Small Groups at a Large Scale: A California nonprofit creates a poverty-beating network

by Amy Sherman

Philanthropy, September/October 2003

Oxnard, a mid-sized California city with a heavy influx of immigrants, sees kids as young as nine join gangs. But for the past decade one nonprofit there has waged a wide-ranging war against urban decay. City Impact, founded by Betty Alvarez Ham, works with misbehaving school kids, with juveniles on probation and in jail, with struggling families, neighborhood clergy and churches, and businesses. It conducts this work at an impressive scale, boasts real results in changed lives, and deftly brings together Oxnard's sacred and secular institutions.

The story begins with Ham walking onto a public school campus, asking the principal at Ventura High School who the "pain in the ass kids" were, and then suggesting he let her meet with them weekly for group rap sessions. Ham herself had grown up in east L.A. and knew the realities many urban Latino kids face: poverty, drugs, violence, parents in and out of jail. Skeptical, but willing to try anything, the principal agreed. Thus was borne the first "Latina Leadership Group" in 1992.

Within six weeks, the participating girls' behavior began changing; school attendance and grades shot up. Impressed, school officials gave Ham permission to continue. She did so, earning the kids' trust and challenging their attitudes. Slowly, she integrated them into additional off-school activities her nascent ministry was offering to at-risk youth-mentoring, Bible studies, field trips. In a high school where girls from their backgrounds often dropped out pregnant or struggling with drugs, all eight graduated.

Hazel Gonzalez was part of a second wave of City Impact support groups for middle-schoolers. A member of two gangs, she was known for shooting off her mouth-and headed toward a future of shooting off guns. "I was always rebelling because I was mad at the world," Gonzalez explains. She too eventually exited gang life, improved her grades, and graduated. Today, she is a sophomore on a full academic scholarship at California Lutheran University, studying pharmacology.

Now some 60 City Impact groups operate on 38 public school campuses, and over 450 students receive the same life skills training and mentoring weekly that turned Gonzalez's life around. In all, City Impact programs assist over 500 struggling families every week. That scale alone makes the group a standout among faith-based nonprofits. Add to it City Impact's impressive results and the strategic niche it has carved out as a connector of the sacred and the secular, and it's no wonder both public and private funders have invested heavily. Charitable institutions like the Amgen Foundation, the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation have helped increase City Impact's annual budget in ten years from $65,000 to over $2 million. As Shelby Hughes of Wood-Claeyssens puts it, "dollar for dollar, we get a good return on that investment."

Connecting with Hard-to-Reach Youth

City Impact transforms tough kids other organizations haven't reached. It focuses on kids who leave teachers, probation officers, and counselors with migraines. School administrators evaluate students in City Impact groups at the end of each term. According to recent statistics, 76 percent of participants improve in school attendance within a semester; 86 percent improve academic performance, with most kids increasing one to two letter grades.

Shelby Hughes has seen firsthand the peer learning that happens in City Impact groups. Hughes recalls a site visit she conducted when City Impact applied for funding. Betty Ham took her to a rap session at Oxnard High. "I'm not a prude," Hughes emphasizes, "but my mouth would just come open listening to these kids talk." The problems they faced-like coming home to a mom strung out on drugs-were heart-wrenching. But, she says, some kids find constructive ways of coping. In the groups, they pass those tips along to their friends. One youth said he used to hang out on the streets when his mom was high, but then he'd started shooting pool in a rec-room of a church affiliated with City Impact and had convinced another kid to do that. This kind of kid-to-kid sharing, Hughes says, "really makes a difference. It's not some [adult] standing up there telling them what they can and can't do."

City Impact has also provided scores of mentors for juveniles on probation. Steve Dean, a Ventura County probation officer, says the majority of kids with City Impact mentors fare better than kids without, and school statistics concur: 87 percent of City Impact students are no longer on probation.

Dean also sees City Impact make a difference with hard core kids in prison. At Colston Youth Center, he explains, "we're dealing with a population that is very resistive, very defiant at times, and the one thing that they can't stand is authority. So you have to have a specialized person who can work with these types of kids, who can come in, communicate, and show these kids that they can relate to them, so that the kids start to listen." Nancy Pierce, division manager at Colston, says City Impact is better than other agencies at finding these tailor-made staff who make these connections and actually turn kids' lives around. As one donor to City Impact raves: "What's really great about City Impact is that the recidivism of kids going back to where they were before is very, very small. What they get here, they keep."

