (and exercise) could do a great deal to curb the diet-related chronic diseases that consume institutional budgets.

In our class, we teach our core concepts about sustainable eating, and prepare a complete meal that highlights simple cooking methods, the importance of fresh ingredients, and affordability. Each serving of our menu is under $4-5. From a practical standpoint, it’s one healthy meal a week the women eat. They also experience the sense of community involved in cooking together and sitting down together to enjoy the meal.

The women participating in our jail program are housed in a special substance abuse and academic facility, so they’re involved in intensive rehabilitation programming. Since how we eat is such a big part of self-nurturing, emotional and physical well-being, it seemed logical that there should be a food education component.

When we started at the jail, we knew the available food was not conducive to the women’s needs. The jail’s food is much like every other jail and prison in our country — based on calories and not nutritional value (or taste). Most of the food is highly processed, with little or no fresh offerings, and it generally tastes so bad that the women don’t rely on their three meals. Instead, they supplement their diets with snack foods from the jail’s commissary.

The regular food service is highly regulated and restricted by budget constraints, so we decided to work with the women on getting better foods in the commissary system. With the help of our class participants, we did a formal assessment of the commissary foods and presented our findings to the Sheriff. He gave us the green light to move forward as long as there was no increase in the costs of the foods.

Working with the commissary provider has been frustrating. It is very frustrating when you sit down at a table with people to talk about a real moral responsibility for the people who are in your care, and you’re spending most of your time talking about profit margins, and this supplier or that supplier that’s not going to budge because they’re not willing to give up part of their profits. It’s a different set of priorities.

The kind of thing that we’re running into with the commissary provider at the jail is no different from any other food corporation, and the way they control the foods that are available in our supermarkets and convenience stores. It’s all about making money and providing the cheapest food so the companies can make the greatest amount of profit. It’s a hard thing.

There has been a small victory on the jail front in terms of the commissary project. When we heard that the contract was coming up for renewal, we went and met with the contract manager for the sheriff’s department, and talked with her about our assessments and our vision for how this commissary system could really support good health and not detract from good health.

This woman knew about the benefits of nutrition from her own experience, and championed our cause. She inserted some language into the RFP (request for proposals) requiring that the new commissary provider provide at least 10 percent of the items that were healthy items, as determined by us and by the sheriff’s department.

(laughs) It doesn’t sound like a lot; it’s almost laughable to say, “You have to provide 10 percent healthy foods, but 90 percent can still be crap.” But I’ll take the 10 percent and work with that, and hopefully next time around we can increase that percentage. It’s really about changing the culture that has been entrenched for so many years.

With regard to the healthcare system in the jails and prisons, if they had a higher priority for healthy food and exercise, they would have completely different outcomes for the inmate population. A lot of people aren’t really paying attention to what’s happening in our jails and prisons, and that’s why things like this are allowed to continue. But again, it is representative of a larger problem in our society regarding health, nutrition and well-being, and just not putting a high priority on it.

Nextcourse instructor Rania Long shows the fine points of preparing kiwi fruit.

Rex: Who are the women who participate in the program, and what happens to them when they get out?

Nextcourse: Because it’s a jail, most of the women we meet are incarcerated for fairly minor offenses and are going to be out within six months. By being in the jail’s recovery program, they’re already trying to turn their lives around. But we do see them come back; some of the women have taken the program a couple of times.

It’s just the chronic nature of substance abuse, that you kind of get yourself a little together, and then when you have an emotional struggle or stress you relapse. And these women have a lot of stresses in their lives. They have children and often can’t make enough money to support them; the kids may be staying with relatives, they may be in foster care. There could be an abusive husband or boyfriend — just a lot of issues they have to struggle with. When you look at all that and see what they go through, it’s not hard to imagine the odds are against them, so we’re always looking at ways to strengthen the program. We’re thinking of doing part of the program in their re-entry center after they’re released, rather than all at the jail. That would be the ideal time for the women to have somebody working intensively with them and integrating their nutrition and their recovery.

Also the sheriff’s department has some needs for food, and we’re looking at ways to see if women who have been through our program could work alongside us in preparing those foods, so they wouldn’t just be getting the content from being part of this program, but also some job training as well. We’re looking at ways we can strengthen the outcome, and the sheriff’s department is very committed to helping us do that.

Rex: How did the program at Mission High get started, and how is it working out?

Nextcourse: The kids we’re working with at Mission High have been amazing to watch, and it has been their steady progress that has really guided the evolution of the program.

We started two years ago as a pilot in partnership with an educational farm called Pie Ranch. We had a straightforward agenda: to provide a small group of students with some classroom-based food education, and to augment the classroom piece with monthly trips to the farm focused on sustainable agriculture.

The students we started working with were from the special education track because they had a less restrictive curriculum that allowed for “alternative” teaching opportunities. On each trip, the kids would learn about and participate in some farming activities, and we would all prepare and enjoy a lunch from ingredients sourced from the farm. There was also some journaling to reflect on their experiences. It was an all-day event!

