April Story of the Month: Learning to Smile Again

Gabriel* came home from the LifeSTEPS After School Program (ASP) talking a mile a minute! He dropped his backpack by the door, exclaimed all his homework was done in his loudest “inside” voice, and hurried to the kitchen to share the highlights of his day with his mom and grandma. His words were mostly in Spanish with a sprinkling of English as he told them about the new friend he had met in ASP.

His grandmother, Martina*, could not help but smile and think to herself just how much her grandson had changed over the last two years — in fact, she was beginning to notice she too had changed.

When Martina came to live at the Orchard View Apartments in Holtville, California, she felt lost. She and her adult daughter had moved with her daughter’s two young children from Mexicali, Mexico, after losing her son in a tragic car accident. Still numb with grief and now living in a new culture, Martina’s grief overwhelmed her life and sunk her into depression. She had left her old life behind in Mexico — but taken her sadness with her.

A slight crack of sunshine in Martina’s otherwise dark world came at Thanksgiving. Her daughter had noticed the flyer for Orchard View’s Thanksgiving potluck in the laundry room and convinced her mother to take a chance and attend. At the potluck, the family stuck close together — listening to the friendly chatter of their neighbors, but only as outside observers. This caught the attention of Araceli, Director of Social Services at Orchard View, and she decided to reach out.

That simple act of hospitality from Araceli was the first step for Martina to find her way out of her depression. Immediately she felt comfortable talking to Araceli and even opened up to share about the pain she was feeling since her son’s passing.  Martina took another leap and attended a LifeSTEPS health class. She found herself interested in learning more about living a healthy lifestyle — taking home tips to her family on healthy eating and exercise. Martina chatted with neighbors and began to notice the children playing in the playground. Their laughter brought sweet memories of her son as a child and instead of tears, she smiled.

Martina smiles now at Gabriel, standing next to her chopping vegetables. He is looking more and more like his uncle. Since attending the After School Program, Gabriel’s confidence has soared; his grades have improved and most importantly, he feels connected to his new home.

Martina is grateful for the new start in her life. She is grateful for the bright future her grandchildren have; for friends and neighbors to talk to and she is grateful for the love and memories of her son she brought with her to her new home.

*Names have been changed.

Lifelong Learning in the Digital Age

For older adults, learning computer skills can be like learning a foreign language. It’s not their native tongue and at first all those tech phrases, like mousepad, cut/paste, and “right click,” seem like nonsensical babble. That’s what Don thought the first time he came to a LifeSTEPS computer class.

Don, unlike many older adults living in affordable housing, actually did own a computer. Most of the time it sat on his desk in his living room, untouched–a foreign object in his otherwise comfortable living room. Every so often he would turn it on, making sure it still worked, but that is as far as his skills would take him. The only purpose it served was to remind Don just how out of touch he had become with the rapidly evolving world around him. It left Don feeling old and obsolete.

LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services, Evangelina, encouraged Don to come to a computer class. At first Don was reluctant to show up; he had really enjoyed LifeSTEPS’ social gatherings–the Walk-a-thon, Bingo, and Brain Teaser Game Nights–but computers? Computers represented all he didn’t know–a mysterious alien land he wasn’t sure he could conquer. Evangelina was persuasive and eventually wore his resistance down. When the new computer classes started Don was ready to swallow his pride, and his fear, and give it a go.

To his amazement it didn’t take long before Don was confidently using Microsoft programs, email, and typing on the keyboard. He was a diligent learner–he took each new skill he learned in class, went home, dusted off the computer, and practiced.  Now he looks forward each month to the skill that will be taught next–Word, PowerPoint, Excel. After six months of classes, the totally unexpected happened–Don is co-teaching the computer class alongside Evangelina!

Don is very appreciative of all he has learned from LifeSTEPS and the encouragement he received from Evangelina. He said, “Because of her persistence and patience, I was able to be comfortable around other residents, improve my computer skills, and become a confident member of my community.”

