Spotlight on: Farmersville

This week, I met three Farmersville High School students who will attend four-year universities this fall, despite the odds that have been stacked against them. They are also among the high school’s four Horatio Alger scholarship recipients.

During the interview, I asked them what about Farmersville – a Tulare County city of 10,588 people, 83.8 percent of whom are Latino – had made it possible for four students to win the prestigious award. In the city – where the median income is $32,886, and 31.2 percent of people live below the poverty level – just 2.4 percent of residents over age 25 have a bachelors degree.

Brenda Rodarte Lira, the class valedictorian who earned a full scholarship to UC Merced, said this:

“We’ve been so used to seeing on the news, ‘this Farmersville teen arrested for gang violence,’ or ‘this shooting happened’ or ‘this girl got pregnant.’ We were so used to the stereotype of boys getting in gangs, girls getting pregnant, or shootings, or death. We just wanted Farmersville to be recognized for amazing academics and students, or just something positive, to eliminate that whole negative stereotype of Farmersville.”

Anney Leyva Luquín, a national award winner who will attend Cal State Monterey Bay, shared this:

“We want Farmersville to be known for so much more. We have a really tight knit community, and that’s really what we want it to be known as: A tight knit community where everyone can count on everyone to be safe, to have a safe place to succeed.”

Next time you drive past Farmersville – or another small San Joaquín Valley community – challenge yourself to reflect on the positive aspects of those places – like their inspiring youth.

From top, Vida editor Juan Esparza photographs three of the school’s Horatio Alger scholarship recipients. Farmersville High School’s class of 2011 celebrates after their graduation ceremony.

2011′s top community health issues

Well friends, another year of investigating community health in the San Joaquín Valley is coming to an end.

Below are my picks for the Valley’s top five community health issues/trends of 2011. What did I miss? What issues were important to you this year? And what would you like to read more about next year? Let me know in the comments section below!

1. San Joaquín Valley’s contaminated drinking water grabs international attention

In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.

The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Her report, presented to the U.N. this fall, did not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.

“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she wrote. The agricultural San Joaquín Valley is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”

Water advocates hoped the U.N. report would shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos, and help them advocate for the Human Right to Water bill package, which was making its way through Sacramento.

It all must have made an impact. In October, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill package, which is intended to ensure that communities across the state have access to clean, affordable drinking water.

2. Poverty increases

Though the great recession officially ended in June 2009, Latinos across the country continued to struggle with poverty and food insecurity in 2010, government statistics showed this fall.

Nationwide, 26.6 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in poverty in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites was 13 percent in 2010.

California’s overall poverty rate — at 16.3 percent in 2010, up from 15.3 percent in 2009 — was above the country’s overall rate, 15.1 percent in 2010. In Fresno County, 20.9 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the most recent data available.

In the Valley, the increase in poverty was evident at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, where more and more families were seeking shelter after they had lost their job or home.

It was evident outside of Catholic Charities in September, when a husband and wife – both with degrees in social work – waited in line to receive food from the Neighborhood Market food distribution. (After I blogged about this couple, the woman was offered a job at Catholic Charities.)

And it was evident in November, when possibly hundreds of people were evicted from downtown Fresno’s homeless encampments. Two of the people I interviewed had landed on the streets when the money they made working in the San Joaquín Valley fields and packinghouses no longer covered the rent.

3. School food tops the menu

As child obesity – as well as poverty and food insecurity – has increased across the state and nation, more attention has been focused on the meals students eat while at school.

This winter, I reported on the trend of schools using innovative methods to ensure students eat breakfast.

 Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.

And thanks, in part, to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, schools began removing chocolate and strawberry milks from their school cafeterias. Los Angeles Unified School District last week became the largest school district in the nation to ban chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus, and Valley districts – including Earlimart, in Tulare Count – have also stopped offering flavored milk.

Is all this attention on school nutrition making an impact? I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but a recent Los Angeles Times story reports that L.A. Unified’s “trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.”

4. Health reform provides benefits – and challenges

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014, but the San Joaquín Valley is already experiencing ups and down from the law.

