Alameda County Funds Innovative Strategies to Create Change

Recidivism rates in the United States are staggeringly high, with 70% of those who were previously imprisoned returning. To address this high rate of recidivism in the African American community, two psychologists took an innovative approach: teaching meditation to probationers. They were able to pilot this project with an Innovation Grant from Alameda County’s Behavioral Health Care Services.

Now in its third round of funding, Alameda County’s Innovation Grants Program represents a unique collaboration between the public and social sectors. The aim of these grants is to provide funding for projects focused on mental health. As the administrator of these grants, PVF is able to see firsthand how these pilot projects are using innovative strategies to address mental health issues in at-risk individuals.

PVF staff recently attended the program’s learning conference, in which grantees from the second round of funding came together to discuss the results of their pilot projects. The meditation project was run by the Bay Area Black United Fund and called “Community Healing Circles: For African American Men and Adolescents on Probation.”

Bay Area Black United Fund

In this video, Woody Carter of the Bay Area Black United Fund discusses his pilot project focused on healing trauma and fostering self-awareness in the young  African American male probationer population.

The project worked with young, inner-city African-American males on probation and was aimed at addressing historical and social traumas. As a vulnerable population in the process of transitioning into adulthood, these men struggle with extreme physical stresses in their communities due to homelessness, violence, and unemployment. In addition to conducting dialogue sessions related to topics relevant to the African-American probationer population, the Healing Circle focused on quiet sitting and meditation. These strategies were aimed at strengthening the self in order to heal trauma and foster self-awareness in an effort to put the young men on a positive path towards success.

According to Alex Briscoe, Director of Alameda County’s Health Care Services Agency, the Innovation Grants Program is the only ongoing collaboration between the public and social sectors in the country with the aim of addressing intractable issues through creative pilot projects. This type of innovative learning and resource-sharing is directly aligned with PVF’s focus on radical collaboration as a strategy for creating lasting change. For more information on how we are doing this, check out this recent piece on radical collaboration written by our Executive Director, James Higa.

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Technology as an Educational Tool

In her Resource classroom at Emerson Elementary in Oakland, Aiste Solly sees numerous students throughout the day who break from their general education classes for specialized support. Each student’s reading and mathematics levels differ, presenting a unique challenge to Resource teachers like her. This is where technology comes in; with funding from our Special Education Resource Grant Program, Ms. Solly has purchased iPads to act as supplemental tools for teaching. This device has quickly become a dominant tool in the classroom because of its multi-faceted capacity to support learning.

photo 2During a recent visit to her classroom, we were able to see firsthand the power of such tools. Because her students are all at varying levels, the individualized nature of the tool helps her stay on top of each student through data tracking. The iPad apps she purchased with grant funding allow her students to learn in a more visual and appealing way, while encouraging a hands-on approach to learning. Ms. Solly has also been able to unclutter her classroom and replace many books and tools with iPads. While Ms. Solly stated that traditional manipulatives will never be completely replaced by iPads, she has welcomed the streamlined approach to classroom materials.

iPads have also been integral to making her job more efficient. During our visit, two of the three students Ms. Solly was currently working with were using iPads, allowing her to work one-on-one with a student focused on grammar. I sat with one student, Michael, as he used an app that read stories to him. After a story was read aloud, he had to go back through and photo 4read it himself and then answer questions at the end. The app provided support along the way if he got stuck on the pronunciation of a particular word, just as a teacher would. The results of his reading time would be viewed later by Ms. Solly in order to track his progress and see where he is excelling or needs more assistance.

The iPad is not the only technology that is making waves among special education teachers; all types of technology, including laptops, Kindles, and speech language therapy software, are providing important teaching assistance. Without a doubt, emerging technology is paving the way for students of all ages and abilities, and we are excited to be a part of these innovations in learning through our immediate response teacher resource programs. Of course, these vital Special Education grants couldn’t be possible without funding from the Thomas J. Long Foundation!

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Nutritious Breakfasts Support EPA Students’ Learning

The following guest post by Lauren Finzer, Regional Partnership Manager of Revolution Foods, discusses how a small grant from PVF made a big impact in feeding healthy breakfasts to students.

Middle schoolers are rarely quiet, but the first few minutes of Ashley Baker’s class at Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA) are the quietest all day. Her seventh graders are busy munching on whole-grain bars as they concentrate on the first task of the day: watching and analyzing a recent news clip.

Before last spring, few of Baker’s students had a healthy breakfast every morning. Many skipped breakfast entirely. Others started the day with only “junk food” such as a sugary Starbucks drink or at best a packet of Cheetos. Baker and other teachers would use their own scarce funds to buy snacks from Costco or Safeway to keep in the classroom for students who felt nauseous or lightheaded from hunger.

Revolution Foods 2

Student helpers pick up breakfasts for their class from the cafeteria every morning.

Last spring, Baker got frustrated and became determined to find a lasting solution, especially during high-stakes testing periods. She learned that nationwide, a best practice for ensuring that students start the day well-nourished and ready to learn is to serve them a healthy breakfast in the first few minutes of class. Her fellow teachers liked the idea, and together they voted to pilot the program with healthy breakfasts from Oakland-based Revolution Foods. Philanthropic Ventures Foundation made the May pilot possible by funding insulated bags for student helpers to carry milk and breakfast items to class. Student helpers fetch breakfasts from the cafeteria and distribute a full breakfast on every desk before first period every day.

