Friday, July 30, 2010

Atwater man working with at-risk teens: A strong back and ear to lend

Friday, Jul. 30, 2010,


TURLOCK -- Eddie Perez, an Atwater resident who works as a house supervisor with at-risk teens in Turlock, sat down for dinner one night last week.

He was interrupted by a phone call.

It was a former resident of the Excell Center, the foster home where Perez works. He had called to catch up with Perez, a man he considers a close friend and mentor.

After hanging up, Perez continued with dinner, only to be interrupted by a second, and later a third phone call from other former center members who wanted to chat with him.

Perez finally got a chance to eat after the third call. He said he didn't mind the interruptions at all. He's glad to know he's made an impact on so many lives.

Perez, along with others at the Excell Center, part of San Francisco-based Aspiranet, takes pride in jump-starting the lives of at-risk teens who need guidance, and they're experts at finding innovative ways to do it.

The center is based in Turlock, but many of its employees and the young men it tries to help hail from Merced County.

The center just finished its latest project -- painting buildings around the facility.

It may sound like a mundane task, but for the young men at the Excell Center it was an exciting chance to learn a new trade, said Art Chaparro, development director for Aspiranet.

"Most of them found their niche -- what they like, what they want to do," he said.

About 425 gallons of paint was donated by Lawrence Eleyh, owner of Mirage Painting in Turlock. He was also one of the contractors helping to teach the young men various painting techniques.

When the contractors arrived at the Excell Center to help with the painting, the residents were fascinated by the process, Chaparro said.

Opening the residents up to various trades broadens their idea of what's available to them, he said.

Chaparro hopes to start more programs like it. Plans could include plant care and carpeting work, assuming someone in the community is willing to partner with the Excell Center as Eleyh did.

The center has also enjoyed success with two other programs aimed at teaching the residents new trades and skills, said Ted Ayres, assistant regional director for Aspiranet.

One program involves training dogs for the blind and for hospital visits. Another involves growing fruit, vegetables and raising various animals including chickens and goats, he said.

These programs don't only benefit the residents of the Excell Center, they benefit the community, Ayres said.

Programs the Excell Center provides help the troubled teens with better social and intellectual skills, said Shamerin Shamoon, a clinical social worker at the facility.

"There's quite a bit of research that suggests when you allow the children to learn skills, they use those skills to contribute to their home, to their community," she said. "They feel better about themselves, they feel worthy, so it increases their confidence, and they feel they can be successful in other areas."

A lot of the troubled teens living at the Excell Center were raised in environments that didn't give them a good shot at success, Shamoon said.

"The level of abuse and neglect that these children have gone through is heartbreaking," Shamoon said. "What we teach them here is you cannot change the past, but your future is within your control. I've had several youths that I've actually enrolled in college."

Many of the residents at the Excell Center arrive with poor social skills and emotional issues, she said. But because of the structured environment and programs the facility offers, they leave with confidence and opportunity.

One resident even received a summer-job offer from one of the contractors, Shamoon said.

"Do you know what that does to a 17-year-old's confidence? He was valued, he's important," she said.

Life changes like those make working at the Excell Center less of a job and more of a way of life, Perez said. He started working there for the paycheck, but stayed for the camaraderie.

As long as he's able to make changes in the lives of at-risk teens, he said he'll continue to make the long commute from Atwater.

There are kids within the Aspiranet system who need foster homes. To inquire about serving as a foster parent, call (877) 380-4376.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or

Read at

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Attention ART Lovers Everywhere

If you appreciate fine art, you will
Vote for Art Chaparro!

Right now, through Friday, July 30th, go to, click on Dancing with Our Community Stars and then click on Vote for Art!

If you missed his world class performance, Art rocked the stage with his partner Kelly Richardson, at the 2010 Oxnard Salsa Festival’s Dancing with Our Community Stars Competition last Sunday. Check it out on YouTube!

Art danced to the song “Esperanza,” which means “hope” in Spanish. When you vote now, you will be helping Art become the 2010 “People’s Choice” winner but, better yet, you will be providing much-needed hope to foster children and families throughout Ventura County.

$1 = 1 vote

With your help, Art Chaparro, Aspiranet and the foster children and families they support will all be big winners!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Last Chance to Vote to Support Aspiranet and Art Chaparro!

