The Pathways Foundation builds a community of support for young adults.

Young Career Builders: Step Up: Pathways Foundation coordinator Melissa Reyes (on left) meets with former Pathways participant Maria Rodriguez (on right). Photo: Jane Morbia

Inside the small and busy YWCA office, Maria Rodriguez talks about the Pathways Foundation, the organization that provided her with the financial, technical and emotional support that put her on the way towards a career. She watches two high school-age girls chat in the corner as she talks.

Young girls float around the office, needing a safe and comfortable place to hang out or do their homework. Though it’s hard to tell, any of these girls could have been Rodriguez a few years ago. In contrast to the giggling, nervous and somewhat awkward girls, Rodriguez, 21, is well-dressed, well-spoken and outwardly confident.

As the first participant to complete the year-long Pathways program, Rodriguez stands as a stunning example of its success. She became involved during the awkward transitional phase that follows high school. The first person in her family to go to college in the US, Rodriguez did not have access to the help she needed to complete her citizenship papers or work out a career path.

Rodriguez’s mother had brought her children from Guanajuato, Mexico, a small village near the nation’s capital, using money she earned from housekeeping. She lacked the experience to deal with bureaucracies and all the subtleties of the US system.

“It is really hard with my mom,” Rodriguez says. “There are seven kids in my family and she has to work to make sure that they all go to school, have food to eat and a place to live. Really, what could she do? She didn’t understand the college system.”

For first generation Americans all over the US, this is a familiar story.

The Pathways Foundation has set up a program to help young people like Rodriguez, who are at an important turning point in their lives. She fit the criteria perfectly: a Monterey County resident between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, who lacked the emotional, technical and financial wherewithal to fulfill her ambitions.

Pathways was founded by Carmel resident Howard Evans who, as he says, “had a bit of luck in real estate and, like many others in my position, decided to give back to the community.”  

Evans was interested in helping young people, so he contacted various organizations with similar aims. He came into contact with Todd Lunders, director of the Community Foundation, and Ron Johnson, the co-director of the local Boys and Girls Club. They, with Evans’ son Craig, formed a board to oversee the financial end of Pathways. He contacted the YWCA for the two missing pieces: people who needed help, and the practical knowledge of how to provide that help.

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Pathways gives participants a small amount of money—the maximum stipend for each participant is $2,000 for the year-long program. Goals are set by participants with the help of a partner, called a mentor.

The real worth of Pathways lies in the hands-on and personal approach the mentor-participant pairing allows.

The original director, Cara Lapenas, and the current director, Melissa Reyes, developed this method. The mentor must be a local resident who is over twenty-five, well established and able to provide insight and resources.

The goals are based on the participant’s needs, not only financial but also emotional. Rodriguez and her mentor, Lavonne Chin, decided that Maria should use Pathways’ resources to work at getting her driver’s license but, more importantly, to become a citizen.

“I spent a little bit of the money Pathways gave me on driving classes, so that I could take the test and have a license,” Rodriguez says. “But all the rest went to pay for a lawyer.” To gain citizenship, she had to track down a series of documents called ‘Adjustment of Status’ papers, and force the legal system to recognize her—an impossible task without a lawyer.

“I had tried to find [a lawyer] already, but it was too hard,” Rodriguez says. “I was always on my own. Having Lavonne, who knew enough to say, ‘Oh, he’s a good lawyer; he’s not…,’ helped a lot.”

Adjustment of Status papers have to be taken care of before the age of twenty-one, or else the case slips into a new system, and it becomes more difficult to get citizenship. Rodriguez’s mom filed her papers when she first came to the US at five years of age, and they had been waiting ever since.

“Everyone I know is afraid of having to go through the Adjustment of Status papers, especially because the government takes so long to put the papers through the system,” she says. “When I first started with Pathways I was thinking, ‘I’m almost twenty-one. Will I be able to get the job I want when I finish school?’ I had just started the nursing program at MPC, and I didn’t know if I would be able to work [in that field] after I finished.”

Rodriguez is now making the transition from student to nurse. She studies at the Maurine Church Couburn School of Nursing, which works through MPC. In the next year, she will be able to start a full-time career at a local hospital, which will pay for her to receive a more specialized education.

By bringing together people of very different communities, Pathways has started to close an important divide in Monterey County, one that is familiar to people all over the nation. While the worth of the program is measured in the success of its participants, the long-term achievement is the creation of a community that spans economic and social boundaries. People who would never have interacted, despite living in the same region, are creating a network of friends and resources.

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The Pathways program has five mentor-participant groups. The program runs independently, allowing the pairs to manage their goals however they see fit. The only requirement is that they meet with each other monthly. The mentors have a group meeting every month, as do the participants, to share resources and, as Reyes says, “to celebrate each other’s successes.”

Due to this flexibility, the role of the mentor evolves differently for each participant. Never exactly a teacher or an authority figure, in most cases mentors become valued friends and confidants. Because of this, most mentors remain involved after their participant finishes the program. Rodriguez still keeps in close contact with Chin, e-mailing her updates about her life and success.

For participant Isabel Enriquez, her mentor Nadine Torres went with her to buy books and register for classes at MPC, and took her hiking in Big Sur, a place Enriquez had never even known about. “I never had anyone offer to help me,” she says, “It was hard for me to ask for it at first. [Pathways] brought me out of my shell.”

Reyes works closely with each pair, talking to both on a consistent basis. Her charisma and motivation propel the entire program, a remarkable feat, as she runs Pathways on the practical level almost single-handedly. She graduated from CSUMB last year and was offered the job as director based on her volunteer record at the YWCA.

“The meetings are aimed at creating a real level of family peer support,” Reyes says.

By networking with local youth programs and the high school run Youth Education Advocacy program, Pathways is stretching this network wider. For both Reyes and Evans this expansion is the future of Pathways.

Publicizing the program through e-mails and calling potential volunteers, Reyes has slowly provided vital momentum. Potential participants are referred to the program by high school counselors, but most are referred by current participants, who know who needs support in their community.

At this point the main challenge the Pathways Foundation faces is a lack of people. Many of the mentors have doubled up on participants in order to keep the program expanding and serving people who desperately need it.

“The hardest part of the program is getting everything together,” Reyes says. “What I always hear is that people don’t think they have anything to offer. But just being there, listening to these kids and helping them through these day-to-day problems is vital.”

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