Revolution Foods 1

Students in Ms. Baker’s class listen attentively as she describes the first lesson, during which the students will eat their breakfasts.

The pilot was so successful that teachers voted to continue. Since the program’s start, they have served over 36,000 nutritious breakfasts to their students – sharply reducing the sugary Starbucks drinks and Cheetos around campus in the morning. The meals served to the students meet incredibly high quality standards, including being free of any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Options include Kashi cereal, whole-grain bagels with Organic Valley Cream cheese, hardboiled eggs, and a variety of whole grain muffins and bars, all served with fresh fruit and rBST-free milk.

Teachers and students alike love the program. Baker and her colleagues report that their Breakfast in the Classroom program has improved student behavior and memory, and supported all-around healthier food choices for their students throughout the day. This is consistent with reports from other Breakfast in the Classroom programs around the country.

One of the best things about the program is that, after that initial investment by PVF, it is financially self-sustaining: Serving free, high-quality breakfasts to all students every day doesn’t cost the school a cent. The high percentage of EPAPA students that qualify for school meals to be reimbursed by the government means that the new program actually brings in revenue to support the school meal program in serving healthy Revolution Foods meals for lunch as well.

In Baker’s class today, students are much less likely to swing by McDonalds or Starbucks on the way to class than they were last year. Instead, every EPAPA student sits down to a whole-grain cinnamon oat bar, crunchy Gala apple, and rBST-free milk. At the end of the first period, students dispose of any waste as they file out of class. Fortified by a nutritious breakfast, they are ready to concentrate and absorb the next three hours of instruction without any pangs of hunger distracting them from their learning.

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EPA Youth Gain Tech Skills While Improving their Community with the Help of PVF’s Facebook Grant

Tired of graffiti, trash, and vandalism plaguing the streets? Well now there’s an app for that, thanks to four teen girls who teamed up to tackle blight in their East Palo Alto community. The high school students, who dubbed themselves the “Chica Squad,” were part of a pilot program implemented by Bayshore Christian Ministries, an East Palo Alto nonprofit dedicated to helping youth gain life skills and develop as leaders. During the 12-week program, the girls learned about app design, entrepreneurship, creating a business plan, and pitching a product. The app they designed through the process is called “Tag It,” which allows East Palo Alto community members to photograph a place of vandalism or trash. Users can then track down the locations where the photograph was tagged and clean it up. The ingenious app landed them a spot in the top 20 at the Technovation Challenge.

Chica SquadThis pilot program was made possible through a $5,000 grant from PVF’s Facebook Local Community Fund, which provides grants to nonprofits working with youth in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven. Bayshore Christian Ministries also used the grant to implement a second pilot program called GameOn, which is a computer game design class for middle school students. Students were mentored as they learned the basics of game design and implementation. The program was so popular that the students frequently arrived early and stayed late to work on the games they were designing.

GameOnBoth programs allowed its participants to gain confidence and develop an interest in technology careers. The four high school students on the Chica Squad, for example, had never considered pursuing careers in technology despite having grown up in the heart of Silicon Valley. After learning they have the ability to create apps, however, a whole new world of career possibilities opened up to them. These two pilot programs are empowering disadvantaged youth to become future tech leaders by giving them the tools they need to drive their own success.

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Tackling the Bay Area’s Inequality Gap

by: James Higa, Executive Director

Street Life Ministries

Street Life Ministries regularly distributes food to the hungry at the Menlo Park train station.

The inequality gap is widening in the Bay Area.  We are starting to see a tale of two cities unfolding before our eyes, as the gulf widens between the haves and the have-nots.  We see it in the anger that drove the Occupy Movement and the more recent protests against the Google buses as symbols of the Silicon Valley elite.  At PVF, we see it daily in the front lines of poverty that are bleak deserts of opportunity.  But, how do we go about tackling something as huge as closing this gap?

At PVF, we are guided by our core driving principals of immediate response, investing in grassroots leaders, and being an activist connector.

Street Life Ministries video

Check out the video above for more information about the work of Street Life Ministries.

Over a lunch meeting one day, I was told the story of someone in San Mateo county who had convinced a local Chipotle restaurant to donate food that he was then distributing to the homeless in Redwood City and Menlo Park.  This turned out to be David Shearin of Street Life Ministries.  As is our want to get out from behind our desks and pound the pavement to find outstanding leaders versus waiting for grant applications to land in our inbox, I was soon sitting with David to learn about his work.

I learned that his work happens right on the street.  The work began 11 years ago when a local pastor met some homeless people. Food was purchased and shared and conversation ensued.  Soon, Street Life Ministries was born and bringing hot meals to the homeless at the Menlo Park train station and in Redwood City.  David has somehow doggedly convinced many local companies to donate food and even rallied sixth graders at Roosevelt Elementary School on Mondays after school to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for those in need.  Is this not the hallmark of entrepreneurism and leadership on par with any Silicon Valley start up?  Even more inspiring is that David was once one of these people that he serves; he rose up from his chair at an AA meeting to heal himself and become the Executive Director at Street Life Ministries.

