Large murals hung on the wall surrounding the common room; detailed portraits of women painted in vivid colors. Women I recognized: Malala Yousafzai, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou. “Who painted these?” I asked, expecting to hear the name of a local artist. “The girls did,” Kristina Webster, Program Director at Girls Inc., Santa Barbara told me, beaming. “They learn to work in teams, they learn art skills like shading and colors, and then, they learn about the women they’re painting and their contributions. It’s all very intentional.”Large murals hung on the wall surrounding the common room; detailed portraits of women painted in vivid colors. Women I recognized: Malala Yousafzai, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou. “Who painted these?” I asked, expecting to hear the name of a local artist. “The girls did,” Kristina Webster, Program Director at Girls Inc., Santa Barbara told me, beaming. “They learn to work in teams, they learn art skills like shading and colors, and then, they learn about the women they’re painting and their contributions. It’s all very intentional.”
It is all very intentional. Childhood holds the formative years for academic, social, and emotional learning, and ideally, each child would have access to the resources needed to succeed in these areas. However, significant barriers stand in the way of success for many children, including bullying, gender stereotypes, homelessness, immigration concerns, abuse, and more. Girls, Inc is just one organization intentionally addressing a need that they’ve seen; there are too many in Santa Barbara County to name, many working interdependently to ensure opportunity to all children.
“[Kids deserve the] same opportunities to be successful,” Donna Barranco Fisher, Executive Director of Storyteller Children’s Center, says. Storyteller Children’s Center provides saturated, therapeutic services to eighteen-month to five-year-old children to prepare them for kindergarten readiness. “[These are kids that] experience early trauma….they’ve observed horrible things,” Fisher says. “One challenge that’s unique to the population we work with is that families that live outside don’t look at a park like we do. Instead of seeing a fun place to play, they see a safe place to sleep. So we work with Wilderness Youth Project, to work on kids’ relationships with nature,” Fisher explains. Children enter the program with extreme behaviors, and 98% of them have post-traumatic stress disorder. If not treated, they will likely be expelled from kindergarten. Storyteller Children’s Center equip children to be ready to learn, even providing a kindergarten summary detailing their specific needs to their teachers. “As we support social emotional health, children are able to learn because they don’t have all that anxiety…. What we do is wonderful here, and I wish we could serve more families,” Fisher says.
But the need for social-emotional learning doesn’t end on the first day of kindergarten. That’s why Girls, Inc encourages girls to be “strong, smart, and bold”, with “roots dating back 100 years for giving girls a place to go and express and explore and have exposure to things outside what society and gender roles tell them they can and cannot do at that time,” Webster says. During my visit, I stepped into a classroom discussion on a female sound engineer. “Is anyone here interested in sound engineering?” the instructor asked. A girl raised her hand. “Yes,” she said, “if it’s Beyonce.” The class laughed. “STEM has been a big focus of Girls, Inc for a long time,” Webster explained as we exited the classroom. “What I find interesting, too, is hearing about the program they were doing [many years ago], and to really think about, wow, sixty years from now, what are our girls going to be doing?” “Because they’ll already be engineers,” Kristen Weaver, the Marketing and Communications Manager, says, “so STEM will be like, ‘Pfft’. So what’s the next frontier?”
It could be showering the kids with as much love as possible, Sandra Edgar, Co-Director of Royal Family Kids Camp Santa Barbara, might suggest. Her face lit up as she spoke. “I remember this one year, hearing this girl just jabbering away at her counselor and she looks up and she goes, ‘Aren’t you going to tell me to shut up yet?’, and [the counselor] goes, ‘No, I want to hear what you have to say!’ and [the girl] says, ‘Oh. Everybody usually tells me to shut up by now.” Royal Family Kids Camp gathers local foster kids through a network of social service, school, and family referrals and hosts a five-day camp experience where a 2:1 staff ratio enables each child to be supported and loved. “We just give them one week of pouring as much love and opportunity as we can, showing that people care about them, that they’re loved,” Edgar says. This includes swimming, puppet shows, science games, free time, woodworking, sports, and more. “Their life has been people telling them, ‘This is what’s happening’ and we give them….as much free choice as we can,” Edgar explains. Once camp ends, campers can be paired with a camp counselor for mentoring. “It was a gift that they get to not only maintain, but to really build off relationships,” Sandra says. But often, these relationships are difficult to maintain in the foster community. “They get taken to different cities often… It’s so expensive to stay here, so a lot of families in need don’t stay,” Whitney Kleens says. “They’re invited back as much as we can find them, which isn’t always easy. It’s a very transient population,” Sandra adds. Royal Family Kids operates with an entirely volunteer-based staff. “It’s a good fundraising piece,” Edgar laughs. “The money is really going where we say it’s going.”
Staff does make a big difference. Future Leaders of America employs a peer-to-peer model powered by its alumni staff, including the executive director, Eder Gaona-Macedo. Rising high school freshmen and sophomores attend the six-day FLA Youth Leadership Conference, a workshop in leadership skills, public speaking, self-esteem, assertiveness, and goal setting, all led by recent FLA alumni. “Essentially, students are the ones leading the presentations; they’re trained throughout the whole program so we’re able to meet our outcomes, but also, they know how to do it,” Gaona-Macedo says. FLA was originally founded as a “grassroots response to concerns about high incidence of destructive behaviors in Latino youth.” Gaona-Macedo graduated the program in 2003. “I had a blast when I was a student; I learned the importance of leadership, voicing your opinion, and really getting out there. I was the first in my family to go to college, and I got my masters from Columbia.” FLA has solid relationships within the social justice community, especially those surrounding immigrant rights.
Each of these organizations, and many more in Santa Barbara County, are working tirelessly to provide specific services to the populations they’ve chosen to serve. But more importantly than that, they’re working together in Santa Barbara to give each child access, regardless of background, gender, age, or race, with the belief that opportunity is not a finite resource, but rather, an regenerative one. “We all have a passion for these kids,” Becca McNees, Co-Director of Royal Family Kids says. “Pretty amazing people come together to do this.”