City Impact's effectiveness has won them the trust of prison officials, opening doors for creative programs to serve troubled kids. Nancy Pierce recalls a conversation she held with Ham in 2001 about Colston's serious overcrowding problem. Pierce hoped to figure out a plan for enhancing the Center's "electronic monitoring program." Under it, juveniles are released from locked-down facilities with ankle bracelets that allow authorities to keep track of them. "I called Betty, and within a half-hour conversation, she outlined a program that has been working successfully since," Pierce chuckles. City Impact's Community Resource Liaison Program provides staff who work with released youths at home and school. The liaisons serve as advocates for the kids in court hearings, provide supportive services such as crisis intervention and family counseling for parents, and get the kids enmeshed in City Impact's array of youth services-mentoring, small groups, recreational and sports programs. The result? Less crowding in the juvenile hall because the kids in this initiative are succeeding, instead of returning to prison. Without this program, Pierce stresses, "we would not feel comfortable releasing these children home."

Results like these have led Wood-Claeyssens' Hughes to consider City Impact a "superior performer." It receives grants twice the size of the foundation's average and has been funded six years in a row. City Impact's impressive outcomes also persuaded Gene Mahn, the former head of the Million Dollar Roundtable Foundation, to nominate City Impact for funding-twice. Mahn is so enthusiastic he has served on City Impact's board since 1999 and helped secure not only the Million Dollar Roundtable Foundation grants but also gifts exceeding $50,000 from the Carolan Foundation, a local family foundation with whom he's pursuing another grant this fall.

A Donor Goes to Camp

Mahn, a financial advisor by trade, is no ordinary donor. He's gotten up close and personal with the kids. Two summers ago, he spent a long weekend with urban youth at one of City Impact's camps. "I'd never been exposed to kids 'on the edge,'" Mahn explains. "I wanted to see just what these kids were facing, in real life situations. And I also wanted to see how this camp would benefit them."

So he stayed in a cabin with several teens and a counselor. "Lots of these kids were wannabe gang members, and the stuff they did reflected that-the stuff that they wore, the dances that they did," Mahn recalls. Though he was "really a duck out of water," he's glad he went and would go again. Counselors led the youth in outdoor activities during the day, then held evening rap sessions on "nitty gritty stuff": sex, family affairs, having a relationship with Jesus. Mahn was especially impressed with the counselors-many had had upbringings similar to those faced by the campers, had survived, and could relate well. "They were able to speak to the situations succinctly, and I thought that was great-very helpful."

Mahn tells potential donors that investment in City Impact's work is "absolutely" worthwhile. "You see kids on the edge; they could fall over either side of the fence. What City Impact does is salvage kids; it helps kids find the right path."

With President Bush's high profile "faith-based initiative," church-state collaboration is increasingly on civic leaders' agenda. But it was a novel idea in 1992, when Betty Ham first showed up at Ventura High. Cheryl Meyers, who has been a school counselor for 18 years, recalls that she "just couldn't believe that somebody was coming on campus asking if they could help, because usually that doesn't happen from the community." City Impact staff and volunteers are drawn from Oxnard's racially diverse Christian community. Betty Alvarez Ham has succeeded in unleashing the "armies of compassion" from the churches in the fight against gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, racism, and delinquency. But the robust partnership between City Impact and local churches arose in large part through the influence of a key donor named Danny Villanueva.

Connecting Congregations to Their Communities

About six years ago, Ham met with Villanueva, who had been a nominal financial supporter for a few years, and asked for a major gift to underwrite construction of a new building for City Impact. Villanueva balked, arguing the facilities would "saddle Betty, not liberate her." Instead, he suggested, why not ask local churches to serve as host sites for City Impact's programs? Many programs occur after school on week days, when church buildings are underused. And, Villanueva added, the churches could become sources of volunteers.

"So we sat down and hashed out all the possibilities, and as a result, Betty called a summit," Villanueva says. "She invited every church in Ventura County, and over 60 churches showed up." Now, he reports, most of those provide volunteers for City Impact and several have donated the use of their facilities. "I think it's brought energy to City Impact," Villanueva sums up. "It's not just an issue of funds. It's an issue of hands and feet delivering services."

