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September 20-27, 2006

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

A Movement Grows In Live Oak

Residents of Live Oak often feel like the forgotten stepchildren of Santa Cruz County. Wedged between Santa Cruz and Capitola, this small unincorporated town is mostly made up of residential units and lacks the sprawling commercial centers, popular tourist attractions and prestigious educational institutions that make neighboring cities a destination spot for thousands of people a year. Community leaders complain that this has resulted in infrastructure and funding being allocated disproportionately to the more prominent cities.

On Sept. 7, more than 350 concerned Live Oak residents met up at Del Mar Elementary School's auditorium for a forum sponsored by Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA). The gathering marked a significant step toward the realization of three current goals: the promise of additional English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered through the Santa Cruz Adult School, potential funding for a new Family Resource Center and the opening of a channel of communication between Live Oak community leaders and Cabrillo College officials. Elizabeth Schilling, co-chair of COPA and director of the Live Oak Family Resource Center, attributed the group's success so far to its philosophy of organizing.

"So much of politics is 'We're stronger, we demand this.' But this isn't one group having power over other organizations," she say of COPA, which was formed three years ago. when 22 local church, school and community organizations came together to address the problems of impoverished residents. "We can't just ask Cabrillo College to give us a class in, say, secretarial skills," she explains, "without understanding the pressures they're facing when implementing it."

Realizing it had to first determine the problems local families and institutions were facing in their day-to-day lives, COPA sent representatives into the community to interview 40 different households and collect their stories. "What we found was that they usually need English [language skills] to get better jobs," Schilling says.

The 2000 Census put the Latino population of Live Oak at 21.98 percent of the total population, but Schilling suggested the percentage may now be as high as 30 percent, with most of that concentrated in the younger age groups.

Children of immigrants are taught English skills in public schools, but, when COPA was engaged in its fact-finding mission, there were few classes for adults.

Armed with knowledge of the problem, COPA leaders approached Mary Powers, principal of the Santa Cruz Adult School, and informed her of the demand for ESL classes. After learning that there was limited space at the school for additional classes, COPA arranged for one of its member organizations, the United Methodist Church of Santa Cruz, to donate space and time at its 17th Avenue location.

Powers is enthusiastic about the partnership and emphasizes the impact English language skills can have on the lives of recent immigrants.

"It's just survival. You need it to get to where you need to go, whether you're shopping, going to the doctor or interacting with your child's teachers," she says. "If you want to go beyond that, it helps in getting a job, keeping that job in some instances, and advancing in your job."

COPA's investigation also found that residents often lack safe and affordable spaces to study, hold community meetings or obtain help with parenting. The Family Resource Center offered these services, but it was located in a converted house, lacked some of the resources volunteers needed and was becoming increasingly cramped.

COPA brought its concerns to District 1 Supervisor Janet Beautz, who agreed to help the group by introducing and voting for a measure that would allocate $4 million to the construction of a new center. According to Beautz, the funds would come from a Redevelopment Agency bond measure passed in 1996 and, if the County Board of Supervisors approves the allocation of funds later this fall, construction may begin in approximately one year.

Schilling anticipates that the new center will allow her staff members to more efficiently assist the different groups that use the center's space.

"We will be able to provide more rooms, more help with administration and more resources for organizations wanting to use the center. Just like you saw tonight, everyone will be a winner," she says.

While COPA has made considerable progress toward many of its goals, the energetic and ethnically diverse crowd filling Del Mar's auditorium suggests the organization is just beginning to hit its stride. Schilling sees an emerging sense of ownership over the direction of Live Oak's community, especially among recent immigrants who may otherwise feel isolated and lost in their new home.

"The immigrant community's agenda is to grow and develop themselves," she says. "They want to be successful. These actions are coming from them."

Herrera, who also represents Green Acres School, chimed in enthusiastically, "We're working together and that gives us more power than we would have as just one group. We connect, and that's how we get power."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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