Orange County

These Orange County families know what it’s like to struggle. Now they help others.

From left, Elijah Mendoza-Yerema (9), Evan Mendoza-Yerena (8), Eliana Mendoza-Yerena (17 months), David Yerena and Claudia Yerena in their front yard. Claudia Yerena was a participant in the Family Success Alliance of Orange County, and now is a "navigator" with the program, working with other families.
From left, Elijah Mendoza-Yerema (9), Evan Mendoza-Yerena (8), Eliana Mendoza-Yerena (17 months), David Yerena and Claudia Yerena in their front yard. Claudia Yerena was a participant in the Family Success Alliance of Orange County, and now is a "navigator" with the program, working with other families.

Claudia Yerena’s son became a better reader because of an Orange County program that helps low-income families. Now she’s a paid advocate for the program.

Yerena and her husband David Mendoza enrolled their youngest child Evan, now 8, in the Family Success Alliance’s Summer Kindergarten Readiness Program. Their oldest son Elijah, 9, had struggled through kindergarten, but for Evan “it was a totally different experience,” Yerena said. Evan now reads above grade level at New Hope Elementary School, and he is doing well in math, she said.

Yerena also took parenting classes with the Family Success Alliance, which “allowed me to make better choices for [my children].” Before enrolling, she and her husband had doubts about sending their three children – Evan, Elijah and Eliana, 1 – to college. They learned about grants and scholarships available to them.

Since 2015, Family Success Alliance has worked with Orange County families on school work, jobs, food and other needs. Navigators are central to this work.

Now “I feel that I can send my kids of college,” Yerena said.

Yerena and her husband, who came to Orange County from Mexico, have lived in the county for 18 years. She volunteered at New Hope Elementary, where her sons go to school, and also was active in Orange County Justice United.

The Orange County Health Department hired Yerena to be one of six family advocates, or navigators, for the Family Success Alliance. She now works with 16 families and is the first navigator who also was a participant.

“As a navigator, I’m able to do more. I have a voice for my community that I didn’t have,” Yerena said. “It’s a blessing to be a part of this program.”

One neighborhood at a time

The Family Success Alliance began in July 2015, funded by the Health Department. Like the East Durham Children’s Initiative, the Alliance draws inspiration from the Harlem Children’s Zone, which tries to break the cycle of poverty by offering services from “cradle to college or career.” The Orange County program works with public schools to improve children’s achievement, while also offering services in housing, food security, financial stability, and other areas to address income inequality.

Like the Durham program, which serves a 120-block area in Durham, the Family Success Alliance has targeted six high-poverty zones to focus on. The program’s first three years have focused on Zone 4, which includes A.L. Stanback Middle and New Hope Elementary schools in the Orange County school system, and Zone 6, which includes Northside, Frank Porter Graham, McDougle and Carrboro Elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. (More zones will be added later.)

Zone 4 is located between Interstates 85 and 40 in central Orange County. County data show that about 1 in 4 children under 18 are living in poverty, and 55 percent of children in the zone receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Zone 6 extends from downtown Chapel Hill southwest to N.C. 54. County data show that about 878 children under 18 in the zone are living in poverty, with 30 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

Because of the presence of UNC, Orange County is considered affluent. But there is poverty that people do not see, said Coby Jansen Austin, director of programs and policy for the Health Department. “The poverty we have may not be as wide” as in more urban areas, “but we have very deep pockets of it,” Austin said.

Community ties are crucial

To reach out to these communities, the Alliance recruits and hires navigators like Yerena, who live in the zones and have strong ties to their neighbors.

DUR_ 0922-FamilySuccessAlli (2)
From left, Eliana Mendoza-Yerena (17 months), David Yerena, Claudia Yerena, Evan Mendoza-Yerena (8), and Elijah Mendoza-Yerema (9), in their front yard. Claudia Yerena was a participant in the Family Success Alliance of Orange County, and now is a "navigator" with the program, working with other families. Bernard Thomas

Mariela Hernandez, a navigator in Zone 6, and Angela Clapp, a navigator in Zone 4, both understand living with low income. Hernandez grew up in Orange County, and her family often struggled to make ends meet.

“Either we eat or we have heat or [air-conditioning],” she said. Her brother had reading disabilities. Her family did not know tutoring was available for him, and Hernandez vowed that when she had children, she would be involved with their school life.

She and her husband have two girls and one boy. At McDougle Elementary, when her children began school, “I became like a resource parent to other parents,” Hernandez said. When Family Success Alliance began looking for navigators, someone referred her. “We were already doing our [navigator] job without the pay,” she said.

Clapp was a single mother (she has five sons) living in the Gateway Village Apartments in Hillsborough. That address itself proved an obstacle to getting employment. “Every time we put our address down, [employers] would put our applications in the trash,” Clapp said. With the apartment’s history of crime, many employers just did not want to take the chance, Clapp said.

Clapp got to work to change the situation for herself and her neighbors, setting up classes for youth and single parents in job searching and other skills. Clapp also started a newsletter, and when one of her sons was at A.L. Stanback, a counselor learned of the newsletter and her work at the apartments.

The counselor encouraged Clapp to apply for a navigator’s job, which she assumed she would not get. The counselor told her, “stop doubting yourself. Tell them how you changed that community,” Clapp said.

When the county told her she had the job, “I just dropped the phone,” Clapp said.

Hernandez and Clapp both work with about 20 families in the program. The first step in welcoming new families is to cut through their fears and frustrations and set goals. Clapp compares it to helping families find a magic wand.

“The magic wand [may be] ‘I want to leave Gateway,’” Clapp offered as an example. To get out of Gateway, the parents will need a job, and Clapp will link the parents with those resources. With the navigators’ help, parents set goals for themselves and their children, with each goal “leading up to that magic wand,” Clapp said.

Many families who start the program “vent about what they want in an ideal world,” Hernandez said. Many people who enroll in the Family Success Alliance are accustomed to assuming they cannot succeed, and setting goals is crucial to breaking that assumption, Hernandez said.

She and Clapp are already training the next group of navigators. Their life experiences make them better advocates, they said. “When we talk to our families, we can tell them a little bit of our personal story,” Hernandez said.

“I want them to understand, just because I’m the person on the other side of the table, I’m no better than you are. ... I’ve been there,” Clapp said.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Family Success Alliance assessment

The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC tested and evaluated Family Success Alliance children from New Hope and Northside elementary schools who attended FSA’s Summer Kindergarten Readiness Program in 2016.

▪  All children gained in basic reading skills. Spanish-speaking children improved on vocabulary and recognizing letters in Spanish, which helps students whose families speak Spanish at home and with transitioning to elementary school. Children who started with the lowest skill levels made the biggest gains.

▪  Teachers reported that children had higher levels of attention, math and social skills.

▪  Children who made progress during the summer program retained those skills during the 2016-17 school year.

Source: Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC