Día de los Niños (Children’s Day) is about more than just play

Día de los Niños may be Arlae Alston’s favorite celebration of the year. Which is saying something, considering she’s not a child.

In Mexico, when she was a little girl, Alston’s school celebrated Día de los Niños (Children’s Day) with games, music, decorations, and even a little candy for students. Teachers put time and effort into planning an event to make their students feel special.

It was better than Christmas, remembers Alston, who is Puente’s Family Engagement Project Manager. It’s the only day of the year where children don’t have to live up to adult expectations. They can just be.

“Día is not just a day for celebrating children, but to honor the fact that they exist as whole human beings,” Alston says. “It’s saying to them: children, you matter. And when you see adults sending that message, there are no words for that. It’s special.”

Now Alston gets to plan Puente’s annual Children’s Day, a free celebration Puente that is proud to present this Friday, April 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Pescadero Elementary School. The head-spinning list of children’s activities conforms to the event’s special theme, a “books and science family night.” These include a science station created by volunteers at Stanford University; a playground from the Half Moon Bay Library; and art projects galore, including book-making, kite-making, face painting, crafting cool grocery bags out of recycled t-shirts; and a traditional Mexican Lotería.

Children from the Tonantzin Ballet Folklorico (sponsored by Puente in Pescadero and ALAS in Half Moon Bay) will present a special dance, representing the traditions of different states in Mexico. There will be live music and, of course, an enormous potluck. Grandparents, uncles, and aunts come – not just parents – and everyone brings a dish to share with their neighbors. The tables will creak under the weight of homemade entrees and desserts.

Local families run the activity stations, and outside groups are eager to pitch in.

It’s a true community event, united in celebrating the next generation.

“So many people come, and it’s because we all care about children,” says Rita Mancera, Executive Director of Puente. “This event is definitely one of the highlights of the year.”

Most kids are 13 and younger, but everyone is welcome – Anglo and Latino students, children in the local public school district as well as homeschooled kids and students who go to schools outside Pescadero.

“Regardless of the color of your skin, everyone has been a kid and everyone can celebrate together,” adds Mancera.

Some communities have summer fairs. Puente is adding twist to Día in the spirit of gearing up for summer. Families who attend will be able to enroll their children in swimming lessons at the nearest YMCA, along with the local Girl Scouts chapter, the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Panther Camp, and other summer programs.

Since 1924, Día del Niño, or the Day of the Child, has grown as an annual celebration throughout Mexico. There is pride and empowerment in an event that celebrates the essence of a worldwide tradition – -and one that is celebrated by many South Coast residents from Mexico. In 1997, a group of librarians helped popularize Día de los Niños in the U.S. in conjunction with the theme of family literacy. The first the Día de los niños/Día de los libros (Day of the Book) events were held in Texas and New Mexico.

Puente brought Día to the South Coast in 2009 and it has been a success since it began. Last year drew 200 visitors — at least half were children. It’s a chance to come and play, receive books and school supplies, share a meal – and plant a seed about the delights of reading and science.

Basically, “everything is free, it’s fun, and it’s messy. There’s no pressure,” Alston says.

The timing of Children’s Day is important this year. With the current political climate, many children now bear the burden of worrying whether their parents are going to be deported. This is a way for Puente to demonstrate its continuing commitment to the entire community, regardless of legal status, amid all the stress and uncertainty.

One encouraging sign: for the first time this year, local mothers were the force behind Día. They formed an event planning committee and helped Alston put the whole day together. The same mothers will be staffing many of the activity stations this year, also for the first time.

“I think that when you come from a different place by celebrating people’s holidays, you make people visible,” says Alston. “You don’t have to hide; you know it’s okay to be you.”

Support Puente’s Coastside Gives campaign on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Your support will allow Puente to serve more youth with our Employment and Leadership program, as well as more families on the South Coast with vital services. This is a One Day fundraising campaign initiated by East Bay Gives taking the place of the very successful Silicon Valley Gives campaign that ended in 2016. Your donations to this campaign will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling your support to help Puente move its mission forward. You can schedule your donation in advance of May 4, 2017 at https://www.eastbaygives.org/puente — it’s easy and secure!

Puente summer youth program helps students ask, ‘Who Am I?’

Daniel Castro (L), Osvaldo Nabor (R)

Talking to strangers was the least appealing idea Osvaldo Nabor could think of when he enrolled in Puente’s youth program (officially known as the Puente Leadership Development and Employment Program) in 2015. As a 14-year-old, he struggled with shyness. He was tongue tied much of the time, around adults especially.

Puente gave him a summer internship in its Pescadero offices. They trained him on how to answer the phone, how to greet people who walked in the door… how to talk to strangers with professionalism respect. Everything he found uncomfortable, combined.

To his surprise, he loved it. He loved working with a crew of familiar faces, belonging to the Puente team and interacting with them every day. To his even greater surprise, he also came to enjoy his role as a people greeter.

