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!

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