By the end of that school year, these kids had been transformed. They were eating healthier foods, trying new foods, encouraging their parents or caregivers to buy better foods, and to shop at (health food store) Rainbow and farmers’ market. They become our biggest advocates, and strongly encouraged us to do more and involve more kids. So, we went to work and managed to get some funding, and just this past October started doing our school-based classes and ranch trips with 9th and 10th graders, with the assistance of last year’s students who serve as Peer Leaders.

We hope to grow new leaders from this year’s students, and begin the cycle anew next year.

Sampling fresh fruit in the neighborhood.

Rex: It sounds as if the kids go out and become evangelists for healthy eating in their communities.

Nextcourse:: They do. I definitely feel that way about the kids we’ve been working with at Mission High, because they’ve been so proactive in communicating the things they’ve learned to other students and their families and friends. They have really been an inspiration that has driven this program, because we were just intending to do the pilot program, and weren’t sure where it would go or if it would go anywhere. And seeing how these 12 kids, in a matter of nine months, were so transformed...

It wasn’t just about food, either, it was about this small community that we had been involved in for nine months around food. When you come together and you eat and you make food and you do all those sorts of things, you really start to bond with people. These kids were from the same classroom, and they knew each other, of course, but they weren’t really friends. And I swear, when you see them at the school now, you don’t see one without seeing two or three or four or five of the others. They have really become great friends around this; they’ve had a shared experience that has made them a sort of family, and they often will refer to their class in that way, as a family.

Rex: Given the fact that the Bay Area food scene is overwhelmingly the province of affluent people, how do you avoid the pitfalls of being perceived as rich people talking down to the less fortunate and telling them what to do? How do you make sure people don’t feel patronized?

Nextcourse: You raise a really valid point. So much of the food community is represented by rich white people (laughs) and because we have our roots in that, it’s logical that those would be the people to get involved in this kind of program.

But we’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. What I think we’re doing is giving people information that they can then use to make different decisions — or they can choose to not make different decisions if that’s their choice. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.

In this case, if they don’t like the food that’s represented in their neighborhood or their community, or that they’re being served at school, because of the information they’ve gained from taking part in a program such as Nextcourse, they know how to go about making changes. They can voice their opinion. We’re not trying to foster a dependence on our program; we’re trying to give people the tools they need to empower themselves, to vote with their dollars.

One of the real benefits of involving professional food people in these programs is that they have a really true passion for food and for the work that they’re doing, and we’ve found that that’s really inspirational and motivational for people, who see that somebody has such a love and passion for what they do and what food can mean in people’s lives. How it can bring people together and families together, and be a source of pleasure and community. That’s the ingredient that they bring to the table. We have a lot of content we share, but using professional food people really brings the passion.

Rex: Is Nextcourse an only-in-the-gourmet-ghetto kind of project, or can it be replicated elsewhere?

Nextcourse: I don’t see any reason why this type of program can’t be done in other areas. Almost every community in our country is struggling with these same issues and questions, and there are people in the community like the people who started Nextcourse who could step up to the plate. There’s a restaurant community, a food community, a culinary community, whatever you want to call it, in almost every area of the country, and these people have a lot of knowledge and skills.

So I think you can definitely use this model in other places. The tools and the ingredients are all there for people to do it; it’s just a matter of bringing them together and coordinating it.

Susie White: “We’re not coming in and telling people how to run their lives or be better people. The emphasis is on communicating to people that they have the power to change the situation if they don’t like it.”

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

of Hope and Opportunity

By David Large

“You are not a human being in search of spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Generation Y – Everyone wants them when they have money to spend. It’s all about “market share.” But what about the ones who aren’t even in “the market”? They’re the subset that no one wants to talk about – the ones who are homeless, or high school dropouts, or juvenile hall parolees, or “aged out” foster kids, or runaways. They are not going to college. They do not have jobs.

And these young adults are “off the grid” – they are not being counted in the Census or by any single Marin County agency. They don’t have cell phones. They don’t have a mailing address. They don’t have email. They don’t have driver’s licenses or cars. They are sleeping on friends’ couches, camped out in the hill above Boyd Park, sleeping in parked cars and who knows where else, doing everything they can to hide from our view and help Marin keep them a secret.

But you’ve probably seen a few of them – hanging outside of Starbucks on Fourth Street in San Rafael, or napping in the grass across the street; gathered on the Promenade in Fairfax, or on the benches of just about any park in Marin. You’ve probably dismissed them as drug addicts and kept your distance. But few of them are drug addicts, they’re just homeless.

For a lot of different reasons, these young adults don’t have family support or adult guidance. No one is encouraging them to go to college. No one is trying to get them off the streets. No one is trying to keep them out of prison. No one is helping them get a job. No one is helping them learn the life skills they need to survive. No one is listening to them.

Actually, that’s not quite true – the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity Project (AHO) is trying. But we need your help.

— Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity

James Hayes, Molly Kron and Zara Babitzke spread the word at a community event sponsored by software company Autodesk.

A Rex beneficiary this year, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity is an innovative, all-volunteer program that provides support to homeless young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco.

Since incorporating in January 2005, AHO has produced four groundbreaking community forums that brought together business and political leaders, individuals, parents, youth, and various organizations to focus on the growing issue of homelessness among youth in the county. Through these forums, AHO has recruited 13 “Parent Partners” who are willing to act as host families for homeless youth.

The people AHO seeks to help include young people without families, or whose family ties have been severed, military veterans without family support, and teenagers in the child services system — mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement as well as foster care — who are about to exit the system and face living independently, often with few coping skills and little knowledge of such basics as how to apply for a job. AHO’s founder and Executive Director, Zara Babitzke, Molly Kron, AHO’s Youth Program Advisor, and James Hayes, the Youth Outreach Advisor, all have had personal experience with living as a teenager adrift in the world, and this helps them relate to homeless young people, who are often disillusioned by and distrustful of institutionalized efforts to help them.

AHO is on the forefront of grassroots efforts to deal with homelessness. Currently it receives no local, state or federal funding; instead, AHO has reached out to individuals, business and the larger community to provide the funding for the “hand up” and safety net of stable housing, guidance and community connections it provides to youth in need.

Recently Rex talked with Zara Babitzke about her unique program.

AHO founder Zara Babitzke with Youth Outreach Advisor James Hayes

Rex Foundation: Tell us more about the “Parent Partners.” We understand that the young people live in the sponsoring families’ homes for as long as six months, and that you have placed young people with four families so far. How did you find them, and what has their experience been with the program?

Zara Babitzke, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity: Through our forums, we have recruited 13 Parent Partners who are willing to act as host families for a homeless youth.

In our first year, we have had 85 referrals and piloted a program with four youth who were previously homeless. Four host families provided stable housing for these young adults.

Host families commit to housing one young adult for up to six months and to providing the crucial first step toward the stability necessary to begin to build a healthy and meaningful life. While matched with a host family, the young person is also matched with a life coach, who helps them begin their journey of envisioning, planning and actualizing a new lifestyle and future of hope.

The life coaches meet one on one with youth for four to six hours weekly, helping them develop their individualized transition plan with guidance in identifying, accessing and navigating the barriers to resources that match their educational, job and life goals.

Youth, host families and life coaches are matched according to lifestyle, interests, personality traits, and other characteristics that are important for the best match.

All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach and peer mentor. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.

James Hayes and Brian Latady

Rex: You seem to have profound faith in the power of every young person’s inner spirit, regardless of how much they have been beaten down by circumstances and “the system.” Where does that come from?

AHO: Growing up, I was essentially one of these youth myself. Although I knew my parents, they did not have the capacity to guide me, provide emotional support, and acknowledge me as a unique and worthwhile person. My father’s alcoholism and abuse, and my mother’s abandonment and neglect, left me confused, afraid, vulnerable and deeply disconnected from my inner essence and spirit. I longed for someone who could really “see” me and believe in me, someone who would inspire me, and a place where I could belong and feel safe.

What I was searching for in those critical adolescent years is, I believe, a basic human need. With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.

Another contributing factor to my belief in the power of the spirit was a family tragedy involving my younger sister. My sister, a single mom with two children, had brain surgery at age 32 that left her without her physical, verbal and other communication functions. I became the conservator, and the sole support of my niece and nephew. After six weeks in intensive care, professional evaluations by a team of doctors and therapists were completed, with the prognosis that there was “no hope” for her and she would “never be a mother.”

The medical professionals decided that there was no further point in providing any therapy and the other supports she needed because she would never speak, walk, write, read or be able to have a meaningful life. I realized at that moment that without an advocate or family support, my sister would have been discarded by the system. None of those professionals knew what I knew about my sister — her strong and powerful spirit. I knew my sister would prevail if she received the necessary services and therapies she needed. It was my job to advocate for the support she needed at this critical time when she was unable to do this for herself. The result is, after years of care she has defied all the odds. Today she has a normal, healthy life and is giving back to the community by supporting others who are facing their own life crises. Her basic communication skills have returned. She exercises, walks daily and is an inspiration to all who meet her.

This tragedy with my sister was my initiation into “the system” of social services. Just as I realized that my sister, without family, or a caring advocate, would have been discarded by “the system,” I see the same thing happening with our young adults today. Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them, are being discounted and discarded by society.

I know from my own experiences, and from what might have happened to my sister, that the human spirit is the strongest force in determining whether someone will beat the odds. It is the human spirit in all of us that can make miracles happen.

Zara Babitzke and Molly Kron

Rex: A unique aspect of your program is that your staff have all had personal experience with life as a teen set adrift. How did you find these people, and what futures do they see for themselves?