“I learned responsibility. I learned not to be shy,” he says. “Now I socialize more. I’m not as shy anymore when talking to people I don’t know.”

Puente staff also took note of Nabor’s academic struggles. He was adrift at school, where he was failing in English and struggling in math. Puente got him some English and math tutors for the fall. The one-on-one attention helped him improve his grades.

Nabor, who is 15 now, has a passion for music, and his summer earnings helped him buy several instruments he’s teaching himself to play, including a guitar and an accordion. He listens to a lot of Mexican music and wants to start his own band in Pescadero.

Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera has seen dozens of local youth start off like Nabor, and grow into fine young men and women. She has watched them continue their education and develop successful careers. In fact, teens like Nabor are the reason Puente’s youth program exists. The program has a strong summer component with heavy programming, but Puente supports the youth year-round with other activities including field trips, tutoring, scholarships and employment.

“Once they’re in the youth program, they get access to me 24/7. Even someone who only participated for one summer can come back to ask me for help with college admissions. Their parents can, too,” says Lizeth Herndandez, Puente’s Education Director who oversees the youth program.

Employing, training and inspiring local youth has been a core part of Puente’s mission for a decade, ever since it founded the program in 2007. Last year funding was made possible by the Sobrato Family Foundation, the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and several individual donors to Puente.

The paid internships make Puente the largest youth employer on the South Coast: so far this year, 41 youth have applied. But it’s always been about more than a summer internship with an hourly wage. It’s about giving young people the time to understand their own character, feel their strengths and develop their goals.

“For young people, it’s so complicated. You’re trying to figure out who you are in the world,” says Mancera. “The goal of the program is to introduce them to different things: we will take them to the art museum, and also to a tech company that needs engineers. At a certain point, something clicks for them.”

The internships reflect a wide and growing array of student interests. Puente gives students paid job experience with several local programs, companies and nonprofits like the Half Moon Bay Library, YMCA Camp Jones Gulch and the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Panther Camp. Some students, like Nabor, intern inside Puente’s offices because of their young age. Others have been placed as dental hygienists and garage mechanics. Last year, four Puente youth inaugurated a new internship working as docents at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

Puente staff also provide a full CPR training and help students update their résumés, cover letters, and personal statements for college, starting when they are 14.

The other hallmarks of the program are personal enrichment and academic support. Puente youth have gone on field trips to places like UC Berkeley, Santa Clara University, the San Jose Museum of Art, Facebook, and San Francisco’s Chinatown and Mission Districts.

High school students must fulfill their academic commitments: Puente steps in to help them complete their high school summer reading and book reports. One-on-one tutoring and mentoring are common for students who are struggling in school or outside of it.

“I think that what the youth really need are allies, adult allies,” says Mancera. “It’s not just one person to believe in them, it’s the whole community: the mentor, the teachers, the Puente staff, the volunteers.”

That commitment goes way beyond summertime. Once a local student comes into the Puente youth program, staff keep personal tabs on them during the school year, all the way through the run-up to college, and beyond. It’s a small town, after all. And the more summers spent with Puente, the more Youth Bridges Scholarship money Puente will contribute to each student upon graduation. It’s an added incentive for students who can’t pay for college.

“Some of them only need the summer program, some need the summer program and scholarship monies… and some of them need support that goes beyond – where Puente holds them for a little bit longer,” says Mancera. Puente youth can stay in the program until they are 21.

Daniel Castro has been connected to Puente since the age of 7, as a beneficiary of its Backpack Distribution Program – a tradition which continues to this day. As a 14-year-old in 9th grade at Pescadero High, Castro may need help with school supplies, but he needs neither academic support nor convincing that a four-year college is the best path forward for a bright, productive future. He’s already got four University of California schools in his sights: Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Diego and Davis.

“I don’t want to be like one of these kids that doesn’t pass and just flunks out, who doesn’t get a good job,” he says. “I want to be one those kids that actually succeeds in life.”

Hernandez has already had lots of exciting conversations with Castro about UCLA, her alma mater. They’ve also talked about financial aid. “Now the question is, how do I help him get there?” she says.

Castro is a budding future engineer. Last summer, his first in the Puente Leadership Development and Employment Program, he was a teaching assistant at the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Panther Camp program. Five days a week, Castro helped students in summer school complete their remedial math and English schoolwork. Some of the students in the program were in his grade, which made for some awkward moments. And some of the younger ones tended to goof off, or be distracted by their cell phones, which he would then have to confiscate.

It was a little stressful. “You constantly have to be on your toes. The kids might be fooling around, and you gotta keep telling them do their work, because it will pay off,” he says.

Castro will be the first in his family to go to college. This summer, he hopes to pursue an internship that will get him prepared for his future career in engineering. He plans to bank all his earnings.

Whether students are artistically-minded like Nabor or bound for a career in the hard sciences like Castro, the Puente youth program is tailor-made to their success.

