.The Nonprofits Working to Heal Santa Cruz

Virginia Wright, development director for Community Bridges, says Meals on Wheels—which delivers healthy, nutritious meals to senior citizens in their homes—is about more than simply showing up with food.

The national program, with a local branch managed by Community Bridges, also gives the elderly a greater sense of independence, she explains, while building important bonds.

“We value seniors being able to stay at home and be healthy longer,” Wright says. “We’re actually giving people agency so they have their own ability to manage their lives, and making sure they have connections to people. It looks like we’re just feeding someone. We’re actually providing a whole social network.”

The program has historically fed seniors daily, but it may have to cut meal deliveries on holidays, Wright says, as it faces budget cuts. For seniors with no families to help, that could be devastating.

To prevent that, Community Bridges is highlighting its Meals on Wheels program in Santa Cruz Gives this holiday season. Now in its third year, Santa Cruz Gives is a holiday fundraising program raising money for more than 30 nonprofits in Santa Cruz County—each highlighting a special project for donors to support.

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Community Bridges is one of five organizations in Santa Cruz Gives focusing on health and wellness, with each serving a different purpose and fulfilling a different need in the community.

At the Survivors Healing Center, longtime volunteer Kathy Riley says this year’s SCG project is “Caring for Kids,” which supports kids affected by sexual abuse. Riley says it’s especially important in light of recent high-profile local cases of sexual abuse, including that of Santa Cruz brain surgeon Dr. James Kohut, who’s accused of raping young children through his practice and is facing 48 felonies.

“Ninety percent of child sexual abuse happens with a person the child knows. It’s a topic that nobody likes to talk about. It’s one of the hard issues in our society,” Riley says. “How do you tell your children that there are people out there in the world who are okay with sexually abusing them?”

The Survivors Healing Center used to organize the Stop the Silence walk in Watsonville, a demonstration to raise awareness about sexual abuse. Riley and her fellow team members want to educate kids and parents more directly about how to protect themselves and identify abuse as it’s happening. They are going to schools, parents’ groups and youth organizations. One new tool the program provides is an education coloring book for kids and parents to work on together.

“We have to give kids language to be able to talk about their bodies,” says assistant program director Ama Delevett. “This is not about being graphic with kids about rape and sexual assault. The coloring book is playful. If someone does something to you that doesn’t feel good, you get to tell someone else. We don’t want kids to keep a secret when it comes to touch. This is your body and these are your body parts. It’s also about teaching consent. It’s a real cultural shift.”

Of course, there are many ways that kids fall between the cracks when it comes to getting the health services they need. Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, which is also participating in Santa Cruz Gives this year, serves more than 11,000 low-income patients to fill in those gaps.  

Cradle to Career, the project that the nonprofit is featuring this year, is a way to ensure that kids get the help they need to maintain their health and have the opportunity to succeed, says development director J. Guevara. The organization works with the families to make sure it has the needed support to make that a reality.

“What’s amazing about it is we are creating parent leaders, largely in the Latino community, that are helping to guide the policies in unprecedented ways. It’s creating all these wonderful results,” Guevara says. “It involves putting the needs of families first, and making a critical connection between medical care, education, and families. We make sure they have prenatal care, and nutritional health information. We’re starting to connect that to the needs of parents, who are looking for guidance on preventing diabetes, eating healthy, and living a healthy lifestyle.”

The program has been in effect for a couple of years in the Live Oak school district, and Guevara aims to expand it.

When it comes to leading a healthy life, food is at the center of all discussions. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Cruz County recognizes that sometimes a lack of access to healthy foods can have serious impacts on kids as they go through school and prepare for adulthood.

In their project, Positive Sprouts, kids will get to work with the organization in a garden to grow fruits and vegetables—and eat them. They’ll have access to tasty, nutritious recipes, which they can take home as well. “It’s a way for kids to nurture and foster a relationship with food, and to really spark a lifelong love and appreciation of growing and eating nutritional foods and living healthy lifestyles,” says development associate Alexandra Baker.

The Positive Sprouts program is already in effect in the downtown location. Money raised during this year’s Santa Cruz Gives will help to get a garden going in its Live Oak location, and the program serves two purposes: not only does the program feed children, it’s also educational. The focus, though, is on making sure children are getting balanced meals, which the Boys and Girls Club supplements with food donations.

“Kids are not getting enough food every day. We want to make sure they have more homemade, warm, healthy, wholesome foods to eat,” says creative director Deirdre Lister. “I’ve been a teacher for 22 years. I noticed a huge surge in their concentration and their mood levels.”

And regardless of what kids are eating, poor dental hygiene can lead to all sorts of problems beyond the mouth. Dientes, another participating nonprofit, is committed to giving low-income kids and adults the dental services they are in need of.

Its “Big Idea” program is Give Kids a Smile Day, which will provide educational services to 30-40 uninsured kids, with the goal of understanding ways to prevent tooth decay and mouth diseases, so they won’t have to pay large dental bills. For a lot of kids, once problems start, they can quickly escalate.

Wright, of Community Bridges, says providing assistance, whether through donations or volunteering, is a tremendous gift locals can give themselves.

“Going out and delivering food to people is an incredible benefit to the person who volunteers as well,” Wright says. “It puts them in touch with generosity. It puts values of kindness and community and caring for others. It puts those values into action. That’s something I think is important to share with people.

To read more about the organizations participating in Santa Cruz Gives, and to donate, go to santacruzgives.org.


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