City Impact's engagement with local congregations has multiplied further as a result of funding opportunities for community outreach centers made possible through California's Proposition 10 funds (the state's windfall from tobacco settlements), which are overseen by the Families First Coalition. Claudia Harrison, the agency's executive director, reports that City Impact has been "an important bridge" between Families First and congregations located in distressed neighborhoods of Oxnard. City Impact has helped the churches launch "Family Resource Centers" funded in part by Prop. 10 dollars. The result: more neighborhood-based services for families who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Cecilia, a 32-year-old Latina mother of three, walks to the "Even Start" program at Victory Outreach Church's Family Resource Center. Her children participate in group play and skill-building activities while Cecilia learns English, bolsters her parenting skills, and practices for her driver's license test. She says the program has increased both her self-esteem and the time she spends reading to her children.

Victory Outreach launched its Family Resource Center with help from City Impact's Jim Gilmer. Gilmer attended the meeting where donor Danny Villanueva urged more engagement with the churches. Now he's in charge of building partnerships with churches for effective neighborhood ministry. Gilmer finds many pastors want to be involved in "faith-based initiatives," but lack the technical capacity. He invests much time with pastors like Victory Outreach's Fernando Franco, helping them obtain the skills needed to develop programs that meet neighborhood needs.

Other clergy also need motivation and challenge. Take, for example, Pastor Tim Fearer of Westminster Presbyterian. The church is a predominantly Anglo, older congregation, sitting in the midst of a demographic revolution. "We didn't really know about our neighborhood, and we didn't know because we didn't want to know," Fearer tells me candidly. Betty Ham came and began educating the congregation and offering suggestions. "The things she said were just a revelation to us. They weren't necessarily received with open arms and acted on immediately," Fearer continues. "It took a while for the realities to sink in. It's been a journey."

As part of that journey, Westminster has hired new ethnic staff "to send a loud and clear message" to the neighborhood. It has also launched a Family Resource Center. Three elders began meeting regularly with City Impact's Jim Gilmer to discuss how they could deliver social services but not compromise their Christian witness. One comments, "City Impact came alongside us as educator and trainer," and Gilmer helped with grant writing, networking, voicing their faith-based concerns to the government partner, and interpreting contracts.

Last December, I spoke with Westminster Family Resource Center coordinator Velma Villa. Over the preceding three months, the Center had engaged nearly 90 families in literacy workshops, hosted a variety of Parent Education seminars, taught dental hygiene classes, and distributed food to needy families. Such efforts, Fearer says, have "helped us to become a church serving the neighborhood, and our neighbors are getting to know us. City Impact has helped expand the imagination of the congregation," he adds, and helped the church "look at our neighborhood through different glasses."

Connecting Businesses to Neighborhoods

In addition to connecting congregations to government funding, City Impact has also helped the faith community build relationships with the business community. A board member learned of Pacific Vehicle Processors' expansion plans for a new local facility in south Oxnard-which would offer factory jobs at $15/hour plus benefits. So City Impact leaders brought ethnic pastors to meet corporate leaders, who were eager for their support. "These pastors got excited about the jobs for their congregants," Gilmer explains. He took clergy to City Council meetings to voice their enthusiasm for the corporate expansion. "It was the first time in our area when a mega-corporation entertained the faith community," Gilmer notes. He has since helped 30-plus ethnic pastors start a new group, called Christian Leaders for Community Action, to focus on economic development issues. "Now we're being called on all different fronts by other corporations," he reports.

Meeting so many pastors convinced City Impact to emphasize practical training for clergy. Five years ago, City Impact launched the Inter-Denominational Training Institute to do just that. The Institute provides both accredited theological education and practical training emphasizing community outreach. Most students are bi-vocational Hispanic pastors. Some, like Edgar Mohorko, go on to further academic training. But Mohorko hasn't lost the vision for community impact instilled by the Institute. Now he pastors a congregation of over 300 members, serves as a chaplain for the Oxnard Police Department, and has launched Messiah House, a rehabilitation center for Latino men trying to get clean and sober.

Danny Villanueva isn't surprised how far Betty Ham has run with his challenge to mobilize the churches. That appreciation has made him a generous repeat giver and advocate. This summer he hosted a reception for City Impact with the goal of raising at least $50,000. "The reason we remain involved with and keep helping Betty," Villanueva says, "is that I appreciate her adeptness. She is able to access everything from state funds to facilities to volunteers and just squeeze everything out of it that she can. I don't know of many organizations that are more efficient in this way. That's the reason also why, when people call me regarding community development, I always refer people there. It's one of the better models we've got," he concludes, "and that's why I continue to help them."

about us
| site map | contact us | © Faith in Communities 2009