“We can’t take this program for granted,” says Mancera. “It doesn’t exist in every community, although it should – and we need to make sure the program stays.”

Support Puente’s Coastside Gives campaign on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Your support will allow Puente to serve more youth with our Employment and Leadership program, as well as more families on the South Coast with vital services. This is a One Day fundraising campaign initiated by East Bay Gives taking the place of the very successful Silicon Valley Gives campaign that ended in 2016. Your Donations to this campaign will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling your support to help Puente move its mission forward. You can schedule your donation in advance of May 4, 2017 at https://www.eastbaygives.org/puente — it’s easy and secure!

Together we will move forward. Building a strong and inclusive community on the South Coast

Rocio has been living in Pescadero for nearly fifteen years. She comes from a small town in Mexico very similar to Pescadero — a rural community where people know each other. Rocio is a mother to young children and a wife and regularly participates in Puente Programs — including ESL classes. Rocio is an active member of the Pescadero community and a great example of someone committed to creating change.

It is powerful to experience the evolution of a diverse community arising. For years, the South Coast has been very bifurcated along many lines. When the Latino and Anglo communities come together and interact, we not only break down stereotypes, we come to realize that we care about very similar issues. We need an inclusive representation at the table when we discuss important issues that affect our community and that includes the voices of Latinos and Latinas that live on the South Coast. Their voices must be included moving forward.

The parent coop is a great example of community involvement and volunteers merging to bring an idea to fruition. The planning process happened with women from the community contributing their time to develop this amazing program. With their help and input, this program is still growing, forming, and evolving as a safe place for Latino and Anglo children, alike.

Participants in Puente programs are smart, capable, and have great ideas. When asked, they have a vision and they beautifully articulate that vision and pride in this community. Individuals like Rocio are what makes Puente unique. I met Rocio in one of our parenting programs — Abriendo Puertas. Her timid smile and willingness to participate caught my attention. As an organization, we have been committed to include participants in the development and implementation of our programs. We believe that by including participants, the programs become richer and culturally relevant.

A few years back I was thinking about starting a South Coast Family Engagement Committee, and naturally, I wanted to have members of the community to be a part of it. The minute I asked Rocio to participate, she agreed without hesitation. On the day of the meeting, she came with notebook and pen in hand. She was ready. Rocio always brings a perspective that helps shape the project into something that has relevance and meaning to the community. Her perspective is the perspective of a woman that understand the needs and complexities of her community.

Rocio’s soft manner and demeanor makes you want to listen and be a part of the change she is helping create. She has agreed countless times to be part of committees and has volunteered at many events. She does it all. Rocio also has incredible skills when it comes to outreach. When I asked Rocio why she always says yes to contribute not only her time, but also her passion, love, care, and experience to Puente, she simply replied, “Because I know that my help helps others and this is important because together we move forward.” She said, “Back in Mexico my mother was always helping friends and family.” Rocio believes her willingness to support others comes from watching her mother get involved.

Rocio’s answer did not surprise me. I have met many Mexican women, Latinas, in this community, that selflessly give their time to Puente and their community. They do this because they envision a stronger community made possible through their involvement.

At Puente, our donors and volunteers are a diverse group of people — Anglo, Asian, Latino, African American, wealthy, low-income, middle-class, youth, seniors, underserved and privileged. We value visible diversity and representation as a tool in our work towards social justice. This concept of visibility is something that we are currently carrying forward with intentionality. Representation of Latinos as contributors is a message that we need to share and reinforce. When children grow up seeing diverse individuals leading and helping each other, they grow up with role models that showcase different leadership styles. Rocio is shy, yet that does not stop her from sharing her opinions and contributing her ideas.

Our volunteer opportunities have a special affect, as well, providing opportunities where Latino and Anglo community members spend time together. We see this happening when we gather to make tamales, celebrate Día de Los Niños, and express our support for immigrant rights at community forums.

Latino participants learn that they have gifts to contribute and gain a stronger sense of belonging. Their journey from participants to volunteers is inspiring. Some become Board Members. Our volunteers include Zumba instructors as well as parents supporting other parents through Abriendo Puertas. Together, we are changing attitudes and behaviors with respect for people’s culture and particular set of skills. Volunteerism and altruism exists in our communities and it is strong, in spite of barriers such as language. To all our volunteers, “mil gracias por todo su esfuerzo y dedicación. Thank you for your work and dedication.”

Arlae Alston, Family Engagement Project Manager

Support Puente’s Coastside Gives campaign on Thursday, May 4, 2017. Your support will allow Puente to continue to provide support for our community-building initiatives, as well as provide more families on the south coast with vital services. This is a One Day fundraising campaign initiated by East Bay Gives taking the place of the very successful Silicon Valley Gives campaign that ended in 2016. Your donations to this campaign will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling your support to help Puente move its mission forward. You can schedule your donation in advance of May 4, 2017 at https://www.eastbaygives.org/puente — it’s easy and secure!