AHO: I believe that AHO’s mission and message are universal. They touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. They are looking for a way to give back and make a difference. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, individuals who have had similar or difficult childhoods are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.

Rex: Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, if not the country. How do you reach people who believe that “we don’t have a homeless problem here”?

AHO: It’s truly been our biggest challenge, but we are definitely making inroads into that mindset in Marin.

To illustrate the challenge, the County created a visionary team of nonprofits and individuals to design the County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. AHO was not included on that committee, and yet, there were no organizations advocating for the largest growing homeless population — young adults ages 14 to 25, who represent 40% of the growing homeless population, according to the 2000 Census. AHO is the only organization I know of whose sole mission is preventing the growing population of homeless among at-risk youth.

I tenaciously lobbied to have AHO included on that committee; we were eventually included, but it was difficult.

So you see, we are educating the entire community about this issue — one day, one speaking engagement, one news article, one committee meeting at a time. AHO youth and myself have met one or more times with the political leaders in the County — Director of Health and Human Services, Marin Community Foundation, all of the Board of Supervisors, the Director of Marin County Office of Education, Chambers of Commerce, Rotaries, and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. In addition to our four community forums, we did a Comcast cable interview, and there have been 10 feature articles in local papers, including Pacific Sun, Marin Independent-Journal, North Bay Business Journal, NewsMarin, Marin Magazine, Mill Valley Herald, and Southern Marin Business Expo.

Zara Babitzke and James Evans with Comcast host Terri Hardesty;
taking the message to community TV.

Rex: You’ve been in operation for just one year, but you have already garnered all that publicity. How have you managed this?

AHO: With commitment, dedication, persistence and tenacity and a true belief in the spirit, wisdom and capacity of today’s youth. I feel I have been led to educate and bring light to this issue.

As the founder of AHO, I believe that all young adults, regardless of their histories, have the compassion, wisdom and soul to become responsible future leaders if they have the hand up and safety net they need through the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood. However, without a safety net at this important juncture in their lives, they will not be able to actualize their potential.

Also, I believe that my entire life experiences (personal, educational and business) have led me to this mission with youth. This includes my own family experiences, my direct experience in marketing, public relations, and building enduring individual and community relationships.

Rex: Your budget is very modest. How do you manage to do so much with so little?

AHO: AHO has been an all-volunteer effort (33 volunteers in all, including myself) since its inception last year. Our successes to date have been driven by the 24/7 intense commitment, dedication, passion, and heart-and-soul belief of those 33 volunteers that the future of our culture depends on harnessing, supporting and nurturing the gifts and strengths of our youth.

In spite of this commitment, however, we are at a critical crossroad, and will need to generate more funding to move to the next level of our Host Family, Life Coach and Peer Mentor programs.

Austin Willacy's Youth A Capella Group Til' Dawn performs at AHO fundraiser.

Rex: What would you like the readers of this piece to learn about the homeless youth problem, not only in Marin County, but also nationally, that they may not have appreciated before?

AHO: This issue is not going away on its own. The problem has been building over the last 10 years, and has not been adequately addressed.

The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports, and still others face even greater demands because their children have physical, mental, or behavioral problems.

More striking, some youth have no families at all to fall back on. These vulnerable youth — those with mental or physical disabilities, those with pasts in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems, those leaving special education programs, those aging out of foster care, and those young adults who are homeless — are on their own without a safety net.

Some of the challenges youth are facing today are considered in the recent book On Your Own Without a Net by Osgood et al. This is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about this subject.

Rex Board Perspective

Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:

Jonathan Frieman called me regarding AHO. Jonathan has been a longstanding supporter of our events and very active in community issues, so the fact that he himself was so involved with AHO compelled my immediate desire to learn more about the program.

“I felt that AHO’s work was particularly important for Rex to support because AHO was helping address what is otherwise one of the most troublesome concerns in our society right now — youth falling through the cracks and becoming lost in a downward spiral.

“I went to an AHO event and met one of the young men who had been helped by AHO. He told me he was now attending the University of San Diego, an option he might not have had without AHO. Seeing this bright young person doing so well, as opposed to being lost, affirmed that we must do all we can to nurture our youth to be healthy, engaged members of the community. I am glad that the Rex Foundation is not only supporting AHO, but also bringing more attention to this critical issue that affects all of us.”

Molly Kron
Youth Program Advisor

Once homeless herself, she now helps others at AHO

“I am a recent graduate of Dominican University, and was born and raised in the urban setting of Denver, Colorado. At the age of 14 I dropped out of school and ran away from home more times than one would care to count. Eventually I found myself living on the streets and hopping from couch to couch, whenever possible, for nearly two years. During the last six months of that experience with homelessness, I become involved with an organization like AHO whose purpose it was to help mobilize homeless youth in order to remove them from their current way of life. Because of this support network, I was eventually able to reconnect with my family and became actively involved in education.