The Affordable Care Act designates funds to support the ongoing operations of community health clinics, create new health center sites in medically underserved areas, and expand preventative and primary health care services at health center sites, according to

A sizeable portion of that money has been funneled into the medically underserved San Joaquín Valley. It’s hard to keep track of all the money coming into the Valley, but I’ve started tracking it in this blog post.

But preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also proven challenging for Fresno County. In September, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to withdraw the county’s Low Income Health Program application from consideration by the State Department of Health Care Services.

With the vote, the county became the first in the state to withdraw its application for the program, which was intended to help counties prepare for the expansion of Medi-Cal that will come with the implementation of the federal health care law in 2014.

5. Residents, experts approach environmental justice seriously and scientifically

As I reported this summer, people of color have become the state’s strongest environmentalists, since they are most burdened by environmental pollution, and the resulting health problems.

So this fall, it was neat to hear about two projects that are comprehensively measuring just how badly residents are burdened by pollution.

In Arvin – a farmworker community that has been considered one of the smoggiest cities in the nation – residents have kicked off a two-year, community-led air monitoring project, or “bucket brigade.”

And UC Davis researchers just released a three-year study that analyzes every census block in the eight-county Valley, and assigns each one a numerical score for environmental hazards, based on the most recent data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another score for its social vulnerability, based on recent U.S. Census data.

In the new year, both projects could be great tools for communities advocating for health and environmental justices.

From the archives:

File photos by Rebecca Plevin and Daniel Cásarez.

Investigating youth homelessness: A journey for two reporters

This winter, I collaborated on a reporting project exploring youth homelessness and education with Marcus Vega, a formerly homeless youth and reporter for The kNOw Youth Media. The series of stories, which were supported by a New America Media fellowship, are currently running on NAM’s website.

Our collaboration represented the first time NAM had paired an ethnic media reporter with a youth reporter to work on an in-depth series of stories. From our first person pieces below, I think it’s obvious that both Marcus and I learned a lot about each other, ourselves, journalism, and homelessness during this unprecedented reporting journey.

Please read Marcus’ first person piece here.

When I first started working on a series of stories on homeless youth with Marcus, a homeless youth and a reporter for The kNOw Youth Media, I was curious to see how our partnership would work out.

Any doubts I might have had were immediately erased when we conducted our first interview together at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter.

During the interview, I asked three homeless women to describe the importance of – and challenges involved with – getting their children to school, while residing at the homeless shelter. The women opened up to us, and happily answered all of our questions.

Then Marcus asked a few questions he had typed into his cell phone. They were questions I hadn’t even thought to ask, since I had never been in their shoes. “Do you receive any county assistance?” he asked the women. And: “What do you plan to do to improve your situation?”

Marcus never told the women of his background, but it was almost like they could tell – not from his voice or his hooded sweatshirt, but from his knowledge, empathy and understanding of their situation. They spoke with him directly, in a less formal tone than they had used with me.

As we left the homeless shelter that morning, Marcus expressed pleasant surprise that the women seemed so comfortable sharing their story with us. I, myself, was excited by how well our partnership had worked that morning, and how Marcus could play an important role in keeping the series of stories relevant and honest.

After that first interview, Marcus and I worked together for about two months. Throughout that time, I tried to teach him journalism tips and techniques.

One afternoon, we sat in Vida en el Valle’s conference room inside the Fresno Bee, and talked about how to effectively structure an interview. Then, with those tips in mind, Marcus led an interview with a 20-year-old formerly homeless youth who is now a student at California State University, Fresno. (Marcus’ story about Daniella can be read here.)
And during our collaboration, Marcus taught me about the challenges and realities of being a homeless youth in Fresno.

One morning, Marcus and I went searching in downtown Fresno for homeless youth to interview. From his life experiences, he knew where to look. We visited the downtown library, and Fresno’s Tower District, both places where homeless youth often hang out. We also visited the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission’s Transitional Living Center, a shelter for homeless youth where Marcus himself had lived, and still had friendly contacts.

We didn’t find youth to interview that day, but under his guidance, I learned to see Fresno from a new perspective.

Working closely with Marcus brought alive the issues of youth homelessness, and the challenges homeless youth face in accessing education.

