Inside MEND

Serving her community – An AmeriCorps VISTA story

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Jackey Arriaga describes herself as having “a heart for serving and volunteering.” After graduating from UCLA with a degree in Sociology, Jackey decided to do a year of service year as an AmeriCorps Member with City Year Los Angeles in the Watts community. “Their whole mission is to work toward declining the high school dropout crisis,” she says. Her work involved mostly planning interventions for students who were falling behind and were identified at-risk of dropping out of school.

Seeing the impact she had as an AmeriCorps member, she decided to enlist for another year, this time serving as a VISTA member with MEND in the community she grew up in.  “I see this as a way to plug myself back into my community and find a way to give back.” Jackey says VISTA gave her the chance to “gain professional development in a position that I would have otherwise never had” while still helping those directly in need while preparing for her future career.

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and witnessing first-hand the way poverty can affect families and individuals, Jackey felt extremely connected to the aid MEND provided and to the clients that are helped. “Families that are part of the working poor [are] many times forgotten about or don’t think they qualify for any kind of resources to help them make ends meet,” she says. Working with AmeriCorps VISTA “raises awareness of the resources readily available to the community” while MEND “serves as a resource for this specific group of people they help meet a need that’s vital to these working families.” Together, they create an extremely effective pool of community outreach programs partnered with actual client services directly serving those in need.

When asked what her favorite part of working at MEND was, Jackey point out the people – both staff and clients – who embody “perseverance and resilience.” Moreover, her time at MEND has helped Jackey realize her own power: the power to make a difference. She thinks back on a time when a client told her that MEND was but a “piece of the puzzle” in the journey for self-reliance.

Her plans for the future include further work for nonprofit organizations “that focus on community development, education or youth empowerment.” Jackey says that although she may not have the answer to ending poverty, she is willing to play a small part to the answer.

By volunteer Mia Rodriguez

Kristie Luna – MEND’s Work Readiness VISTA

Kristie (right) with Job Training Program participant

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Kristie Luna graduated from Sacramento State with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Economics and has been volunteering and working in public service since she was 18. An internship with the California State Capitol combined with a professor’s push to learn more about AmeriCorps, Kristie realized that there was plenty of community work to be done at home, she says. After learning more about both the AmeriCorps VISTA program and MEND’s mission to break the bonds of poverty, Kristie knew that working at MEND “just made sense.”

Her background in working with at-risk youth as well her knowledge of the unique needs our communities face, the most challenging and urgent being the basic needs to stable income, housing, and food, guided Kristie during her time at MEND’s Job Center. There, she helped develop, support and facilitate programs and workshops like Mock Interviews, Professional Clothing Distribution and Customer Service Training, all of which help clients transition smoothly from job training to work readiness. As the Job Center grows, Kristie says her biggest takeaway from her work will be the “the satisfaction and gratification that I was able to help the people in my community.”

With aspirations to be a Human Advocate and one day work with the United Nations, Kristie says she will remember MEND and the other VISTA members as a “mini family,” driven by their desire to help wherever needed. Her love for policy development and outreach through public work might even lead her to pursuing her JD, though she says she’s “not sure” just yet. Her hope when she leaves MEND, is that the new VISTA members that come in have “the same passion that we all do.”

By Volunteer Mia Rodriguez

Music fun at MEND’s Summer Youth Program

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Four children sit or wiggle on brightly colored chairs while their volunteer music teacher, Amber Frias, talks about songs for an upcoming concert. One by one the students practice songs on their instruments—a flute, clarinet, saxophone and drums—while Amber offers gentle instruction and support. Giggling is allowed in this class, and the young students seem relaxed, happy and interested in getting better.

It’s just another day in the Summer Youth Program at MEND, where kids’ days are filled with playing music, making art, cooking, taking local trips and having fun in a safe, supportive environment. The summer program classes take place in the Training Center building that was recently renovated with colorful murals and open, well-lighted spaces.

But while kids are learning creative skills, they’re also learning to get along with each other—which for some can be a huge personal leap. It all happens with the help of sensitive, caring volunteer teachers like Amber.

As the young boy playing sax player goes over his part, Amber says, “Do you remember what A sharp is? Just in case, you have the fingering chart right there.”

The boy tries the part again, then beams when he gets the notes right. The other kids clap to show their support.

Amber, 21, works at Wal-Mart from 4:30 am to 10 am, then volunteers at MEND later in the morning, four days each week. She’s mother to a 2-year-old daughter, and a student at Valley College, where she studies child development.

“I love working with kids,” she says. Her music students range in age from 8 to 14 and aside from teaching them classic tunes, she allows them to learn songs from video games. She doesn’t mind their jumping up or making silly jokes. “They’re young and they need to get it out of their systems,” she says with a smile.

Amber is a lifelong musician and enjoys watching kids become more at ease with music—and each other.

“They mean a lot to me,” she says. “They keep growing, and inspiring each other to do better.” She tells of one 11-year-old music student who had the reputation of being a bully. “At first, she did not want to participate,” Amber remembers. But within a week, the girl’s attitude shifted. “It turned out she is super talented and became super nice to everybody.” Asked what caused the turn-around Amber replies: “She feels like she can be herself around me, and she’s not pressured to do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

Another boy who came to Amber class was so shy that he would not speak. Today he happily interacts with other kids. “He’s very encouraging of other students,” says Amber proudly.

Music is one way to show kids the bigger world, and the front wall of Amber’s classroom features photographs of famous musicians. “A lot of the kids have never been introduced to any music,” she says. “These photos show that musicians are real people.”

By Volunteer Nicole Gregory

Recipe for Weight Loss

Vilma Hernandez (middle) with a graduating Weight Management cohort.

There are very few of us who aren’t familiar with the so-called “battle of the bulge.” Imagine compounding those weight-loss struggles with a lack of appropriate information and the demands of living on a low income and it’s easy to foresee the results: obesity, diabetes and other chronic health issues. Thankfully, for MEND clients, there’s Vilma Hernández, a woman on a mission.

While studying for a Master’s in public health programming at CSUN, Vilma became interested in health-promoting behavior and weight management among the Hispanic population. “The more I read about it the more my suspicions about the barriers to weight loss were confirmed,” she explains. “The main hindrance was that most programs were targeted to the English-speaking community: They were translated from English to Spanish but they weren’t culturally sensitive, so there was some detachment—the [Hispanic community] felt alienated,” she adds. Not surprisingly, within that demographic, the dropout rate for weigh-loss schemes was high.

Vilma’s aha moment came when she heard about MEND through a schoolmate, who informed her that close to 90% of the organization’s clients were Hispanic. Vilma realized this would be the perfect environment to continue her research, and set about designing a culturally sensitive program targeted specifically toward the nonprofit’s clientele. Compounding the dire need for such an initiative was the fact that the obesity rate among Hispanics and African Americans is much higher than for other groups.

Following a survey of MEND clients, Vilma and her colleagues launched the Weight Management Program in 2014. The program encompasses several components, among them market tours, during which participants learn how to identify high-quality, inexpensive foods and how to read nutrition labels. “When we come back to MEND at the end of the session clients do a show and tell, and describe what they’re planning to do with the ingredients they bought at the store,” Vilma explains.

The program also incorporates cooking classes, and individual nutrition consultations with student dietitians. “It’s centered around member participation,” points out Vilma. “I ask them questions and invite them to talk about their experiences, so everyone learns from each other. If an individual has lost weight they have the opportunity to tell others what they’re doing and how they’ve been successful.”

So far, the results have been very promising. Vilma describes one MEND client who has signed up for three consecutive programs. Thanks to discussions on how to manage carbs and combine them properly with protein, her diabetes is under control. “Every time I see her, she has lost more weight,” says Vilma. “Before, she wore a brace and used a walker; now, she only needs a cane, and walks much more quickly. She’s full of vitality and even looks younger. The transformation has been amazing!”

Food isn’t the only item on the agenda, however. Because the program also aims to address other health-related issues that tie in to weight regulation, such as exercise and stress reduction, classes are beginning to incorporate physical activity, like stretching moves and yoga. Describing the vicious cycle of emotional eating, Vilma says, “Stress can make people eat more, which causes anxiety—they then start to rely on food for stress relief. Yoga can really help clients release tension and calm them down.”

Not only have clients reaped the benefits, but Vilma has too. “I’m in love with this program,” she adds. “It’s my baby!”

By Volunteer Lesley McCave

In Pursuit of a Dream

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Profile: Andrea Bañuelos Mota

This MEND volunteer-turned-employee begins medical school at USC

By Nicole Gregory

When Andrea Bañuelos Mota was five years old and had to get stitches for a cut in her hand, the nurse urged her to not look. But, Andrea remembers, “I wasn’t afraid.” In fact she wanted to watch the procedure—an early indication of her interest in medicine.

Today she will matriculate to USC’s Keck School of Medicine with a full scholarship.

Andrea is a San Fernando Valley native — she graduated from Polytechnic High School and attended UC Berkeley, from which she graduated in 2008. Working with MEND, first as a volunteer, then as an employee in health services, fueled her desire to become a doctor.

From volunteer to employee

Andrea is the first in her family to graduate from college. Her father, who passed away two years ago, was a gardener; her mother cleans houses. Neither parent finished grade school in their native Mexico.

Andrea knew about MEND and appreciated its mission. “I really liked the focus,” she says, “to meet the needs of the community, and doing it with dignity. Coming from this community, I have experienced the polar ends — my family treated well and in a sub-par fashion. I know how that feels. MEND treats all clients and patients well, regardless of their circumstances.”

When she moved back to Los Angeles after college, Andrea signed up to volunteer in the health services department.

Then a paid position opened up — Medical Clinical Assistant Manager — and Andrea immediately applied. She remained in that position for 5½ years, where she worked directly with patients, providing care to people with little money.

“The families who come to MEND for health services, they’d have nowhere else to go. For me that’s huge,” she says.

Offering and receiving support

If there is a theme to Andrea’s journey, it’s a desire to help others. “It came from my parents,” she explains. “They always instilled in me to lend a helping hand, that we have to support each other. To make it in this country as immigrants, you need support and to be supportive of others.”

Applying to college and then meeting the academic demands of UC Berkeley were not easy, but Andrea sought out people who could guide her. “It was a huge growth experience,” she says. “I was able to meet great mentors, and great peers with the same background as mine.”

Andrea completed research at Cal State Northridge, UC Irvine and UCLA before applying to medical schools — again seeking out people who could help her navigate that complex process. “Getting into med school is not a one-person job,” she says. She was accepted at nine schools, and chose USC.

Clear goals for the future

Andrea lives with her husband and mother in San Fernando Valley, but plans to live on the USC campus for her first year, coming home on weekends. Her mother and husband are completely supportive.

Her long-term goals? “I want to help prevent disease and complications from disease,” she says. “I want to get involved with health policy implementation, making our system as efficient as possible.” She also wants to be an academic mentor, and already mentors a teenager at MEND, helping her with college applications — the girl hopes to be a doctor.

Forging ahead, according to Andrea, depends on three parts: “Support, education and access to resources,” she says. Looking back on her journey, she adds: “I realized I reached out a lot. And that helped.”