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By Olivia Garcia
In the words of Bakersfield community advocate Magda Menendez, there are times “when people will encounter roadblocks and obstacles in life and feel they can do nothing to help themselves.”
But with a little support in teaching them new skills and a little thing called a second chance, anything is possible, she said.
Such was the theme this weekend when the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation held its 25th annual Aztec Awards in Bakersfield.
TV celebrities Jim Scott and Norma Gaspar were the MCs, and Martin Castro, president and CEO of the statewide MAOF, also attended.
Menendez is the administrator of the Bakersfield nonprofit location, which provides services such as job training to young, inexperienced workers and seniors looking for new skills to compete in today’s job market, as well as educational programs to youth and adults who may have dropped out of school and are now wanting another try. Other programs, such as early childhood education and family services, are offered as well.
The Hispanic social services agency, however, provides such services to all ethnicities and racial backgrounds who meet certain income guidelines.
However, the annual Aztec Awards event allows organizers to celebrate the success of their clients.
At the event, four local residents who participated in MAOF programs were honored with the Estrella Award for their continued success and of course, serving as an excellent example of investing in a second chance. (Estrella means stars in Spanish).
They were Raul Buenaventura, Kevin Baretta, Diana De Leon and Tina Posey.
Raul Buenaventura emigrated from the Philippines to the United States and at the time, he was on the verge of becoming a member of the London cast of “Miss Saigon.” However, he decided to immigrate to the U.S. to be near his family. Starting over in the U.S. proved challenging, though. He came across the MAOF bookkeeping program, hoping to find a career in the financial services industry.
After completing the program, he landed a job as a transition coordinator assistant with the Independent Living Center of Kern County where he provides advocacy and assistance for the elderly and disabled patients in their transition from inpatient facilities to homes or assisted-living facilities. He is also venturing into starting his own business, another American dream of his.
After serving in the military for six years, Kevin Baretta married a Bakersfield girl and moved to her hometown. Baretta found the MAOF bookkeeping program after being referred by Employer’s Training Resource and the Kern County Veterans Center.
Baretta completed the seven-month course in four months with top grades, and MAOF provided him with an internship at the nonprofit Stewards Inc. He impressed Stewards Inc. supervisors so much that at the end of the internship he was offered a job as a client advocate, which in large part includes financial responsibilities, Menendez said.
“Hiring Kevin has been one of the best decisions I’ve made,” said Andrae Gonzales, executive director of Stewards Inc. “He is very smart, a fast learner, detailed and efficient. Even better, he is a problem solver! Stewards Inc. is very fortunate to have him on our team.”
Tina Posey found MAOF in 1998. She had three children, no high school diploma and lacked the skills that would allow her to compete in the job market. Thanks to Employer’s Training Resource, Posey found the MAOF’s Work Experience Program and was placed with the Housing Authority of Kern as a clerk. MAOF then encouraged her to work on her GED, and she did.
The Housing Authority hired her after the program, and Posey refocused on school. Through persistence, dedication and support, Posey eventually earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Bakersfield College and went after her bachelor’s degree. With a desire to teach classes at BC, Posey turned to school again — this time, to earn her master’s degree.
Today, Posey is a supervisor with the Housing Authority of Kern’s Section 8 office and a BC adjunct instructor, teaching part time in the Office Tech Lab.
Posey also gives back to the community. She is currently a board member with the Kern Adult Literacy Council and does work with the Kern County Homeless Collaborative.
In 1987, Diana De Leon was 19 years old, and though she had just graduated from high school, she had no job skills. Her family usually followed the harvest as farmworkers. She came across Employer’s Training Resource, which led her to the MAOF Work Experience Program where she was placed as a clerk for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance. After learning from GBLA, she found work for a few local attorneys in town. At that point, she realized she wanted to return to school. She later earned associate’s degrees in American Sign Language and administration of justice, and would go on to gain more education and work experience.
Today, she is a recovery specialist II for the Mobile Evaluation Team of the Kern County Mental Health Department where she works with law enforcement on crisis calls.
The mother of three and grandmother of two says she will always be grateful to MAOF for the strong foundation it instilled in her. These skills have helped her become the strong woman she is today, she said.
In addition, MAOF honored two organizations which, through their work or volunteer activities, have helped make Kern County a healthier community.
They are Chevron and its Project Lead the Way program, and the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
In Kern County, through its Project Lead the Way, Chevron has invested nearly $1 million in 4 years to bring rigorous, project based engineering curriculum to students of Kern County, Menendez said. Since 2010, Project Lead the Way has expanded from one to 24 schools, organizers said.
She explained that Chevron should be recognized for preparing today’s students to compete global economy.
The Dolores Huerta Foundation was recognized for its many programs, including the Vecinos Unidos (United Neighbors) program and its Youth Leadership Program.
Through the Vecinos Unidos, the Dolores Huerta Foundation has trained residents, many of them immigrants, farmworkers, and women, on how to become advocates for their communities at the local, state and federal levels.
Among the successes, Vecinos Unidos members have been able to ban sugary beverages and promoted more physical activity in the Arvin and Lamont school districts, and assist in organizing for infrastructure improvements that have provided sewer connections and sidewalks, curbs and gutters for residents in the Weedpatch area, organizers said.
Meanwhile, the group’s Youth Leadership Program focuses on teen pregnancy prevention and offers recreation and artistic outlets, such as youth conferences, wilderness camping, guitar groups, murals, photography and video projects.
Olivia Garcia is a Californian columnist and editor of Bakersfield Life and BWell magazines. Send her tips at ogarcia@ bakersfield.com. Her work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are her own.