“I heard about AHO and met Zara through my professor at Dominican University in March of 2005, while completing my thesis on government policy regarding youth and child homelessness. Since then, I have both sought out guidance from Zara, and seek to assist her in the development of the Ambassadors of Hope Project, especially with the peer mentor program of AHO.

“Currently, I am facing the reality of life in transition since graduating from Dominican. I am dealing with similar uncertainties that I experienced six years ago when I was homeless. Today however, contrary to my past experiences with homelessness, I have the support, guidance and safety net that I did not have previously, and because of this, I have been able to formulate a plan to attain long-term, stable housing. I hope to help other youth at AHO on their own path to a better life.”

“The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Brian Latady

Helped by AHO, he’s now attending college

“Born in the Orwellian 1984, I grew up in Los Altos Hills, California. My parents divorced when I was almost 10. It became completely clear that I was depressed when I was 14, about freshman year of high school. It got to the point that I wasn’t attending classes at all; I would just be at home, in bed, feeling like I was falling deeper and deeper into my despair. I battled two years with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I was sent to school counselors at first, tested, and then the private therapist visits began. We were going to doctors for the CFS, and psychiatrists and psychologists for my now mounting diagnoses (currently it’s: the ADD form of ADHD, Clinical Depression, Social Anxiety Disorder, OCD, and Bipolar Disorder, Type II).

“I went from school to school, and eventually landed in a SED program at Lynbrook High School near Saratoga, California. About a year and a half into my time there, my mother called the police and told them she was worried that I would commit suicide… Imagine my surprise when six police officers file into my house and up into my room. They seemed to think it was necessary to have me hospitalized. So I was taken to the county hospital for some observation. I was there on September 11, 2001, and then I was shipped off to Herrick, the Psych part of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, for about a month.

“From there, after just turning 17, I was sent to an all-male 'residential treatment center.' When that place closed down a year later, I went off to another 'residential treatment center,' Sunny Hills. At that point, I was 18, and when I graduated high school that was my aging out point, when my funding ended and I had no place to go next. Sunny Hills placed me back with my father (which was not a healthy situation for me, either before or after residential placement). Eventually Sunny Hills started a transitional housing program, where I met Zara, who had been hired to design and manage that program.

“With stable housing and the support and guidance of Zara, I began going to the College of Marin and figuring out how to survive on my own. Within a year in this housing, Sunny Hills closed the program and I was out on the streets again. It was at this point Zara started the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity to provide a safety net of housing and support for youth like myself who would be otherwise homeless.

“Through AHO, the care of Zara, I was given the opportunity to live with one of AHO’s host families, and begin solidifying myself as an adult in this world, with all the entailed responsibilities. With AHO’s continued support, guidance and community connections I am hoping to enter UC Berkeley in the next two years and work in the field of BioInfomatics.”

"Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them are being discounted and discounted and discarded by society.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Cost-Effective Help

In February 2006, Rex gave AHO a grant of $5,000 — the amount it takes to keep a young adult in the program for a year. Because of AHO’s large volunteer base and community alliances, that money goes a long way. It provides a year of healthcare, stable living, a host family, life coach mentors, money management and savings support, education, clothing, transportation, internships and jobs — and the all-important security deposit on an apartment.

Contrast that with AHO's estimate of the annual costs commonly incurred by homeless youth without a safety net: homeless shelter, $23,400; jail, $60,000 for juveniles and $26,690 for adults; psychiatric facility, $208,050. All are costs that can be avoided, AHO points out, by helping homeless youth now, before their problems reach crisis levels.

“With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO

Statistics on Youth Leaving the Child Services System

Within 2-4 years of leaving the child services system (foster care, community mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement):

35% are homeless
40% are on public assistance
50% are unemployed
25% of the males are incarcerated
50% of the girls have given birth

• National Runaway Switchboard
• Bay Area Social Services Consortium Research
• Assemblywoman Karen Bass’s Select Committee on Foster Care
• Honoring Emancipated Youth (HEY)

According to the 2000 Census, young adults ages 14 to 25 represent 40% of the growing homeless population.

“All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

Kids Helping Kids
Philanthropist Jonathan Frieman on AHO

By Mary Eisenhart

Marin County philanthropist and community activist Jonathan Frieman, a longtime Rex supporter, first suggested Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity as a possible Rex grantee.

Eight years ago, Frieman was putting his law degree to work at the Homeless Advocacy Project in San Francisco, and decided he needed to experience the reality of homeless life for himself. So, with a few companions, he left his money behind and lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

It was, he said, an eye-opening time. “Even though one’s needs are very simple, it’s still a very stressful experience,” he recalls, "not the least because of the attitude towards homelessness that society has, which is that those people are good for nothing and they should just get a job, and they’re drug addicts.”

In fact, he says, a fair number of homeless people actually do have jobs. “Those are the invisible homeless,” he says. And, as with AHO’s clients, who for various reasons aren’t on the radar of more conventional homeless services, “we don’t see them on the streets. It could be a family has been living paycheck to paycheck, and they got that one bill, a medical bill usually, that they couldn’t handle. So the father goes out on the streets; the mother and maybe one of the kids goes and stays with a friend; maybe the other kid goes with one of the grandparents. The father works until they can save enough to get another place. That’s still stressful, because everybody’s apart, they’re not in the home unit.”

