Category Archives: News and Notes

MERITO restoring an iconic site in the City of Ventura

The Ventura based MERITO Foundation is working with California State Parks Channel District with the support of State Coastal Conservancy and Wetland Recovery Project to restore an iconic site in the City of Ventura known as Kalorama. The site is in San Buenaventura State Beach south of the Ventura pier at the bottom of the watershed, and it used to be a large wetland area that served as natural flood control and habitat for many species before the construction of Harbor Blvd. and Highway 101. Currently, invasive plant species have been taking over the site threatening the native species, and if you ever drive or bike nearby on or after a rainy day you will see how the site easily floods.

To restore Kalorama wetland, MERITO Foundation has been involving youth ages 9-12 and their families since September 2020 during Marine Science After-school Beach Camps with COVID-19 protocols approved by Ventura County Health. For 3 afternoons of each week until March 12,  students work in designated pods of 6 students per instructor 6 feet apart to remove invasive and plant native species, monitor birds, water quality, learn about wetland ecology, and other marine science topics such as invertebrates, plankton, explore, clean up and study the beach. Their family members are also welcomed each Friday to take part in this restoration effort.

This project benefits the City of Ventura’s coast by enriching its biodiversity and increasing flood control, and benefits youths’ education and physical-emotional well being. Exposure to nature enhances youths’ cognitive functioning, character development, reduces stress, and increases physical activity, especially during these times.

MERITO stands for Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans, and it is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization based in Ventura, CA, dedicated to protecting the ocean by empowering multicultural youth to think, live and act in environmentally sustainable manners by exposing them to high quality marine science education, hands-on resource conservation and participation in scientific research.

More details at www.meritofoundation.org/kalorama and at www.meritofoundation.org/afterschoolbeachcamp

Community donates 1,750 diverse books to VUSD schools

Balboa MS Librarian Mike Cromie and Assistant Principal Tomas Gaeta are happy to receive the donated books.

Ventura Education Partnership thanks the community for their generous support of Diverse Books for Kids which brought a MiniGrant program for new, diverse books to VUSD educators. Forty VUSD educators applied for and received books for their classrooms or programs. Joel Levin, Buena High School’s Library Media Teacher said, “It is vital that we provide literature for students that validates and honors their life experiences. This is amplified exponentially for our students (including our LGBTQ+ community) who face discrimination on a daily basis. They need to see heroes and protagonists like them – characters who face the same struggles and journeys towards self-love and self-actualization.”

For VEP President, Madhu Bajaj, reading and books are her passion. She believes that bringing diverse, contemporary books to students is crucial. Bajaj said, “Students need access to books that feel relevant to them, where they can see themselves, their peers, deepen their understanding of themselves while also learning about others. We are grateful that our community agreed and supported this effort that brought 1,750 new, diverse books to VUSD schools.”

Each year, Ventura Education Partnership offers VEPGrants to VUSD teachers who apply for funding for an innovative project. Innovation fosters real world problem solving, lifelong learning, collaboration and more ~ skills that connect students to school now and are essential for future success. And while innovation is continually happening in education during COVID challenges, the usual VEPGrants program was not feasible.

This challenge allowed for the Diverse Books for Kids MiniGrants to come to life. Books were delivered to campuses early February and brought smiles to teachers’ faces as they shared their plans for bringing books to students. Kathy Asher, VEP’s Co-VP of Grants said, “Through this program, VUSD staff showed their passion and commitment to diversity by selecting a vast array of age-appropriate literature and helping students think critically about cultural differences in our world. Debbie Golden, also Co-VP of Grants believes the Diverse Books for Kids project “contributes toward transformative change, that it inspires students to think critically about how we engage with and promote social justice.”

For more information, visit venturaeducationpartnership.org/Diverse-Books or contact madhubajaj@gmail.com (805) 754-9861.