Within our typical – but unheard of anywhere else – 48-hour turnaround, David received an $18K grant from PVF to support his work and to purchase a van for outreach purposes.  We believe the early risk-taking dollar is the most powerful in philanthropy.  We must take the paper out of giving and be responsive to these outstanding grassroots leaders. They are on the frontline.  They need to spend their time in action, not in filling out forms.

We believe that connecting the dots to find these exceptional entrepreneurial leaders and acting in a streamlined, unrivaled, immediate response is the PVF way to make a dent in the inequality gap.

If you would like to join us in our endeavor to close the inequality gap by supporting organizations like Street Life Ministries, click here to donate.

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Where’s Bill? Witnessing a Community Strengthen through Dance

ImageI had occasion to recently visit Half Moon Bay and become familiar with A.L.A.S. (Ayudando Latinos a Sonar/Helping Latinos to Dream), a program which serves the Latino community. On my visit, small children were learning Mariachi dance, little girls with their dresses spread out and twirling around on the floor. Parents were sitting along the wall watching and chatting.

We found an outstanding person leading the effort. Belinda Arriaga, a clinical social worker, began the program in 2011 when realizing many of the Latino children she was working with struggled with the fear of losing a parent through deportation. She saw these children needed to build self-esteem through cultural resources. Her dedication to this idea runs so deep that, when necessary, she uses her own money to fill in funding gaps.

A.L.A.S.’s aim is to bridge the educational gap for Latino children on the Coastside and change the dominant narrative about them. To accomplish this, the program is a multi-dimensional effort. There is a focus on working with children through dance and mentorship, organizing parents around their children, educating people about immigration issues, and celebrating the concept of community.Image

To support their efforts to create change, we provided $20,000 for their Folklorico and Mariachi dance classes. Prior to this funding support, children who could not afford the small monthly dance class fees were unable to participate. The funding we provided will allow for the youth dance classes, a crucial community-building activity, to be more inclusive. We invested in A.L.A.S. just as A.L.A.S. invests in its community, perfectly reflected through its motto: “Your struggle is my struggle, together we can fly.”  

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Chapter 510, Partner of PVF, on Promoting Literacy in Oakland

One of PVF’s newest designated funds is Chapter 510, a made-in-Oakland literacy and writing project inspired by 826 Valencia. We sat down recently with Chapter 510’s project manager, Janet Heller, to learn more about the promising project:

Chapter 510 revisedPVF: How did the idea of Chapter 510 evolve?

JH: There’s been interest in starting an 826 Oakland for many years among Oakland’s writers and educators, but the commitment of one funder, the Abundance Foundation, really ignited the project. Along with Abundance, Michael Chabon has been a huge champion of an 826 Oakland chapter. An all-volunteer working group was formed and out of that working group came the initial vision and project team: I’m a poet and the founder of WritersCorps and have more than 20 years of experience in literary arts programming; and I brought in visionary educator and arts integration specialist, Mariah Landers; and a novelist, teaching artist, and longtime 826 Valencia volunteer, Erica Lorraine Scheidt. We three, along with incredible support from Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, Oakland Public Library, Solespace, MetWest High School, Oakland Literacy Coalition, and others, took on the charter and got to work.

PVF: What is your vision for Chapter 510 and the impact you see it having in our community?

JH: The Working Group was very clear in its vision: Chapter 510 is a made-in-Oakland literacy project focused on supporting teachers and developing creative and expository writing skills for students. We share a vision for Oakland as a place where our youth and their perspectives are visible and where our teachers are honored and supported. We believe that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. With this in mind, we focus on placing trained volunteers to assist teachers in the classroom and writing workshops in the community.

Our goals are ambitious and driven by demonstrated need. We want to be an ally for youth and families who seek to improve their literacy skills. We want to support teachers who want their students to write with confidence.

PVF: What projects are currently in the works?

JH: We are still in the pilot stage for the 2013/14 school year, but we have three exciting programs launching:

  • First, we’re tutoring students at MetWest High School in downtown Oakland. Chapter 510 volunteers will be working with 9th graders on their Oppression and Liberation Unit, and, with Oakland Local, we’ll be providing writing assistance to 11th and 12th graders on the MetWest student online newspaper.
  • Next, we’re supporting the Oakland Public Library and the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, in a public poetry project called The 510. This poster series will showcase the poetry of Oakland youth.
  • Finally, over spring break, Chapter 510 teaching artists will lead writing workshops at neighborhood branches of the Oakland Public Library. Like all of our programs, these will be free and open to all youth.

PVF: Is there a way people can get involved?

JH: Yes! Volunteers are at the heart of the work we do. If you love to read or write and want to nurture that love in a child, visit us at to sign up. We need all kinds of volunteers, both one-time and ongoing. And we provide the training!


If you are interested in helping to improve literacy in Oakland’s youth, please check out Chapter 510 to volunteer, or get in touch with us to learn how you can make a charitable donation.

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