The Central Valley is often considered as the epicenter of poverty in California. But one Fresno-based nonprofit thinks they have found a way to lift more families off the bottom of the economic ladder. The name of the program is the Fresno Bridge Academy.
Beningo Garza, who goes by Bennie, knows exactly what he wants in life.
“Because I want my own home. I want a big home for my wife and kids. I want a boat. I want things,” Garza said.
But recently the 36-year old came to a realization.
“And you can’t get that one welfare.”
But he didn’t know the way forward. So he signed up for the Fresno Bridge Academy with the hopes of finding a better life for himself, his wife, their 8 kids and one grandchild.
Garza has a tough background. His parents divorced when he was one. In his teens, he was in gangs. In his 20’s, he spent three years in prison.
“That case really ruined my life. I wanted to be a correctional officer. I wanted to work with juveniles. I have been through that young life. So I wanted to do that,” Garza said.
Garza said the felony conviction is a big part of the reason he found himself working for near minimum wage and doing tattoos part time. He receives food stamps, TANF, housing assistance and is on Medi-Cal.
Now, thanks in part to the help he received through the academy, he is on his way to obtaining an auto body repair certificate that could double his hourly pay.
Garza said he tried other anti-poverty programs in the past but was still stuck in a rut.
This is where the Academy came in.
They showed him the way through the confusing maze of assistance programs, helped with expenses like gas, books, and his school uniform, and helped restore his self-confidence that he can succeed.
“I kind of gave up too though. With my background. I was kind of giving up like ‘you know what no one is going to help’. And I found this place and it kind of raised my hopes again,” Garza said.
That is the ‘bridge’ of the name Fresno Bridge Academy explained founder Pete Weber.
Weber started the program after he grew frustrated by the entrenched poverty in the central valley.
“Think about the number of people we have in poverty in Fresno. And think about bridging those people from poverty to self-reliance. That’s what the purpose of the Fresno Bridge Academy is,” Weber said.
Weber said there are 92 federal anti-poverty programs all broken into a bewildering constellation that doesn’t help permanently lift families from poverty.
The Bridge Academy is one of just two non-profit programs on the west coast that have received federal support for their work in this field.
The key difference compared to other anti-poverty programs, according to Weber, is working with families on a close personal level to show them the path to new careers, more education, or helping with life skills.
“It turns out that moving people out of poverty is a very relationship intensive business,” Weber said.
Weber said they help the entire family with whatever they need whether it is knowing the right people to talk to for a new job, learning how to make a family budget, or helping with the children’s schooling.
And, according to their data, it works with roughly 80% of people who have gone through the program have improved their earnings.
“About 30% of the families achieve self-reliance within 18 months. No more public assistance. No more food stamps. No more Medi-cal. They are on their feet. They are self-reliant. No more public assistance,” Weber said.
At the heart of the Bridge Academy are what they call ‘career and family navigators’ partner closely with each family to find out what they need and help them get there.
One of those navigators is Ashley Olavava.
She said finding the Bridge Academy is the first step, but even for the people who show that initiative, it can be incredibly confusing to know what to do to and where to go to even get started.
“So that is why we are here. That is why we provide resources for everything they need to do. We do the research with them and show them the different options that they do have. Some of them know what they want but they don’t know where to go for it. And that is where we come in and give them all of that information,” Olavava said.
Much of what she does boils down to providing support and motivation for her clients to keep pushing forward.
“A lot of them just have a lack of motivation. They don’t have anyone motivating them to do it. They don’t have motivation themselves where they feel like they can accomplish this. And a lot of times we are just their cheerleaders. And we motivate them and remind them that they are not alone and we are the ones rooting for them,” Olavava said.
Thursday, the academy was awarded a $200,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation that, over the next two months, will enable them to take the academy to other parts of the valley. The first new branch will be in San Joaquin County.
They believe that if it can work in Fresno then it can work to help lift people out of poverty throughout the Central Valley.
Editors note: The James Irvine Foundation is also a funder of Valley Public Radio.