The Y helps community children learn to be safe around water

As part of the Y’s commitment to reduce drowning rates and keep kids safe in and around the water, the Ventura Family YMCA will provide scholarships for swim instruction and water safety to children from underserved communities in the City of Ventura and surrounding areas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children ages one to 14 years old. In ethnically diverse communities, the youth drowning rate is two to three times higher than the national average, according to a USA Swimming study. Additionally, 64 percent of African-American children, 45 percent of Latino children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children have no or low swimming ability.

“Educating children how to be safe around water is just as important as teaching them to look both ways before they cross the street,” said Amy Bailey , Executive Director of the Ventura Family YMCA. “The Y’s teaches children of all ages and backgrounds that water should be fun, not feared, and this practice not only saves lives it builds confidence.”

The Y believes this is especially true following 2020’s COVID-19 shutdowns. In a typical year, the Ventura Y teaches a large number of children in their swim programs—this decreased in 2020. “We know there are children in our community who are now more at risk due to the need to maintain social distancing in 2020 and we want to make every effort we can to reach those kids this year. In order to maintain a safe and healthy environment while COVID-19 is still present, the Y is providing Coivd-19 training for all staff and strict health protocols for students and parents of the program.

The Y has been a leader in providing swim lessons and water safety. The Ventura YMCA continues to help youth and adults experience the joy and benefits of swimming, so they can be healthy, confident and secure in the water.

In addition to learning lifesaving water safety skills, children can increase their physical activity by swimming. Swimming also motivates children to strive for self-improvement, teaches goal orientation and cultivates a positive mental attitude and high self-esteem. It also teaches life lessons of sport and sportsmanship, so that children can learn how to work well with teammates and coaches and how to deal with winning and losing skills that last a lifetime.

To learn how to qualify for financial assistance, please email ve.contactus@ciymca.org.

The Y is one of the nation’s leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 Ys engage 22 million men, women and children – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation’s health and well-being, and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors. Anchored in more than 10,000 communities, the Y has the long-standing relationships and physical presence not just to promise, but to deliver, lasting personal and social change. ymca.net

Ventura Botanical Gardens in the time of COVID

Enjoy a free day at the Gardens.

by Barbara Brown

As fascinating as sitting in front of our computer screens is, sometimes we just have to get out in the fresh air and enjoy the day. If you are looking for a place to go where you can socially distance comfortably, the Ventura Botanical Gardens (VBG) is offering free admission on President’s Day, Monday, February 15.

Visiting now, after the rains and as spring approaches, you’ll begin to see bursts of color. In the South African Gardens, the Fynbos plantings are starting to bloom with a wide range of Leucadendrons and Leucospermums (including the red pincushion protea that looks much like Fourth of July fireworks). Also the Karoo Garden, located behind Summit Plateau, is in full bloom. This garden boasts an abundance of aloe, which blossoms brightly in reds and oranges, and provides the silky substance that is part of the hand sanitizer we use every day during this pandemic. From here, you can see an expansive view of the Santa Monica Mountains, the California coastline and the Channel Islands.

While you are visiting the Gardens, you may want to search out the Chilean Soap bark tree. This tree provides the adjuvant, a chemical compound affecting immunity, which is part of the shingles and COVID-19 vaccines. Near the Soap bark tree are several Chilean Wine Palms, a protected species once used as a part of wine making in Chile. They can grow to nearly 80 feet tall and live over 1500 years. These trees are an important component in the conservation mission of VBG.

In the Mediterranean Gardens above Rotary Plaza, you’ll notice 130 newly planted olive tree saplings. In no time, this grove will grow to create a quiet place to sit and contemplate nature. These 40 cultivars will also provide an opportunity for conservation and research for an agricultural resource that humans have developed over millennia and will enable us to examine what cultivars do well in regional agriculture as our climate changes.

Located at Grant Park in the City of Ventura, the Ventura Botanical Gardens’ goals include encouraging visitors to strengthen their connection to nature. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 5pm — closed on Mondays. Admission is $7 but members are free, children 18 and under are free, and EBT cardholders are free. Fridays are free. Leashed dogs are welcome on Wednesdays and Fridays. COVID protocols are in play. Masks are required for entrance and must be worn within 6 feet of others. During the pandemic, restrooms are closed.