One afternoon, Marcus was at the Fresno Bee to work on the project. On the way out, he asked if we could check out the job openings at the company. Marcus,  who is very close to earning his high school degree, was frustrated to realize that even manual labor jobs in the Bee’s warehouse required at least a high school diploma.

He is a good writer, and had even mentioned to me, on the way to one of our interviews, that he is interested in pursuing a career in journalism. But realizing that his opportunities would be restricted until he finished his studies underscored the focus of our stories: Education truly is a path out of poverty, but it can be so difficult for homeless youth to achieve.

Read our entire series, Young and Homeless, on New America Media:

Formerly homeless youth describes reporting on homeless youth

The last story in Vida’s three-part series on youth homelessness ran in this week’s edition of Vida.

This week’s story is a little different: It’s a first-person piece, written by youth journalist Marcus Vega (pictured above), about his own experience working on this project, as a formerly homeless youth himself.

His words are powerful:

In the process of hearing the stories of other homeless, I think of my own experience. I was homeless too at one point, and sort of am still since I live with a friend’s family.

All I remember is dwelling in an abandoned apartment, being hungry all the time, and the never-ending struggle to find a roof over my head.

Read the rest of Marcus’ story here.

Catch up on the other parts of the series here:

Read past blogs about this project here:

VIDEO on youth homeless, and how you can help

The first part of our two-part series on youth homelessness and education ran in this week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

The main story, about Anissa Gutierriez and her children’s struggles to access education while homeless, can be found here. The sidebar, about Susan Cavazos, and the general challenges homeless families face in accessing education, can be found here.

To accompany the stories, Vida photographer and videographer Daniel Cásarez produced the short video above about youth homelessness and homelessness in Fresno. In the video, you will meet Susan Cavazos. You will also get a tour of the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, and visit Fresno’s homeless encampments.

If reading these stories, and watching this video, inspires you to do something to help the homeless in our community, consider this: The Fresno Rescue Mission shelter accepts all sorts of donations. Shelter manager Robin Bump (also featured in the video) told us the shelter especially needs bath towels right now.

  • Donating is easy. Call (559) 440-0870 to arrange for clothing and household goods to be picked up at your home. You can also deliver used goods to the Mission’s Super Thrift Store, 181 E. Sierra, or to the Donation Station, 310 G St.

Next week: The challenges unaccompanied homeless youth face in accessing education.

A new home, a new sense of hope

A few weeks ago, readers of this blog met Anissa Gutierrez, a homeless woman who was living in the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter with her three young children. Read the blog post here.

This morning, I walked with Anissa Gutierrez and her three children – Lily, Gavien, and Deon – from their temporary home at the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter to Lincoln Elementary School.

We turned left out of the shelter, passing the Poverello House, another homeless shelter. We took a short cut to avoid passing the Village of Hope – a community of small sheds, which, Gutierrez said, have stinky Porta-Potties that make the children cringe. We walked past homeless encampments – tents and makeshift shelters – that line the street, and then walked along the Highway 99 overpass.

Here’s what Gutierrez and her children pass on their daily walk:

Along the route to school, Gutierrez greeted people on the street – people, she said, who have become part of her family’s daily routine. Eight-year-old Lily showed me a temporary Spiderman tattoo on her arm. Then she scampered ahead, her pink ‘New Kids on the Block’ bag bouncing against her small body.

It seemed like things had improved since Gutierrez and I had last spoke. Yesterday, little Deon turned five. They celebrated with a banana walnut Spiderman-themed cake at the shelter.

And Gutierrez had good news: She had found a two-bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $450, and was planning on moving out of the Rescue Mission shelter in the next day or two.

She had told me before how thankful she was for the assistance provided by the shelter: “They get to go to school everyday and know they ate, know they have somewhere to go home to, know they have a bed to sleep in tonight, and food to eat.”

Still, she said, she and the kids were excited to go home. Living in the shelter, and walking that route to school, had emphasized for her kids the importance of education, Gutierrez said. But having a steady home would help them achieve that goal.

“A lot of these children don’t know what it’s like to live in a house because they’ve never lived in a house,” said Laura Tanner McBrien, of Fresno Unified School District’s Department of Prevention and Intervention.

“So how do you dream about your future when you haven’t experienced living in a house or having things?”