The six weeks of rehearsal have come to an end and it's time for the showdown this Sunday July 25, at 1:00 p.m. at the Oxnard Salsa Festival. Vote for Art now at

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Salsa Instructors Share Moves, Spice Up Charity Dance Contest

July 16, 2010

Oxnard , Calif. -- When Kelly Richardson was paired up with Art Chaparro, Aspiranet’s Director of Development, to participate in the Oxnard Salsa Festival’s 2010 Dancing with Our Community Stars (DWOCS) competition, little did she know that she would discover another passion in addition to dancing – helping foster children.
Chaparro, who is dancing for Ventura County foster children programs, has no formal dance training. Richardson, an investment bank receptionist by day and salsa teacher and performer by night, volunteered her time to teach Chaparro how to perform “the hammerlock, grapevine and the gentlemen’s break.” These salsa moves will be a part of their routine when they step on to the dance floor at the Oxnard Salsa Festival’s Dancing with Our Community Stars July 25th competition.

I had been praying to find an avenue that would allow me to use my passion for dance to help others,” said Richardson. “Meeting Art and learning more about Aspiranet was an answer to this prayer.”

Richardson, who teaches private and group salsa lessons at Isabelle’s Dance Academy in Santa Monica and performs salsa and Flamenco throughout Southern California, plans to continue her support of Aspiranet after the DWOCS competition ends by volunteering to teach foster teens how to dance.

"There is such a sense of empowerment and confidence that develops in people when they learn new skills, such as dance,” said Richardson. “I believe that confidence could serve as a source of inspiration for foster children and help them find their inner hero.”

Richardson is just one of six professional salsa dance instructors paired with the community dancers to choreograph and polish their routines. The couples, each dancing for a different charitable organization, are given six short weeks to learn their routines and then, on July 25th, compete at the Oxnard Salsa Festival in front of a panel of judges and thousands of audience members. The popular vote, measured by the amount of money each charity dancer collects, determines the winner.

Hector Sanchez, who is dancing with Mary Olson, General Manager for KCLU Radio, is no stranger to the DWOCS competition. Sanchez, a past performer, is volunteering as an instructor for the second year in a row.

“I love Dancing with our Community Stars,” said Sanchez. “It is a great way to energize the community about dance and at the same time, raise funds for worthy charities.”

Sanchez, who comes from a dancing family, started his own salsa club while in high school and is currently a member and dance instructor of the prestigious Santa Barbara Dance Center . In addition to being a student at UCSB and working full-time, Sanchez owns his own dance performance company, called Justbaila. By the July 25th competition showdown, Sanchez and Olson will have practiced their routine together for over 30 hours.

“The connection between partners is the most important component of a successful dance routine,” said Sanchez. “This year, my partner is very hardworking and competitive. Our passions balance each other perfectly.”

The other DWOCS salsa instructors in this year’s competition are:

• Vanessa Hernandez, a teacher at Ventura’s House of Dance, who has been dancing since age three. She is paired with Doug Green, who is dancing for The Social Justice Fund for Ventura County.
• Jesse “Chuy” Rodriguez, an Oxnard and Los Angeles dance champion. Rodriguez was the 2009 winner of the DWOCS Dance Contest with partner and FOOD Share CEO Bonnie Weigel. This year he is teamed with Jax Rains-Turk who is dancing for Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast.
• Ricky Campos, director of Oxnard’s Reyes De La Rumba dance team, which has been representing Oxnard in Salsa Congresses nationwide for the past 11 years. Campos is paired with Sandra Laby, who is dancing for the Ventura Music Festival and performing on her 50th wedding anniversary.
• Christina Maggio, has traveled and taught dance throughout the tri-counties, El Salvador , and Mexico . Maggio is partnered with Will Reed, who dancing for St. Vincent de Paul/Winter Warming Shelter.

The real winners of the Dancing with Our Community Stars competition are the six participating nonprofit organizations. This fundraising opportunity has raised more than $115,000 over three years for local charities.

