Creating welcome spaces one child and one family at a time

Ivette Pineda | November 23, 2015

 Family Literacy participants at a graduation ceremony. Photo: North Valley Caring Services

Family Literacy participants at a graduation ceremony. Photo: North Valley Caring Services

In the midst of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric that is currently dominating our politics, it’s not easy to see the path towards a society where all are welcome. At North Valley Caring Services this path is already being established one child and one family at a time. NVCS’ Family Literacy Program provides the necessary services to enable pre-school children and their parents to grow together in their literacy skills, furthering the entire family’s chances for a better life. NVCS works in collaboration with several United Methodist Churches and is happy to have received support from Church World Service and the United Methodist Committee on Relief for this program.

The origins of NVCS date back to 1978, when a group of concerned citizens from Sepulveda United Methodist Church began providing hot meals to the growing number of homeless in the community. As the area’s demographics changed and its needs grew, so did the services offered by NVCS. In 1995 the agency became incorporated as an independent non-profit while still collaborating with Sepulveda UMC and its members and other local United Methodist Churches. Today its programs serve close to 3,000 individuals annually. Those served primarily come from North Hills, Panorama City, Van Nuys, and Arleta.

Those we serve struggle with extreme poverty. For instance, at the local elementary school, 94 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and 66 percent are not proficient in English. The local unemployment rate is at 15.4 percent, and almost half of the adults have less than a 9th grade education. This is why NVCS’ Family Literacy Program plays such an important role in the community. Serving a minimum of 25 low income Spanish speaking families per year, this unique program brings children and parents together to learn and even teach one another how to read and speak English. Five days per week parents attend English as a Second Language classes while their children are simultaneously attending pre-school classes. In addition, all parents attend weekly parenting classes and participate in Parent and Child Interactive Learning Activities, which reinforces the idea of parents being their child’s most important teacher. Families that graduate from this program have children that are better prepared to succeed in elementary school and parents that are better able to obtain employment and advocate for their children.

As the influx of Central American children seeking asylum has increased dramatically over the last year, we are working with the North Hills United Methodist Mission Center (formerly Sepulveda UMC) in their development of a program called “You Are Not Alone,” to welcome refugee children.  Many are in need of free or low cost legal representation, academic support and other resources.  NVCS hopes that these families will take part in its various programs, like Family Literacy, and many other services, including:  free hot breakfast three days a week, the After School Youth Program, a food pantry and holiday events.

Local UMC congregations have been a critical part of NVCS’ success. For instance, several members from Northridge UMC have been active on our Board of Directors, and many volunteer at our events and organize an annual Christmas boutique for families. NUMC has also held various work days at NVCS, where church members have helped upgrade our facilities, including painting, planting and building. In addition, at our annual bike-a-thon many supporters from NUMC both ride in the event and participate in the “tricycle competition” afterwards. The support and partnership of congregations like NUMC not only benefits those we serve, but also better helps to inform the local community of the needs of their less fortunate neighbors. The faith community has a unique and sacred role in providing welcome.

It is a joy to us and our supporters to see NVCS’ programs change lives. For instance, several years ago a woman came to our agency in search of food support for herself and her two young children. The three of them had recently escaped a domestic violence situation and were living in their car. NVCS not only provided this family with food and housing support, but also enrolled them in our Family Literacy Program, where all three gained valuable English language literacy skills. We are happy to report that today this family is now thriving! The children are enrolled and excelling in elementary school. Their mother works at an insurance agency and one day hopes to open her own office and the mother also recently obtained U.S. citizenship. This inspiring family now serves as a role model for those who are recent immigrants.

Through our Family Literacy Program and participation in the “You Are Not Alone” outreach to Central American refugee children, NVCS is changing lives one child and one family at a time. The United Methodist congregations that are helping serve this program are fulfilling vital mission services through NVCS. Together we are building communities where immigrants and refugees have a future with the potential to shape our city and our country to be a welcoming space for all.

Ivette Pineda is the Executive Director of North Valley Caring Services.