Top photo, of a room in the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter, by Daniel Cásarez of Vida en el Valle.

Read more about this family’s struggles to access education in an upcoming edition of Vida en el Valle.

Homelessness: A year-round problem in Fresno County

I’m currently collaborating on a story about homeless youth in Fresno County. As part of my research, I interviewed last week three homeless women who are living at the Fresno Rescue Mission Shelter in downtown Fresno.

Anissa Gutierrez, a mother of three, told me she lost her apartment days before Christmas. There were no available rooms at the shelter at that time, so she and her kids bounced through the homes of various friends and family members. Always, she said, she tried “not to wear out my welcome at anybody’s house.”

Christmas came during that period when Gutierrez and her children were homeless.

“I’m not going to lie, I made the kids stay up real late the day before so they would sleep most of the day on Christmas, so they wouldn’t even notice it was Christmas,” Gutierrez said.

“I felt so bad for them on Christmas,” she said. “They don’t know – but it made me feel awful.”

Gutierrez’s story hit me hard. But as Laura Tanner-McBrien, of Fresno Unified School District’s Department of Prevention and Intervention told me, it’s important to put that story in context: That was just one of the many days of that Gutierrez, her children, and thousands of others are homeless.

“Homelessness is a year-round thing,” said Tanner-McBrien, who manages the school district’s homeless outreach programs.

“The one thing that always surprises me is that it’s only focused upon during the holidays. We forget that come January and February, those families are still homeless and in need of services, and the children still need things.”

Fresno’s homeless count in January 2009 was 3,591, according to the Fresno Bee. Fresno Unified estimates there are about 2,400 homeless students in the school district.

Want to learn more about youth homelessness in Fresno County? I’m working on this project with Marcus Vega, a youth journalist for The kNOw Youth Media. Check out the video he produced for The kNOw about youth homelessness.

Photo  by Marcus Vega.

Day 2 of the #SowChange tour

On Day Two of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Sowing Change 2010 tour, we began in Visalia and visited Seville, Matheny Tract, Lamont and Weedpatch. Read more about the tour, and about Day One of the tour.

  • Stop 1: Seville

“This shouldn’t be happening here in California and the United States – this is something that happens in a third-world country,” Seville resident Becky Quintana said Thursday morning, as she told the Sowing Change tour participants about the undrinkable water in her tiny Tulare County community.

Seville’s water is contaminated with nitrates and therefore unsafe to drink, Quintana said. The community’s water infrastructure is old and dilapidated. Sometimes the water goes out for days, and sometimes sand comes through the shower and toilet.

Still, Seville residents pay $60 each month for water they can’t drink, she said, and an additional $40 or $50 for drinking water.

Quintana, a local school board member, took us to Stone Corral Elementary School, where the students can’t drink out of the faucets. The school has set up water jugs in every classroom, and outside in the schoolyard.

Quintana is a member of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, which fights for access to clean water through organizing, education, and advocacy.

“If you drink water, you’re a potential ally for change,” Susana De Anda, co-director of the water center, told the tour participants.  “We need water t0 live – we have to respect that life source.”

  • Stop 3: Lamont and Weedpatch

So often, people complain there is nothing for young people to do in the Valley’s rural communities. It’s when youth have nothing better to do that they get into trouble.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, brought up this issue during a discussion about prison reform. She said Latino youth would be much better off working in the vineyards then selling drugs in the streets.

We saw an awesome example of the power of active and engaged youth during our visit to Lamont. Camila Chávez, executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, showed us a mural that youth have created, with the help of a local artist.

Not only does the mural brighten up the streets of the community, which is home to 13,296 people, 88.9 percent of who are Latino, it also prevents other people from tagging the wall with graffiti.

The mural is just one aspect of the great work the Dolores Huerta Foundation in the Kern County communities of Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch, and the Tulare County communities of Cutler-Orosi, Woodlake and Lindsay, to get disenfranchised people involved in civic participation. Along with the mural, the foundation’s community organizing work has also resulted in a Boys and Girls club, a pool, sidewalks, and stop signs.

To read my tweets from the Sowing Change tour, click here. Follow me on Twitter at @HarvestHealth.