Monday, June 30, 2014

Local Elks Lodge helps former foster youth students at Cuyamaca College

Michael Jimenez of the Elks Lodge, Cuyamaca College student
Jasmin Jimenez and Elks member Paul Kassel
Thirty students in a Cuyamaca College program that provides a measure of support often missing in their lives as former foster youth received school supplies and vouchers for books and transportation from the El Cajon Elks Lodge Thursday.

Cuyamaca College Professor Emeritus Anthony Zambelli, who continues to work on campus, said the event was the result of his attending a forum where he heard the plight of foster youth as they age out of the county system.

“All the financial and other support they receive ends and they are basically put out on the street and that’s so wrong,” Zambelli said. He decided to put his longtime membership with the El Cajon Elks Lodge to use to support former foster youth through Cuyamaca’s Unlimited Potential, or Up!, program. A $2,000 grant from the Elks National Foundation paid for the backpacks, school supplies and vouchers, along with a lunch of pizza to the Up! students who benefitted from the Elks’ largesse.

About 100 former foster youth and students raised by guardians take part each semester in the program, said Pam Fleming, the college’s foster youth liaison and financial aid adviser. The goal of the program is to provide support and services to help the students overcome the extra obstacles they face and to keep them focused on their studies.

“Their biggest challenge is lack of parental or family support while attending college,” Fleming said. “They usually have low income and no additional support in case the car breaks down, or they have an extra expense. They also have no trusted and caring adult to help them make decisions. Many of our Up! students become homeless during their college career, so housing and transportation are huge issues for them.”

Jasmin Jimenez, 19, a Cuyamaca student who plans to attend Grossmont College in the fall to begin her major in Administration of Justice, said Up! has provided invaluable support, such as food from the onsite pantry. Born to a mother in prison who continued to be in and out of incarceration for many years, Jimenez is living with an older brother in El Cajon. Both she and her boyfriend, who was raised by his grandmother, were among those receiving backpacks.

Jimenez said she plans to transfer to San Diego State University to obtain a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and eventually become a parole officer. She said her mother was deported to Mexico after her last stint behind bars.

More than  the school supplies, the students also received words of encouragement and kudos from lodge members and associates, including Paul Kassel, the former head of the Elks Lodge in Poway, an alum of Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges. 

  Kassel described a childhood of limited means growing up in El Cajon, as one of eight siblings and two foster youth. He said his parents worked so hard to make ends meet that they rarely had time to talk to their children, and he often had little more than half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for his lunch at school.

“I sometimes felt abandoned in many ways,” said Kassel, the 2013 president of Elks Lodge 2543 in Poway and an associate member of the Elks Lodge 1812 in El Cajon.

It was at the Elks Lodge, Kassel said, where he found sustenance, not just for his body, but for his soul. The mother of a friend worked at the El Cajon lodge, and he visited there about three times a week from the time he was 10 until he became a teenager.

“I was given sandwiches and lemonade, but it didn’t take long for the group of Elks members to realize I needed more than just food, I was hungry for more love and support,” said Kassel, who attended Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges during the early ‘80s, majoring in business and criminal justice.

About six years ago, the general contractor and owner of Property Services Plus and Paul Kassel Inc. for the last 20 years was encouraged to visit and participate in a community service group and was reminded of the kindness and support he had received as a youngster from the Elks.

 “My mission here today is to spread a message of looking to the future,” Kassel said. “Something may have happened to you as a kid, but the key is to not look back and live in the past, but to know where you are going. Put your heart into what you want to do with your life. Find something you want to do and then get up and start going.”

Zambelli said after the event that with its primary charitable mission of helping children and veterans, the El Cajon Elks Lodge plans to expand its connection to Cuyamaca College with a grant to assist its veteran student population.

“One of my goals as president of the lodge is to connect more with the community,” said Zambelli, who continues to teach one economics course a semester and is also the director of the San Diego Center for Economic Education at Cuyamaca College. “This is certainly a great relationship to nurture.”