For more information, visit www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com. To stay up-to-date with what’s going on in the Gardens, join us on Facebook.

The TeensForAll team welcomes any and all teens to apply

TeensForAll is a completely teen-run organization which was founded by Xavier Ramirez a 10th Grader at Buena High School in September of 2020. Xavier said he started TeensForAll because he wanted to create an inclusive environment where teens no matter race, religion, sexuality, gender, or beliefs has a place to represent themselves, find new friends, make change, and gain valuable experience that can help them later down in the road in any career they choose.

TeensForAll discusses social justice, female empowerment, mental health awareness, and climate awareness. The TeensForAll team chose these issues in specific because they feel like these issues are beneficial for teenagers to gain more knowledge about. While TeensForAll is based in Ventura California, members come from all over the U.S. & Canada.

TeensForAll is run by a Cabinet and has seven committees. The seven committees are: Operations, Communications, Partnerships, Outreach, Design, Finance, and Journalism. Each of TeensForAll’s committees have one designated Committee Head and they work symbiotically with each other.

Operations handles all of the internal affairs and resource distribution. Communications handles all of TeensForAll’s social media and releases press releases. Partnerships Committee finds organizations, collaborations, and opportunities that allow TeensForAll to grow. Outreach plans and coordinates all of TeensForAll’s events and makes sure all of the events are planned out thoroughly and have all needed resources. The Design Committee creates all of the images utilized by TeensForAll. The Finance Committee develops a budget and fundraisers for TeensForAll. Finally, Journalism is all of TeensForAll’s writers and makes up the bulk of TeensForAll’s members.

All of these Committees work together through TeensForAll’s government style. For example, if the Outreach Committee needs to plan an event they would contact the Operations Committee to see if the project is approved. If approved, the project would then move to Finance for a budget proposal, then to Design to create promotional images, and then it would be sent to Communications to promote. This is just one example of how the TeensForAll structure of government works. The TeensForAll Cabinet which is made up of all the Committee Heads vote on any initiatives for TeensForAll to implement or create. TeensForAll currently has four blogs which are: TeensForChange, TeensForNature, TeensForWomen, and TeensForHope.

All of TeensForAll’s blogs go through an editor and are approved by a democratically elected Speaker and every week, 2-3 blogs are posted. TeensForAll also has many interactive aspects on their website such as a bi-monthly podcast where members discuss events occurring in the world. There is also a pen-pal finder where teenagers can fill out a form and find a new friend amidst the pandemic. Some of TeensForAll’s current initiatives include: Partnering with organizations, tutoring elementary school students, organizing a beach and park clean up day, and writing to frontline healthcare workers and elders in retirement homes.

Teens can join TeensForAll to become a part of a team, gain experience working both independently and with others, building leadership skills, develop an understanding for topics discussed, and be able to be a part of something meaningful. You can find all of their applications on the “Join Us” section of their website. TeensForAll also has an interview process to simulate applying for a job. However, it is not as nerve wracking as applying for a job. After applying, teens will be contacted after they apply to sign up for an interview time. Similar to a job interview our interviewers ask a set of questions.

The TeensForAll team welcomes any and all teens to apply to join and check their website which can be found at www.teensforall.org and their social medias of Tiktok and Instagram are: _teensforall_.

Current Ventura Unified School District situation due to the Pandemic

“With the global pandemic, this past year has been a real struggle for all of our employees.”

by Carol Leish

Ventura Unified School District’s Superintendent, Dr. Richard Rice, who was appointed in January, 2019, and started working in March, 2019, said, “I love the community of Ventura and am extremely proud to serve its residents.”

“With the global pandemic, this past year has been a real struggle for all of our employees,” according to Dr. Rice. “We have lost more than 500 students, and our progress on many of the compelling programs we had beginning in the pipeline have been slowed down. This said, I am optimistic that things are getting better and I am very hopeful that soon, we will be shifting our focus more and more away from handling the ever-changing COVID-19 situation and the operational impacts COVID-19 has had on our District and return to building the great programs that we have planned.”