One day a couple of years ago, he got a phone call from Zara Babitzke, who was in the process of launching AHO. She’d read a profile the Marin Independent-Journal had done on Frieman, and decided he was the one to help her get started. “I start nonprofits, and she was starting one. I work with kids, and she works with kids. At that point I was starting to get somewhat known in the County and had some contacts, and I just helped her out in that regard. She’s got a vision. She saw a need and went ahead to fulfill it. It’s something that I just felt needed some strong support.”

Frieman, who went on to join AHO’s advisory board, marvels at the force of Babitzke’s vision and her effectiveness in bringing together a large coalition of business, healthcare and community groups to help out — including such groups as the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors, not usually associated with helping the homeless. “It’s a coup,” Frieman says. “That’s her.”

What makes AHO’s program successful, he says, is that it’s based on formerly homeless kids helping their peers. “It’s these kids helping each other, and it has to be that, necessarily so, because they’re the ones who are going to know who’s out there. It really is an invisible group. That’s one of the things that does set AHO apart: it’s these youth helping these youth. They mentor each other. It’s a group of people trying to help each other.”

"I believe that AHO’s mission and message touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, they are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.”
Zara Babitzke, AHO

TJ, Zara Babitzke, James Hayes, Molly Kron, Brian Latady

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Food for Change

Buy Local, Buy Fresh at Oakland’s People’s Grocery
By David Large

"We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization."

Since the 1970s, many of us have come to think of more than taste and convenience in considering food — nutrition and health have also become key issues. But they're not the only added concerns.

In recent years, spurred by the growth of the organic food movement, the food supply system — where the food we eat comes from and who benefits from its production and sale — has been linked to the larger issues of community control, access, sustainability, and environmental health. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, People’s Grocery, a Rex grantee in 2005, is at the forefront of this new consciousness.

Gathering spot near the People's Grocery chicken coop.

People’s Grocery is a community-based organization working to find creative solutions to the nutritional needs of Oakland’s residents by building a local food supply system and economy. Believing that “food justice” precedes food availability, they focus on the issues of food supply and quality as grassroots organizing tools for community building, self reliance, socially-responsible enterprise growth, youth entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, and health in the largely low-income community of West Oakland, an area currently served by 40 liquor stores but just one grocery.

People’s Grocery staff members grow produce in urban garden plots, then sell it out of a mobile market van that makes regular stops at local senior and community centers. They also operate an after-school snack program in 10 Oakland schools; they hire and train local youth to farm urban gardens and operate the market van, and to participate in interactive workshops for their peers on topics such as nutrition, food-related disease, and the health and environmental issues surrounding the fast-food industry.

Recently Rex talked with Brahm Ahmadi, who along with Malaika Edwards and Leander Sellers founded People’s Grocery in 2003.

Brahm Ahmadi

Rex: What was your initial inspiration for this project, and why did you choose West Oakland?

PG: Two other local residents and I started People’s Grocery after observing that limited access to nutritious and affordable foods in the West Oakland community was having significant impacts on the health and quality of life of its low-income residents. Seeking to stem the tide of diet-related chronic diseases in our community, we developed People’s Grocery to address local food security and related health issues, while also addressing the local need for economic development and youth training and employment.

My personal inspiration for launching People’s Grocery was rooted in a desire to shift away from a type of activism that was focused on fighting against problems rather than working for solutions. I was burning out from a model of confrontational activism that seldom had tangible results. I wanted to do something that had results I could see and feel and point at. Working around food seemed an obvious choice.

I also wanted to transform my lifestyle to live healthier and be closer to the basic elements of the planet: land, food and water. My inspiration also evolved out of interests in the subjects of community economic development, cooperative business and economics, urban planning and sustainable agriculture.

Rex: Could you envision having People’s Grocery in other communities? If so, what factors would you consider in deciding whether or not to pursue involvement in a given community?

PG: Although the staff and board of People’s Grocery have discussed the subject of expansion/replication, we have not felt that this is really a relevant concern for the current stage of the organization. People’s Grocery is still a small organization with limited capacity. And while we are building our capacity at an accelerated rate, the needs in West Oakland alone require everything the organization is able to muster. This will likely continue to be the case for a while and we are committed to ensuring that we establish a strong foundation for change in this community before considering any expansion.

Also, it is not a value of ours to replicate ourselves in the traditional franchise sense. Rather, we believe in honoring each community's autonomy and unique characteristics that derive from place, culture, history and local sensibilities. Thus, if we ever choose to pursue expanding our efforts beyond our community, we will utilize an approach that adapts our model to the unique needs and ideas of those locations.

We also value community control and would not want to pursue creating a national organization, but rather a type of cooperative network of autonomous entities working together.