Don is now a huge advocate for his fellow residents who are also non-native computers users. Don knows how they feel–but he also knows it’s never too late to learn new skills and evolve with the changing times.


Transformed through Technology

In October 2016, Mobile Beacon, a unique internet provider focused on nonprofits and educational organizations, awarded LifeSTEPS with a grant for a pilot digital inclusion program, which included 25 laptops and one year of internet access. The results so far have been outstanding, and we have been able to use these laptops in over 80 properties to date. Here is one resident’s story of how access to this technology has changed her life.

Samantha* and her husband Ricardo, along with their two boys, have been living for the past five years at Cortez City Lights, a small affordable housing community near Echo Park in the heart of Los Angeles.

Samantha made the decision when her oldest son was born, about 12 years ago, to stay at home and focus on raising the kids, which was the best decision at the time for her and her family. This path has brought her a lot of joy, and she is proud of how she’s raised her boys. But of course, there have been sacrifices. Samantha has passed up academic and career opportunities to focus on her family. Her husband has worked long hours in the service hours, and living on one income is tough.

In January, Samantha identified that she wanted to rebuild her career now that both boys are in school and busy with extracurriculars. She decided that getting back in the workforce, having a career outside of the home, and contributing to the household income would be best for their family right now, and she also was excited to pursue goals she’d long been considering.

However, her job search stalled without ready access to the internet and a computer. Samantha quickly realized she’d need some help, so she sought out Jessica, the on-site LifeSTEPS Director of Social Services. Jessica had received a laptop and wifi hotspot from our partnership with Mobile Beacon, so she was able to help Samantha search for jobs online. Together, they learned of the requirements for the jobs Samantha was seeking, and Jessica helped her create a new resume using the Mobile Beacon laptop. She also took the opportunity to coach Samantha, and she is pleased to report that Samantha is now happily employed! And soon, she hopes to complete the GED examination and will work with Jessica to develop a plan to continue growing her career.

Samantha tells us, “I am now self-sufficient and capable of helping my husband financially, lessening his work load and financial stress. You played a role in making my transition back to the job market a real success.” We at LifeSTEPS could not have helped Samantha in this way without the support of and partnership with Mobile Beacon! Thanks, Mobile Beacon, for all you are doing to help us build strong communities.

*Names are changed to protect resident privacy.


What the Kids Say about Summer Reading!

On average, students in the United States lose up to two months of reading skill level each summer, requiring teachers to spend 4-6 weeks of class time at the beginning of each school year to help children catch up. Teachers refer to this as “the summer learning slide,” and unfortunately, the learning loss is cumulative from year to year. If a child doesn’t read during the summer months during the early elementary grades, there is a profound effect during the later elementary and middle-school grades and is a strong predictor of future drop-out rates.

These effects are even more serious for children in low-income communities, who start out with many strikes against them. Significant research shows a strong connection between poverty and academic underachievement. Low-income children enter kindergarten less prepared than more-affluent classmates and struggle to ever catch up. Frequent moves from unstable housing lead to switching schools and putting kids further behind. Food insecurity means that kids are hungry, not an ideal situation for learning. And loving, hard-working parents must work more than a full-time job to provide for their families, meaning there rarely is an adult at home to help with homework or chauffeur to extracurricular activities, even if there were the funds to pay for such enriching activities. All of this matters because education is the key to breaking generational cycles of poverty. If a child is not reading at grade level by the third grade, he or she is 70% more likely to go to prison or live on welfare than to finish high school – a stark reality, indeed.

Several summers ago, we launched the Summer Reading / Learning Loss Prevention Program as a pilot project in Sacramento. The results were outstanding, and we took the program to scale. in 2016, 95% of the children enrolled in LifeSTEPS’s Summer Reading Program maintained their current reading levels (that is, they had no learning loss), and more than half increased their reading by one or more grade levels.

But don’t take our word for it! Here’s what a couple of young scholars at one of our Sacramento sites had to say about the program: