Frequent media stories highlight the fact that poverty, crime, underachievement in school, high dropout rates, and gang involvement are persistent problems in Orange County.
These problems hit youth in the city of Anaheim particularly hard.
According to the 2012 Anaheim Youth Services Assessment (AYSA) report, stakeholders (including parents, school officials and students) state that the community most needs assistance in three areas: the provision of extracurricular activities, educational support in the form of counseling and tutoring, and community/family support. In the report, parents also stated that children’s participation in after-school programs provides one of the best alternatives for their children to stay away from deviant behavior, yet they identified affordability and availability as key barriers to participation. Additionally, AYSA reports that 78% of those working in community-based organizations state that Anaheim needs more gang prevention activities, yet only 24% offer them, and 90% responded that Anaheim needs more safe places for youth to congregate; yet only 41% provide such a place.
That same year, 2012, Joe Baldo of Yorba Linda, a retired business owner, initiated a gang prevention nonprofit organization, Higher Ground and Youth and Family Services, which is changing the lives of hundreds of young people, their families, and ultimately the community through its holistic approach to the problems mentioned above. Program participants have access to facilities at Lincoln Park and Lincoln Elementary School in Anaheim, and five modular buildings that provide space for a creative learning center, digital arts, food preparation, office space, family therapy sessions and a wide range of family services, along with a clubhouse for teens.
Higher Ground’s (HG) services are impactful for a number of reasons. HG is a year- round, free program, with a drop-in format, and maintains a 4 to 1 ratio, four youth to one mentor. Mentorship is at the core of the Higher Ground mission. Mentors are volunteers from universities, local high schools, and the community. Youth development is also a key focus, as elementary students who participate in the program can continue the program through junior high, and then serve as mentors once they enter high school. Anaheim city officials, the Anaheim City School District and the Anaheim Police Dept. confirm that Higher Ground is one of the best solutions they have to correct specific problems in their city.
The programs Higher Ground offers are extensive and individualized. They include performing arts, fine arts, a variety of sports, computer programming, photography, video production, digital arts, theater, cheer, cooking, and gardening. The children choose activities that last one half hour, and then participate in another activity, which provides them with a wide range of skills and a broader interest in things to which they would not otherwise be introduced. The mission is to inspire youth to make good, ethical decisions, and avoid gangs by providing a safe place to play, learn, and develop life skills. It is also a truly grassroots organization. For example, to identify parent needs, HG formed a Parent Advocacy Group. After listing to the parents, HG now provides ESL classes, counseling, and computer literacy while providing free childcare. Last year, Higher Ground served over five hundred families, and had 125 mentors working with the children and their parents. Through donations from the local community and the Second Harvest Food Bank, children are also fed breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner over the summer. During the school year, healthy snacks are served immediately after school, and then dinner is served at the end of the day.
While most other after school programs only operate during the school year, Higher Ground is year-round, which fills a critical niche. Summertime is when families, and especially single parent homes, need the most assistance in keeping their kids safe and surrounded by strong role models. This summer, Higher Ground is operating from 7:30 am to 6 pm to fill the void left by other programs shutting down for summer break, providing free lunch and dinner for all children eighteen and under. Additionally, on Mondays and Thursdays, the entire family is welcomed to enjoy a dinner meal, providing quality time for families to spend together in a safe, fun, and supportive environment. As with all HG programs, there is no charge for this service.
Another unique thing about Higher Ground is its links to local universities through formal partnerships. In 2014, Chapman University partnered with the program through experiential learning courses, whereby Chapman students from all different colleges and disciplines receive full academic credit for their participation in the program. More importantly, students get an opportunity to understand the reality of underserved communities just north of the Chapman campus. Cal State Fullerton and UCI are following this model of offering students course credit through their internship programs. In the last school year, ninety-two students from the three universities severed as mentors, for class credit, at Higher Ground.
Chapman and Higher Ground have developed an “inreach” approach, rather than just outreach efforts. Youth and their families visit the campus a few times a year for fun activities for the kids, their parents and older siblings. Workshops explore college options; ranging from the application process, to financial aid concerns, to special circumstances that students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college may face. Chapman is now in the beginning stages of assisting Joe Baldo and other community groups to create a diversion program at Higher Ground, which will serve as an alternative to youths being sent to Juvenile Hall or put on probation.
According to many Anaheim city leaders, this innovative and thriving young program is just what the city needs to assist families who struggle in some of the most distressed neighborhoods in Orange County. If you would like to serve as a mentor or support the program in any of its efforts, please visit the website at www.highergoundoc.org or call (714) 931-9391.
Victoria Carty is an activist scholar, and associate professor at Chapman University in the department of sociology.
Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.
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