People's Grocery staff.

Rex: How do you acquire plots of land suitable for urban gardening?

PG: We gain access to all of the land we farm through partnerships. We partner with residents, organizations and schools to establish gardens. Partnering saves money and brings value to the garden through greater capacity. Our current partnerships are with the North Oakland Land Trust, the local YMCA, Spiral Gardens, Ralph Bunche Middle School and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE).

The fact that we don’t own any of the land we work is a vulnerability — we are always at risk of losing land in the future. The North Oakland Land Trust does, fortunately, present the opportunity for some long-term security, and we are interested in expanding the land trust model to ensure the longevity and continuity of our urban gardens.

Rex: What do you think helped influence both the younger and older members of the community to want healthier foods rather than the “junk food” they had been buying before? Why is this happening now rather than before People’s Grocery got involved?

PG: People want to have healthier lifestyles for one primary reason: to avoid suffering for themselves and their families. West Oakland is a community that has been severely impacted by chronic disease. Heart disease is currently the # 1 killer, with diabetes coming in second. We believe an epidemic of diet-related diseases is devastating this and many other communities.
This experience, coupled with an increasing number of efforts to educate people about healthy eating, is resulting in a shift in low-income consumers’ attitudes. This shift is also associated with an emerging desire to experience a higher quality of life through proactive measures. We categorize these consumers as the “emergent shoppers,” which means that many low-income people are at a threshold for changing their lifestyles and desire a healthier, more active and vital way of living.

Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this.

Another significant factor here in West Oakland has been the reaction against local liquor stores, which culminated in the burning of two stores. These events made it publicly acceptable to criticize the prevalence of unhealthy food sources and demand better ones. While little has transpired on the side of city government in response to this, non-profit organizations such as People’s Grocery are seizing the newly opened door to engage in a conversation about changing the way people eat and live.

People's Grocery staff in the mobile market van, which sells fresh produce at local community and senior centers.

Rex: Your promotional materials make it clear that your work is about much more than just “better eating,” that the inadequacies of the local food supply become a symbol for much larger issues of community-building and self-esteem, of “food justice” and personal growth for young people. Can you elaborate on how you see these issues connected?

PG: The modern industrial food system is replete with social and economic inequities that disproportionately impact poor people on both ends of the food chain: producers and consumers.

The perpetuation of cheap prices for global food commodities is inherently dependent on government subsidies and the exploitation of human labor. The working conditions of global food production are often inhumane and deplorable. For those of us here in California, the sight of immigrant laborers working in difficult conditions is not uncommon. The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices.

Simultaneously, here in the U.S., there is severe inequity in the distribution of food, to the extent that many low-income communities, urban and rural alike, are faced with severe limitations in accessing better food. Across the entire country hundreds of communities have the same experience: too few outlets for quality, fresh foods, too many outlets of liquor, candy, and unhealthy, processed foods.

With severely limited access to healthier foods, poor people have little choice but to consume foods that are low in nutrition, high in saturated fats and sugar, and loaded with synthetic chemicals. The result is an epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, infertility, and cancers.

Because People’s Grocery understands the dynamic of inequity and social injustice in the industrial food system, we insert social justice and human rights at the center of our movement for change in the food system. From this understanding comes the concept of “food justice” — the belief that all people, regardless of social and economic constraints, have a right to access to healthy foods at all times.

The organic food industry has arisen in astounding success in response to the environmental destruction precipitated by industrialized agriculture. This is a necessary and important movement. However, organic foods are not easily available or affordable to many poorer consumers. Thus, we are beginning to see a two-tiered food system in which the affluent have access to healthy and high quality foods, while the poor only have poor quality and unhealthy foods.

The food justice movement is a response to this development in the organic food system — while we support the growth of organic and sustainably produced foods, we want to ensure that social justice is also central to the production model so that both workers and poor consumers benefit from the organic industry’s growth.

Finally, food justice is an approach grounded in traditions of grassroots organizing that are linked to many social justice movements across the world. Food justice is an approach to change that places those most affected by the problems at the center of leadership and voice. Thus change comes from the grassroots level and is not led by external entities using charity models that do not facilitate self-reliance over time. The inclusion of poor people, especially youth, in building a more just food system is the best approach for creating long-lasting solutions.

People's Grocery has regularly scheduled work days in its gardens, and community members are invited to come and help out.

Rex: What have been the most challenging issues you have faced in getting your organization to where it is now?

PG: There are three primary challenges we have faced: funding, staff and knowledge.
As with most nonprofits, the staff of People’s Grocery is constantly faced with the anxiety of having to maintain funding. Over the last several years the organization’s growth has really strained the fundraising abilities of its founders. Periodic layoffs and suspension of programs have occurred. Yet the organization continues to survive and show promise for gaining a stronger financial footing in the future.