As far as how Zoom is working for both students and teachers, Dr. Rice said, “Like any other non-traditional approach, it is working better for some than for others. On the whole, I am extremely pleased with our teachers growth in offering distance learning and I think in the future, this will serve us well. I also think there will be many students who prefer this model of learning. We are planning to expand upon our distance learning options for next year.”

As far as students and teachers being able to adapt to Zoom, Dr. Rice said, “I think that students and teachers both have adjusted well to the technical pieces of working in/with Zoom and other distance learning platforms. That said, there is no substitution for a teacher’s direct in-person presence in the instruction of students. We look forward to returning to more in-person learning as soon as possible. Currently, our plan is to resume to a hybrid in-person instruction at the elementary school level on February 1st. And, at the secondary level, on April 12th”

“Obviously, every school and district are dealing with some degree of learning loss,” according to Dr. Rice. “The challenge is/will be accurately measuring how much, and in what areas. My understanding is that this year’s state standardized testing will be truncated and therefore likely now serve as the best indicator of this. This is troubling since we need to know where the learning loss is occurring in order to address it. Thankfully, our instructional staff is well versed in formative assessment and I am looking forward to hearing more from them over the remainder of the year as to exactly where they see learning loss has been occurring, and working with them to address those needs.”

Dr. Rice said that there is not an easy answer to the questions: ‘Who determines where schools can open?’ “Ultimately, the degree in which a school district can open its schools is up to the local School Board and Superintendent. It is also true that the requirements laid out by the California Department of Public Health, the Ventura County Department of Public Health, and now the Governor, have seriously limited the circumstances under which schools can reopen, including putting strict limits on how they operate once they are open.”

Even though Dr. Rice says, “I applaud the Governor’s intent to incentivize and reward returning to in-person learning models, I have several areas of concern regarding it. Chief among those concerns is the change to the current testing program that he is proposing, and how that will be impacting schools and districts. We have been told that funding may be an average of $425 per student, along with a discounted rate of $35 per test, which both have been mentioned. However, the best information that we have been able to find in Ventura County is that the cost per test will likely be more in the $50 range. If we are required to test teachers and students as proposed (every two weeks), that money, from the grant, will be gone in a matter of a couple of months, and will not address any of the other impacts of COVID-19 that we are experiencing. I am also concerned about local testing and lab result processing capacity. Obviously, when you add many people to the testing pool, the capacity is going to be pushed. Testing is of a limited value if the results are not promptly provided.”

According to Dr. Rice, “The parameters to reopen also include what color tier we’re in, which is based on the case rate per 1,000, and also the positivity rate of testing. We are currently in the deep purple tier with a positivity rate of 15.4%. We need to be below 8%, which we’re not even close to.”

Regarding the COVID-19 Vaccine, Dr Rice said, “Now, since mid-January, some of our staff our eligible for the vaccine. This includes our school nurses, health techs, school psychologists, and the occupational therapists. Educators and staff probably will be eligible very soon. I don’t think their will be a problem for the educators/staff to want to be vaccinated since they are keenly aware of wanting to keep the kids safe. Thus, they will be getting vaccinated on their own without needed our encouragement to do so. Kids will be needing parental permission before they get vaccinated.”

First responders honor health care staff

First responders paraded outside of hospital to show their support of health care staff.

The front entrance at St. John’s Regional Medical Center (SJRMC), a Dignity Health Central Coast hospital, was a sight to see this week as Oxnard’s first responders, firefighters, and police officers caravanned to honor health care staff for their efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The motorcade driven by first responders – from fire engines to patrol cars – had their sirens blaring and lights flashing as the vehicles paraded around the hospital’s Mercy Cross tower. Physicians, nurses, support staff, and hospital leadership stood outside in appreciation of the recognition shown by fellow first responders.

“Our continued partnership with local first responders is essential, and to be honored by Oxnard’s Police and Fire Departments is incredibly meaningful to each of us,” said Darren

W. Lee, President and CEO of St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital and St. John’s Regional Medical Center. “The show of solidarity serves as an inspiration for our staff, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to provide care for our communities.”

