Sep 21, 2023 · 11 min read

These Local Nonprofits Are Shaping Stronger Communities in San Mateo County, California

A group of children stand together outside in a park-like setting.
Children pose for a photo at Family connections, a foundation that provides free, whole-family education with in-depth whole family support. | Photo courtesy of Family Connections

At CZI, we believe local and regional organizations and approaches are best positioned to respond to challenges in the community.

That’s why we partner with organizations across San Mateo County, California — all with the knowledge, relationships and trust to support their communities, address challenges, and create meaningful and sustainable change.

Community-focused organizations that we partner with include Family Connections, which is helping parents prepare their young children for learning. Another of our partners, Redwood City Together, is working with local groups to provide community resources and shift public policy. And Retraining the Village, a supportive housing service, is building on the strengths of veterans, the homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals, so they stabilize and pursue more empowered futures.

One of the ways we view parent education is we try to not see it as we’re the ones who are the holders of knowledge. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our parents are the experts, and what we’re trying to do is really elevate their skill set.

Eric Valladares, Family Connections Executive Director

Our community team works closely with these three organizations, along with many others, to meet the immediate needs of the local community and help create improved conditions for economic and community development. We work towards this by offering flexible and responsive grantmaking, access to capacity building, and opportunities to connect, convene and collaborate with other organizations and groups across San Mateo County.

Explore more: Community Fund: A Case Study on Participatory Grantmaking

Read on to learn more about our partners at Family Connections, Redwood City Together and Retraining the Village and how they work collaboratively in their communities to boost both assets and power.

Family Connections: ‘Parents Are The Experts’

An adult and three children pose for a group photo outside at a Family Connection event.
Family Connections offers a family learning community focused on education and growth for children and their parents and caregivers. | Photo courtesy of Family Connections

At one of the early workshops that Eric Valladares led as executive director of Palo Alto-based Family Connections, he quickly realized the prompts he’d prepared with tips for parents about how to get involved at their child’s school weren’t necessary. Parents with school-aged kids in attendance almost immediately took over. They shared how they supported their own kids and offered to introduce new parents to the right people at local schools who could help them. It was an early reminder for Valladares about the strengths of the community that Family Connections supports.

“One of the ways we view parent education is we try to not see it as we’re the ones who are the holders of knowledge,” Valladares says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our parents are the experts, and what we’re trying to do is really elevate their skill set.”

Founded in a one-bedroom apartment in 1993, Family Connections now serves about 325 children and their families each year. With the goal of supporting children’s cognitive, social and emotional development so they can learn and grow, Family Connections builds up those it serves with assets. Parent-child programs provide enrichment activities for families with kids up to the age of 10. Individual assessments of each family’s needs helps connect them to the right community resources and mental health services. The aim is to create equity and promote joy.

School readiness, after all, isn’t just about teaching 4-year-olds to write their name and read simple words, Valladares says. It’s also about ensuring families are equipped with the tools they need to navigate a school system and advocate for their child.

The inability to be a voice for their child when issues at school arise is a common worry for parents that Family Connections serves. Many haven’t haven’t had the opportunity to go to school themselves and are English-language learners.

“Our families have different baselines, and it doesn’t mean that families are weaker as much as it is understanding how do we, as an organization, create a space in which we are responsive to the unique needs of each family,” Valladares says. “And that’s a big piece of equity — really seeing what is that thread that needs to be fostered and nurtured.”

For a population that has suffered trauma and may be grappling with the self-doubt and isolation of parenting, Family Connections also aims to reconnect parents with the joy of raising kids. They encourage parents to celebrate the small victories — a baby’s wide smile or a preschooler’s excitement about learning something new.

“There are so many beautiful moments that happen on a daily basis that we try to call attention to,” Valladares says.

As Family Connections serves families through its core programs, it’s also ready to shift to address new needs, including pandemic-related childhood developmental delays or job losses due to inflation. It regularly evaluates its programs through survey data and one-on-one conversations with families.

While its preschool program had historically required parents to stay with their children, after hearing families weren’t joining the program because of work responsibilities, it recently started allowing parents to drop off their children twice a week.

Pivots like this open Family Connections’ vital services to more families. And any shift that’s responsive to community needs provides another important reminder for the families they serve.

Valladares says, “It reinforces to our families that their voices matter.”

Redwood City Together: ‘Called In To Troubleshoot’

Rafael Avendaño and his daughter hold a fellowship certificate together and smile.
Rafael Avendaño, executive director of Redwood City Together, hopes that with the support of the community, youth and local county government, families can achieve their dreams. | Photo Courtesy of Redwood City Together

Rafael Avendaño often gave cash to kids who couldn’t afford bus fare while working at Siena Youth Center in Redwood City. Because of a system that a state report called “outdated” and “irrational,” many California school students must pay their own way to school. The kids that Avendaño worked with at the youth center often had to hunt for loose change just to get an education.