The problem of finding, recruiting and retaining quality workers has also been a challenge.
The final challenge of knowledge has been related to the staff and board, and the founders in particular having to constantly learn new systems and techniques relevant to the new stages of growth of the organization. For example, the founders are activists with no background in business. The learning curve has been steep and holds the prospect of continuing to be steep for quite a while.

Rex: Where do you hope to go next with the project?

PG: People’s Grocery’s mission is to build a local food system that improves the health and economy of the West Oakland community. Our primary strategy for creating a local food system is to grow a chain of production, distribution, and educational activities into an integrated network.

The future goals of the organization are to engage in activities that are spread out across the entire food chain. On the one hand we will increasingly become a producer of food by developing urban gardens and micro-farms in the local area. Eventually we hope to develop a larger farm that can make direct linkages back to our activities in West Oakland. And on the other hand the organization will increasingly become a low-cost distributor and retailer of healthy foods in West Oakland. This will primarily take the shape of a cooperative grocery store and wellness village in which food is placed at the center of personal and community health.

We envision a future model for the organization in which a farm and a grocery store work together as one whole. This will be an innovative model in reformulating the role of a grocery to become both a central hub of wellness services and of food systems localization. The grocery and farm together will become a model for how a new food system might look — one in which there is a closer relationship between the producers and consumers of food in a local region. And all of this will be supported by a foundation of education and social marketing focused on engaging residents in transforming their lifestyles towards healthier living and engaging them as participants in forming a local food supply system.

Rex: What else would you like our readers to know about the issues facing the West Oakland community?

PG: An important challenge facing the West Oakland community right now is gentrification — the influx of more affluent populations drawn to the community for its rising real estate values and its ideal location. While an influx of more affluent populations will strengthen the economy and facilitate much-needed development, it also poses the risk of displacing many low-income residents who cannot afford to live in these new conditions.

The challenge before us is to facilitate community development that celebrates and welcomes the new residents while ensuring that existing residents are also honored and included. Our hope is that West Oakland’s future is one of true multiculturalism in which all residents of diverse backgrounds can live productively together. Such a vision has many positive attributes for a future food system in which all cultural traditions are honored.

People's Grocery mobile market worker Aswad, with kids of PG staff members.

Aswad, working the mobile market van out of a park in Oakland, pats two little kids on the head as they pick up two bags of organically grown corn chips. He’s 27, with two young children, and was formerly unemployed. Now he’s “the man” for those kids, and for the adults that he hopes will follow this day.

His enthusiasm for the work is infectious. When we asked him what he has gotten out of his work with People’s Grocery, he responded, “Getting close to the earth and helping people get better food is good, and I’ve learned to focus.”
Aswad is just one of several young people in West Oakland that this organization has helped as they in turn help their community.

"Every low-income person carries core aspirations for a better life. Diet, healthy eating and expanded food choices are being recognized as legitimate ways of achieving this."

Additional Resources
To learn more about the environmental, health and economic implications of our corn and petroleum-based industrial food system, we recommend Michael Polllan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (The Penguin Press, 2006).

Another great read is Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
To find markets nearest you that specialize in locally produced, fresh foods, go to http://www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarketsfarmersmarkets.

For a quick guide on how to eat right, and other interesting articles on related subjects, see the "Eating Smart" section on Time's Web site.

Buying produce that is in season is always preferable to buying items shipped from distant growers. Search the Internet for a seasonality chart that applies to your area: for northern California go to www.cuesa.org/seasonality.

Other recent Rex grantees that have food-related programs are NextCourse (2006), Organic Farming Research Foundation (2005), Sustainable Fishery Advocates (2005), Californians for GE-Free Agriculture (2005), and Community Harvest (2005). Descriptions of these programs and others can be found on the Rex Web page under the “Grants and Awards” link.

"The current model of food production depends on cheap labor precipitated by unjust production practices."

Rex Board Perspective
The idea to fund People’s Grocery came from Sandy Sohcot, Rex’s Executive Director, who says:
“I first heard about People’s Grocery about a year ago. A friend and I were discussing various issues related to providing greater accessibility to healthy food. At the time I was talking about my daughter Hilary's work in the Bayview/Hunters Point district of San Francisco in conjunction with her Community Fellowship work at the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. Hilary's project involved analyzing why there were not more food choices in these communities and identifying strategies for increasing access to healthy food. As a Commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, I was also interested in this issue. As I related this to my friend, she suggested checking out People's Grocery as an example of a community-based program addressing these issues.

“With this introduction, I did my own research, including talking with people who were familiar with the program from their own funding research and work in Oakland. It became clear to me that People’s Grocery was a program that was doing work consistent with the Rex Foundation’s mission.”

Rex believes that the “food justice” movement has legs. Programs like that of People’s Grocery are springing up in communities all over the world. The author Michael Pollan (see above) explains it this way: “…food is a powerful metaphor for a great many of the values to which people feel globalization poses a threat, including the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities, the survival of local landscapes, and biodiversity.” We’re glad to have had the opportunity to make a contribution to this movement.

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