This gesture of kindness offers a much-needed boost for the health care heroes of SJRMC.

Providing a treatment facility/continuum of care for those with serious mental illness in Ventura County

Mary Haffner is on the Ventura Behavioral Health Board.

by Carol Leish

The mission statement of the Ventura County Behavior Health Department is: ‘To provide the highest quality prevention, intervention, treatment, and support to persons with mental health issues.’

Mary Haffner, a Ventura resident, who has been on the Ventura Behavioral Health Board since April, 2015, stresses the importance/need for more inpatient beds here in Ventura County. She said, “Right now, as one of the only large California counties with no effective plan to divert seriously mentally ill people away from jails, no assessment and attendant plan for the appropriate number of acute and subacute beds and supportive housing needed, we are implementing in the dark through a system uninformed by data and assessment. What we have is piecemeal and disjointed resulting in fiscally irresponsibility and poor health outcomes.”

In 2005, Ventura County began receiving millions of dollars from Prop. 63 earmarked for people with serious mental illness. According to Haffner, “This money was received for the purpose of implementing programs and erecting facilities to help ensure that so these illnesses would not become more serious and disabling, to help alleviate the cycle of homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization. For a population of 843,000, one 36 bed public inpatient psychiatric unit, one 16 bed locked Mental Health Rehabilitation Center (MHRC), one 15 bed unlocked MHRC, one 30-day, a 16 bed Crisis Residential treatment center and 45 slots of adult residential treatment housing for people with serious mental illness is woefully deficient and does not represent a long-term, health outcome-based, and fiscally responsible strategy.”

According to Haffner, “People with serious mental illness are often arrested for committing crimes and infractions they would not have committed if they had received treatment for their illness. There is no place for them to go once released either from jail or mental health court. We don’t provide enough or adequate housing. Homelessness and/or reincarceration or re-hospitalization are inevitable without these supports.”

“Effective crisis service, psychiatric beds, inpatient step-downs, best practice treatment, housing and post discharge supports from acute care facilities and jails are all lacking,” according to Haffner. “Ventura County has no effective diversion programs or initiatives aimed as keeping people with serious mental illness out of jail. Ventura County has only 36 public inpatient psychiatric beds and 4 Crisis Support Unit chairs for a population of 845,000. Santa Barbara County, a county with 400,000 fewer residents, just opened 80 beds, which brings their total to 96. Vista del Mar has 55 beds. But Vista del Mar is a private facility who can choose who they admit. A determination regarding, ‘budget neutrality,’ that’s important to the CEO of Ventura County, must include an analysis of the costs of failing to provide these in demand services.”

Providing prompt and effective treatment for people living with these serious illnesses is important. Haffner said, ‘Budgets cannot by accurate if we do not also factor in the costs associated with not providing the appropriate level of care. For the population that lives with serious mental illness, our failure to provide treatment and facilities is costly. We need to be able to take an honest look at what is needed, generate a plan, and then work to fill these gaps. Other counties are doing this.”

But it is not enough just to have the beds and the facilities. Haffner said, “We need a continuum of care for this population, which would include: a promise to provide best practice treatment; appropriate staffing; effective outreach and engagement; post-discharge supports; and, appropriate housing in our communities, not out of the county. And, we need to do so in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

VCAAA Voice: COVID-19 Continuum of Person-Centered Service

Maria hugged the robotic dog and kissed its nose.

by Jannette Jauregui

The smile on Maria’s face said it all.

The Santa Paula woman is among the more than 200,000 older adults currently living in Ventura County. Like many of her peers, Maria has been isolating at home for nearly a year now as part of an effort to remain safe and healthy as the County’s number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise.

Her smile that day came from a robotic companion pet delivered to her by Ventura County Area Agency on Aging (VCAAA) social worker, Ana Lett. As Maria hugged the dog and kissed its nose it became clear that, in that moment, the fear and loneliness associated with the pandemic were no more.

It was an honor to have been able to make this delivery happen because seeing Maria’s reaction to her pet was what I needed,” Lett said. “The joy it brought was everything.”

