April 25, 2013
Angelique LaCour, OVN correspondent
The Ojai Valley Youth Foundation organized in 1997 to provide kids with experiences that foster their individual growth while integrating them into the fabric of the community.
In true “it takes a village” fashion, the OVYF flourished for many years. “But, like so many organizations, we have suffered through the classic story of the economic downturn that began in 2008,” said executive director, Suzanne Feldman. “One by one, programs and great people were forced to leave, and once that starts it’s a difficult train to turn around.”
Feldman was named executive director last August; also around that time, OVYF was given office space at Nordhoff High School. One of OVYF’s flagship programs, Building Lives, Inc. (BLINC), was floundering and Feldman was looking for a way to re-invigorate it.
She invited poet, teacher and now stay-at-home dad, Aaron Gardner, to speak at the weekly BLINC meeting. Gardner, who grew up in Ojai, moved back last year with his wife, Tegan, and their two children.
“There were four kids there. I read some poems and talked about my life,” Gardner said. “It went over pretty well, and Suzanne asked if I’d like to run the group. It was good timing because I was looking for the right thing to do in addition to taking care of my kids while my wife is at work.”
“Aaron is pretty awesome, and he’s definitely an inspiration to me because he’s proof that even though he had hardships when he was young, you can get through them,” said Serene Fairbanks, 16, whose family moved to Ojai in October. “I love coming to BLINC every Monday — it helps open up the week and get things off your chest. I like that Suzanne has an office on campus because I can drop in an talk if I need to.”
Isaac Arquilevich, 17, has been attending BLINC on and off since eighth grade. “I was a very troubled kid when I started coming, then I stopped going for a few years, but I never miss it now. It’s a safe place to express yourself — and I like the food too.”
“When kids find their voice and are able to use it, their confidence soars,” Gardner said. “Once that happens they feel a lot more connected to society and their community, and are better able to advocate for themselves. Eventually they start believing that they are being heard.”
Holly Wiggins looked online for a non-religious youth group to help her daughter, Paige, 19, who was suffering from depression. She found BLINC, and Paige attended her first meeting in October.
“There’s no judgment here; it’s confidential and writing helps get your thoughts on paper,” Paige said. “I like it much better than posting on Facebook. BLINC is much more personal.” She was so inspired by the benefits of interpersonal communication that she began a love note-writing campaign. She began by designing decorative handwritten note cards, writing encouraging, hopeful messages, and randomly handing them out to strangers at the Arcade. It so boosted her own spirits that she enlisted help from fellow BLINC participants Allie White, Amanda Dickenson, John Rogers, Marc Hoppel and Arquilevich. They have distributed more than 100 so far, and the campaign is growing.
In 2006, Ojai resident Tobi Jo Greene founded The Girls Empowerment Workshop, for which the OVYF has served as the umbrella organization. “Since Suzanne has come on board with OVYF, I feel empowered and supported,” Greene said, who has also helped to add a Young Men’s Integrity Workshop to the OVYF’s offerings. “She and board member Jeanine Murphy attend the workshops and have helped find financial support to expand the programs.”
The 8- to 10-week after-school boys and girls workshop programs are presented at four Ojai schools and at the Oak View Park & Resource Center. At a recent session, Murphy — also a counselor with Ojai’s public schools — gave a presentation on suicide and cutting to about 75 seventh and eighth-grade girls. “I love the workshop because we get to freely talk about things that afflict teens,” said Aliyah Zweig, 14, who is participating for the second year. First-year participant Caitlyn Radica, 13, signed up because she believed she “needed some girl empowerment.” Sara Smith, 14, was surprised to find out how many of her peers have thought about suicide, and Alex Yanez, 13, is interested in learning about “boyfriend-girlfriend stuff.” She admitted she’s not really into that yet herself, but a lot of her friends are. Another first year participant, Jasmine Adams, 13, liked what she heard, “when Tobi came to talk about the workshop, especially about eating disorders because I know somebody who has a problem with that.”
There are 200-plus nonprofit organizations in Ojai that compete for volunteers and financial support from the community. Feldman acknowledges that she has her work cut out for her. “But Ojai is a very giving, supportive community, and I’m encouraged by the response we’ve gotten this year from the Optimist Club of Ojai, the City, Rotary and Rotary West Clubs of Ojai, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Association, Jersey Mike’s, Wells Fargo and Bank of America.”
For more information on OVYF or any of its programs, visit www.ovyf.org or call Feldman at 640-9555.