Tuesday, July 14, 2015

El Cajon Elks Lodge helps Up! students at Cuyamaca College

Cuyamaca College Joel Cardona gives a demonstration on mind power
About 20 students in a Cuyamaca College program that supports former foster youth or those raised by guardians received school supplies and vouchers for books and transportation from the El Cajon Elks Lodge Wednesday, marking the second year of the  group’s donations.

 At a barbecue luncheon provided by the Elks Lodge at the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College, the students heard a motivational talk by Martin Barros, California/Hawaii Elks Association vice president.

“You cannot change your past but you can change your future,” Barros said as he related his life story as the first in his large family to graduate from college. Raised in the small community of Calipatria in Imperial County, Barros was wide-eyed as a young man entering San Diego State University with its 30,000 students. He graduated with a degree in education, then went into the real estate business.

The students also heard the impassioned words of a counselor in the college’s Unlimited Potential! (Up!) program.
El Cajon Elks Lodge members and Cuyamaca College staff

“You are not alone – we are here to help you,” said Sade Burrell, Up! program coordinator and an adjunct counselor at Cuyamaca College. A former foster youth, Burrell was recently hired at the college where she was herself an Up! student in 2006-2009.

Cuyamaca College Professor Emeritus Anthony Zambelli is a longtime member of the Elks and 2014 president of the El Cajon lodge. He proposed that the Elks support foster youth after he learned about the plight of foster youth as they age out of the county system.

“All the financial and other support they receive ends and many foster youth find their suitcases out on the porch the day they turn 18,” Zambelli said. “Some end up homeless or sleeping in their cars while they struggle to keep up in their college classes.”

Zambelli said the El Cajon Elks’ donation is part of the fraternal organization’s targeted efforts to help youth in the community. For the past two years, a $2,000 grant from the Elks National Foundation paid for the backpacks, school supplies and vouchers. The food for the barbecue was prepared by Elks volunteers from the El Cajon lodge. The Elks also focus on serving the needs of veterans, and the El Cajon lodge recently funded school supplies donated at a barbecue for Cuyamaca College’s veterans.

“Cuyamaca College deeply appreciates the contributions of the El Cajon Elks Lodge and the support they have provided to our students,” said Wei Zhou, interim college president. “We are very fortunate to have developed a strong bond with this group and its leadership.”

About 110 former foster youth and students raised by guardians take part each semester in the Up! 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.

“We provide academic, personal and financial aid counseling,” Burrell said. “We help students apply for scholarships and other financial aid, as well as provide mentoring and social service referrals. We work to provide the same kind of support to these students that others receive coming from traditional two-parent families.”

Ellis Villanueva, who is taking automotive technology classes at Cuyamaca College, was raised by his grandparents after his AIDS-afflicted father committed suicide. He said Up! has helped him find and apply for scholarships, and has provided counseling when he encountered problems at home.
“It’s a big help to hear people talk today about overcoming challenges and staying focused,” he said. “It’s made me think that if they can do it, I can do it, as well.”

Student Joel Cardona, who is taking summer session classes at Cuyamaca College, said he drops by every week at counselor Burrell’s office to seek advice and finds her calm demeanor and encouragement reassuring.

Abandoned by his parents as a 5-month-old baby, Cardona has been in the county foster care system and in group homes nearly his entire life. Inspired by an older sister who graduated from UCLA, Cardona decided to start college as a business major with a goal of getting a job in the corporate world. He proudly talks about the high grades he recently received designing a business logo for a graphic arts class.

Without an older person to turn to for advice when life situations arise, he said Up! has been a critical component of his college experience.

“Sade is really fantastic,” said Cardona, who plans to transfer from Cuyamaca College to a four-year university. “She’s been in foster care and knows what it’s like to survive on your own. And she really cares about students.”

It is easy to see why the Up! students relate to Burrell. The 27-year-old has been in what she calls “survival mode” from the time she was placed in foster care as a young child.

She decided to attend Cuyamaca College after two college counselors came to Mount Miguel High School doing outreach for the foster youth program. Burrell said the people at Up! have helped her as a student because they made her feel for the first time that she was part of a family.

“I chose Cuyamaca because the people made me feel worthy and valuable,” Burrell said. “I graduated because the people here made me part of their family, and having a family gives you a reason to work harder. It gives you someone to make proud.”

Burrell transferred to San Diego State University, where she earned a bachelor’s in social work. In doing so, she said she became one of the 3 percent of the foster care population to get a bachelor’s degree. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California, becoming one of the 1 percent of the people who grew up in foster care to earn a graduate degree.

“When I graduated from Cuyamaca, Pam and (EOPS counselor) Nora Hinsley were both at my graduation and they let me know how proud they were,” she said. “When I went to SDSU and USC, they still stayed right by me. I want to give that same sense of family and worthiness I gained at Cuyamaca to another student in a similar circumstance.”

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