Fast forward and Avendaño is now the executive director of Redwood City Together, a collaborative organization that connects local nonprofits, agencies and businesses to address community issues. Through this close collaboration with other groups, Avendaño marked a meaningful milestone in 2022 that brought him full circle: the creation of a program that provides free public transit to students who qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

“I still get a little emotional about it,” he says. “It was a frustration of mine that my kids had to pay to get to school.”

Avendaño likes to call the work of Redwood City Together “compassionately disruptive.” The organization identifies community issues and has the capacity through its network to make long-lasting changes.

Launched more than three decades ago, the nonprofit addresses gaps for youth and families in the community by bringing together a core group of local nonprofits, government agencies and business partners. Working together, they pool their resources, expertise and roles to not just provide the assets that the community needs, but change policy.

“We’re constantly being called in to troubleshoot, to be able to go after gaps that others can’t fill because of capacity or because of resources,” Avendaño says. “We can then jump in to alleviate them or, literally, systematically change them.”

Redwood City Together is encouraging mutual understanding among the disparate groups across the community — whether the agencies that lead it or the people they serve. The organization also uses data to measure its impact and fuel its efforts that focus on its three guiding stars, which include:

  • Wellness — the social and emotional well-being of youth
  • Education — both academic success and career readiness
  • Equity — access to resources and outcomes for every youth and family in the region

The group’s leaders are always on the hunt to build new opportunities for those it serves. In spring 2022, Redwood City Together worked with local groups to develop the Purposeful, Action, Creation and Engagement, or PACE, program to create positive and productive activities for local teenagers. Already, it has created jobs for young people.

Redwood City Together is also a key partner for the CZI Community Space, which offers free meeting and event space to local organizations based in and serving San Mateo County. The organization is leveraging the space to host important dialogues, workshops, presentations and conferences for the community.

As an immigrant from El Salvador, Avendaño is Redwood City Together’s first executive director of color to lead the organization. Under his leadership and with his lived experience and perspective, Avendaño says the group has made big changes to address gaps in the way it has operated — from its name and logo to its governance and board — to better serve its communities.

“Redwood City Together is in a different place than it was five years ago,” he adds.

Avendaño sees plenty of challenges ahead; inflation and a possible recession have the potential to hit the community hard. There will always be plenty of work to do.

“The future looks uncertain for our socially, economically disadvantaged communities,” he says. “We need to find ways to leverage our resources … and do a better job systemically of creating those bridges for people to go up the right hill as opposed to the wrong hill. And when you get past that hill, how do we get them to the water and not the desert?”

Retraining the Village: ‘It’s a Lot of Joy’

A group of smiling adults stand in a half circle with their arms stretched out and hands stacked together.
The Retraining Village Support team, shown here, provides transitional housing for individuals recovering from addiction and mental health disorders, as well as those needing support toward re-entry. | Photo courtesy of Retraining the Village

Retraining the Village began organically nearly two decades ago. At the time, its future founder, Halley Crumb, was working as a lab technician and phlebotomist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, taking blood and urine samples to check for drug use and celebrating her patients’ recoveries each time they returned with clean results.

But Crumb’s connection with them didn’t end in the clinic. Over time, she developed a reputation as a connector — the person who could help others navigate bureaucracies and secure housing and jobs to rebuild their confidence and redirect their future.

“I cut out a lot of red tape,” Crumb says of those early days. “And all this time, I’m not knowing Retraining the Village is on its way.”

Launched in 2012, Retraining the Village helps veterans, the homeless and formerly incarcerated people build a healthier future. In just over a decade, it’s served 500 men and their families; 86% of the men have successfully graduated from the program with employment or a discharge from parole over a 10-year period, Crumb says. Success comes by giving the men some grace.

“I give him the freedom to [mess] up or come up,” she says.

Crumb, who grew up in San Mateo County, understands where the men she supports are coming from. She credits her return to school to become a lab technician with giving her the direction she needed to recover from substance abuse in the late 1990s.

“I am definitely lived experience,” she says. “No recidivism. No turning back. I started to learn my own tools — school, work, church and home. And that’s what Retraining the Village is based on.”

Crumb relies on a “whole-person care” approach to support the men she helps. The nonprofit provides men with free transitional housing in East Palo Alto, and Madera, California. It connects them with jobs and career training. And it directs them to mental health support, so they can fill the “hole in the soul,” as Crumb calls it. Along the way, they learn life skills too — how to cook, save money, pay bills and live a life of purpose.

Those opportunity-building efforts — providing housing and jobs — are critical for their recovery and reentry into a productive life. But fellowship and joy play vital roles too.

“The guys take care of each other within,” Crumb says. “When we have one link that looks like it’s going to break off, you grab it. You follow it. You know where he’s at. You be there for him, regardless.”

Her best moments are on the days when she stirs up a big pot of gumbo and they all gather and laugh with each other.

“It’s a lot of joy,” she says. “They’re happy because no one’s there to judge them. There’s been enough of that.”

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