Dancing With Our Community Stars is being held at the Oxnard Salsa Festival on Sunday, July 25th at 1 p.m. at Plaza Park in downtown Oxnard . To learn more about the Dancing With Our Community Stars competition and vote for your favorite charity and dancing couple, go to

Read the article at

Monday, July 19, 2010

State Agency Recruits Foster Care Parents and Families

L.A. Watts Times
July 15, 2010


Elizabeth Gaines has always desired to have at least more than a dozen children, just like her grandmother, who had 14. For years she considered foster care but thought her complicated life as a single mom would cause a problem.

Then one day, she just made the commitment.

“I’ve been a foster care parent for a little over a year but I had to put it on hold because I didn’t want to bring children into a lot of confusion,” Gaines said. “I woke up and decided, ‘This is it; I’m going to do it.’ ”
Her own beautician was a foster parent and talked often about the rewards, challenges and the difference having a family made in her children’s lives. That spiked Gaines’ interest even more.

She already had five children: one was 12, while the others were 13, 23, 26 and 33. But she felt that adding the teenage boys to her family was the right thing to do.

“The foster boys were 15 and 16 when they came, and I was afraid, but they’re great. The rewards for my younger boys have been great. I mean, siblings will do this and that and fight, but there’s a certain kind of rapport they’ve developed,” Gaines said. “My oldest (foster care) son, now 17, he’s a leader and that’s been positive because they’ve been without male figures for so long.”

She said they manage their challenges as growing experiences, and she realizes that the boys are in situations that they had no control over, so she keeps their past in the past to keep them progressing as a happy family and toward a positive future.

“Some people get into foster care just for the money, but if it’s not naturally in your heart to care for the children, you won’t be successful, and the kids will know that it’s all about the dollar,” Gaines said. “When the child hits their door is when reality will kick in for them, so it has to come from the heart.”

The L.A. resident attributes part of her family’s manageability to the support she has received from Aspiranet, her foster care agency.

The nonprofit, statewide family foster care and adoption organization began in 1971 as a six-bed group home for boys, and has expanded into a network of programs and services to more than 9,300 children and families annually.

Gaines said she often gravitates to the parent support group and she likes the open-door policy.

“They give incentives to the children through programs like financial planning and responsibility classes,” she said. “They emphasize education, and I’m learning a lot myself.”

In May, which is National Foster Care Month, Aspiranet launched the Hero Initiative to encourage potential foster parents and families to get involved and help make a difference in the lives of one or more of California’s 75,000 children in foster care.

The new campaign was developed around its core values of respect, integrity, courage and hope, said Andrea Helzer, district administrator for Aspiranet.

Fear is sometimes a barrier between good foster parents, families and foster children, but parents would have access to social workers on a weekly basis for whatever support, resources, intervention or therapy they would need to make the journey less scary and more manageable, she said.

While Aspiranet has experienced no placement gap among various ethnicities, Helzer said, teenagers are the most common placement referral and the most difficult to find homes for because of a lot of people’s prejudice against them and the foster care stigma.

Foster parents and families prefer cute, young children, believing they can make a difference in their lives if they get them earlier, but they can well impact the lives of teenagers too, she added.

“Teenagers are able to express their anger and sadness, whereas the little children just know they’re sad and angry, but aren’t able to articulate that and sometimes act out,” Helzer said.

In recruiting families for teens and sibling sets, Aspiranet implements outreach in Watts, Compton and Inglewood to help increase chances that children can be placed with families of the same ethnicity.

Helzer added that many teenagers who age out of foster care end up homeless, in jail, and a very small percentage ends up going to college.

With the Hero Initiative as a call to action to have more foster parents for teens and siblings, Aspiranet hopes to end that cycle.

“I feel that as a society we’re failing in that area and we really need to improve our programs to help children who are aging out of foster care,” Helzer said.
Read the article at L.A. Watts Times.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Soroptimist International of the Conejo presents $8,000 in Service Awards to nine organizations

