These days, the youthful energy at Puente’s Pescadero office is tangible. Three college-aged students recently took over some of the most important public-serving roles at Puente. But they are not newcomers – they are already among the most seasoned staff members on the Puente team.
Monica Amezcua, Laura Rodriguez and Omar Ortega were all in their mid-teens when they started work with Puente’s Youth Employment Program. Over the years, they held all the typical jobs: office administration, working as counselors with Puente’s summer camp programs. Some got internships with companies like Symantec, where they earned wages and learned new skills, courtesy of Puente and the San Mateo County Workforce Investment Board. Slowly, they began taking on more responsibilities. Amezcua, now 23, began assisting Lorena Vargas de Mendez, Puente’s former Safety Net Services Manager. Rodriguez, who is 20, started assisting Executive Director Kerry Lobel with various projects. And Ortega, 20, used to organize Puente’s summer program at YMCA Camp Jones Gulch.
Today, the two women share responsibility for health care enrollments (for both adults and children); all safety net services including financial assistance; Puente’s student backpack distribution program; handing out car seats; and organizing holiday gift card enrollment and distribution for 147 South Coast children and 63 families. They also oversee transportation for the men who attend La Sala and keep attendance.
Ortega now oversees both Puente’s tax preparation program, which is quickly ramping up, and Puente’s Adult Education Program.
The promotions occurred as a result of two staff transitions. Executive Director Kerry Lobel saw an opportunity to combine a number of staff roles in a way that made sense. Previously, one person held all the information about economic security assistance. If that one person went on vacation or had to take sick leave, participants in our community were at a disadvantage. Now, “there’s synergy in being together,” says Lobel. “It’s created an opportunity for more teamwork and less isolation.”
The twentysomethings were a little daunted by their new roles at first. They are all full-time college students, and their part-time jobs with Puente came with high expectations. “They’ve had to command respect here, especially in the beginning, and remind people they were no longer youth staff – that they were adults with all the responsibilities and privileges accorded to adults,” says Lobel.
Rodriguez is working hard to get new participants signed up for Covered California during the open enrollment period as well as participants enrolled in ACE and Healthy Kids. During the holidays, worked with the Sheriff’s Office to distribute toys to 60 children.
“Sometimes it’s stressful, trying to manage lots of cases. But at the end of the day, when the family is helped, you just see the smiles on their faces and it’s all worth it,” she says.
Amezcua is learning all about what it’s like to hold an adult job. “We’re expected to ask fewer questions and get the work done. Now it’s like, you make it work because no one’s going to do the job for you.” Both women say their favorite case so far was when they worked together to help a couple make an emergency mortgage payment; both the husband and the wife are fighting cancer. The wife later called to thank them, says Amezcua. “It was really hard for her to ask for something, but at the end she knew that it was worth it.”
For his part, Ortega sees a direct connection between managing Puente’s tax program and his interest in business management – he is a business administration major at Foothill College. Ortega confesses to being “overwhelmed” in his first few months on the job, between overseeing the September start of adult education classes at Puente and the beginning of his own classes at Foothill. After helping a co-worker coordinate the summer youth program for several years, the prospect of working with adults seemed like a challenge. But then he saw who was enrolled in adult education – parents whose sons and daughters Ortega had worked with over many summers. It was a pleasant surprise. “I went into the adult education program knowing the majority of the people in the classes. I know the kids are in school, and it’s good to see their parents are trying to learn as well,” says Ortega.