The comfort brought to Maria that day meant the goal of the VCAAA’s Robotic Companion Pet Program was a success. It meant that the isolation Maria has faced might be a bit more manageable.

With a person-centered focus, the VCAAA continues to work to expand existing services that address the needs of individuals navigating the twists and turns of COVID-19. The implementation of a Robotic Companion Pet Program for the Agency’s case management clients is just one of the innovative methods used to combat isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Prior to COVID-19, VCAAA social workers conducted home visits throughout Ventura County to assess the specific needs of individual clients. The visits often served as the only social interaction clients received in a day or even in a week.

When home visits became prohibited due to an increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus, the VCAAA team pivoted and began offering porch visits in which the social worker wears a mask and maintains a safe, social distance while also having the opportunity to assess and address individual needs. The porch visits serve as a lifeline for many reeling from the negative effects of isolation.

In addition to robotic companion pets and porch visits, the VCAAA offers COVID-19 Care Kits for people sheltering at home that include gloves, masks, sanitizer, soap, and other critical resources to help individuals stay safe should they need to leave their home. Other program expansions include increased access to meal and food resources as part of the Agency’s Senior Nutrition Program, and a virtual line-up of classes designed to educate people 60 and older with tips to eat healthy on a budget.

The Fall Prevention Program now offers socially distanced classes in a safe, outdoor setting with a focus on keeping participants active and engaged while also strengthening balance and mobility. The ElderHelp program continues to offer access to transportation via bus tickets, Uber, and Medi-Rides. Included in this service are rides to COVID-19 testing sites and vaccination sites (once the vaccination becomes more readily available). ElderHelp also provides services for home modifications such as grab bars.

The VCAAA’s Information and Assistance team received nearly three times the number of requests for service in 2020 than in previous years, solidifying what most already know – that the COVID-19 crisis has changed the landscape of needs and how those needs are fulfilled. But as the landscape shifts, the VCAAA’s dedication and commitment to continue person-centered service remains steadfast.

For more information on VCAAA services, please visit www.vcaaa.org or call (805) 477-7300.

Ventura College Foundation provides record support in 2019-20 despite pandemic challenges

The Ventura College Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and financial support to Ventura College students and to school programs, distributed $824,548 in financial support during the 2019-2020 academic year–$699,971 in scholarships, $84,577 in VC Promise tuition assistance and $40,000 in textbook support. The annual scholarship distribution was the largest in the foundation’s history and was distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic in April. 

A total of 427 scholarships (including 17 new scholarship) were awarded to 247 applicants. Over 3,100 students took advantage of the foundation’s textbook lending library. All told 5,330 students (41 percent of the student population) received support from the foundation through tuition support, scholarships or textbook lending. 

In addition, another $919,792 of foundation facilitated support went to assist 44 programs in 15 Ventura College departments and divisions. 

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the VC Foundation had to cut staff, cancel our annual scholarship awarding events, and rework our fundraising strategies. Our on-campus Weekend Marketplace, which generates revenue to run the foundation’s day-to-day operations, was closed for over two months,” says Anne Paul King, the Ventura College Foundation’s executive director. “It reopened with only one third of the vendors and lower gate capacity. It then had to temporarily relocate because of campus construction. Through it all, we have been fortunate to be able to continue our mission to foster and enhance the education of Ventura College students. We are grateful for the generosity of our donors and community members who have made this possible.” 

For more information on the Ventura College Foundation’s financial impact on student education in 2019-2020,  https://venturacollegefoundation.org/foundation-impact. 

Established in 1983, the Ventura College Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and operates financially independent from Ventura College. It transforms students’ lives through education by providing innovative and vital resources and financial support. The Foundation collaborates with Ventura College to enhance human potential, civic engagement, careers and academic success of students enabling their effective impact and legacy on the college, local workforce, and our community. The Foundation also hosts the Ventura College Foundation Marketplace; an outdoor shopping experience held every weekend on the Ventura College campus. For more information, contact Julie Harvey at (805) 289-6502 or jharvey@vcccd.edu or visit www.VenturaCollegeFoundation.org.