by Jacque Lockwood
Ventura County Star
July 2, 2010
Soroptimist International of the Conejo, a volunteer service organization, awarded $8,000 in service awards to non-profit organizations whose mission clearly melds with that of Soroptimist. The Soroptimist mission is “to improve the lives of women and girls in the local communities and through the world.”
The club presented the nine awards during its annual Service Awards Dinner on June 15, 2010, held at the Los Robles Golf Course. All of the recipients expressed their appreciation to the group and gave explanations of their organization’s activities and how the funds would be used.
In presenting the awards, Carole Blake, Service Committee Chair, said, "I'm grateful that our club was able to make awards to so many deserving organizations. More women and children are struggling to support themselves and their families, a situation that is clearly reflective of the economic climate”
This year's nine service award recipients are:
ASPIRAnet ($1,000) - Transitional Housing Program Plus is a transitional housing support program. It was developed to help youth, aged 18-24, moving from foster care to be self-sufficient. The goal of the program is to provide a safe living environment while helping youth to achieve self-sufficiency so that they can learn life skills. Represented by Robin Cruz-Bradley, Program Director.
Conejo Free Clinic ($1,000) - Funds will help to provide women with screening mammograms, diagnostic mammograms, routine lab work, breast ultrasounds, pelvic ultrasounds, abdominal ultrasounds, HIV and STD screening tests, pregnancy tests and counseling. Represented by Teresa Seeley, Executive Director.
Conejo Valley Women’s Resource Center ($1,000) - The grant will be used to provide educational materials to help improve the lives of women and girls. Such material equips clients with resources for additional parenting skills and preventative care information. Represented by Michelle Riethmayr, Executive Director.
Girl Scouts of California’s Central Coast ($500) - Funds will be used to help provide scholarships and support programming dedicated to developing girls (grades K - 12) leadership, through Girl Scouts' troop program. This program links girls of similar ages with community-based volunteers who act as mentors, guiding and inspiring their troop through activities that build skills and traits associated with strong leadership such as social skills, decision-making techniques, teamwork, self confidence, and self awareness. Represented by Janet Rossi, Community Development Director
Hospice of the Conejo ($1,000) - Hospice provides comfort and dignity to those with a terminal illness and on-going support to loved ones. Funds will be used to support the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Program. Represented by Maria Prescott, Executive Director.
Manna Conejo Valley Food Bank ($500) - Funds will be used to help low income households with food needs (Thousand Oaks, Agoura, Westlake Village, Camarillo, Newbury Park). Represented by Julia Pauloo, Coordinator.
RAIN Project Transitional Living Center ($1,000) - Funds will be used for the "Moving Forward Program" which provides on-site crisis counseling to homeless residents of the RAIN Project. Represented by Issac Romeo, Coordinator.
Safe Passage ($1,000) - A transitional home in Sherman Oaks that helps women and children re-establish themselves into their own homes, new jobs, and new life within 3 months of services. Funds will be used for “Stepping Stones To A New Life” — helping women and their children one step at a time to a new life. Represented by Trish Steele, CEO.
Tanzania Nursing Scholarship Program ($1,000) - The mission of the Tanzanian Nursing Scholarship Program is to break young women out of the cycle of poverty, gain self respect, dignity and become a contributing member of their society by improving the lives of those around them. Funds will be used for sponsoring a limited number of students starting in the second year of their studies, which covers tuition and room and board, books and a personal allowance. 100% of the donation is applied to the assistance of students. Represented by SIOC member, Marie Noonan, accepting for Linda van Werkhooven, RN, Program Director.
For more information about Soroptimist International of the Conejo, please visit our web site at
Read the article at
This story is contributed by a member of the Ventura community and is neither endorsed nor affiliated with Ventura County Star

Friday, July 2, 2010

Did you know a college student wrote and composed the music for Aspiranet's latest video?

Ryan McDermott knew that this video had the opportunity to reach thousands of people, and he hopes that, with the help of his song, families like yours would choose to be a hero for a child that needs a home.

Ryan is a supporter of Aspiranet, and we know you are too. By passing along this video to your friends, neighbors, coworkers and family, you are helping further Aspiranet's dream of finding a lifelong connection for the over 75,000 children living in foster care.

Read More >

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Jan Half MOUSE Squad Program Director featured on Comcast Newsmakers

MOUSE Squad of California (MSCA) Student Tech provides youth access to technology education and training necessary to be successful in today's information society while assisting schools to realize a vision for 21st century teaching and learning. MSCA Student Tech enables students to learn information technology (IT), customer service, communication and leadership skills while providing a service to their schools. A student-run IT support help desk is set up where students put into practice what they have learned. It can be an after-school program or an in-school elective.