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Community group helps families navigate maze of social services

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Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2002 10:00 pm

Imagine starting your day this way: You have a CalWorks training class at 8:30 a.m., followed by a court-ordered parenting class at 9 a.m., and if you miss it, you won't be eligible for the job you're trying to get.

You have to get to the Social Security Administration building in Stockton to get your food stamps, but your son's school has scheduled a mandatory parent-teacher conference in Lodi and, by the way, if you want your Medi-Cal this month, you'd better get to the office by noon.

You don't speak fluent English, you don't have a car and you don't have anyone to watch your children.

How do you manage?

In San Joaquin County, many poor families face this sort of dizzying conundrum every day. Agencies intending to help improve their lives end up squeezing the clients in a frustrating situation, which, at best, duplicates efforts and, at worst, leaves people without vital services. The system sets them up to fail, social service advocates say.

In Lodi, one organization is trying to make sense of the morass of paperwork and requirements clients face so they can sort out the tangle and get on the road to self-sufficiency.

Robina Asghar and Francisco Trujillo work for the Lodi office of Community Partnership for Families of San Joaquin. A gateway to public and private social service agencies, its main goal is enabling families to take charge of their own needs and learn how to solve their own problems.

In a bright modern office nested in the front of the Lodi Boys and Girls Club, Asghar speaks about her mission.

"We're not neighborhood driven or agency driven, we're driven by what we want for our families and children - by results," Asghar said.

Asghar's tone is quiet, but her manner is no-nonsense and her passion is helping people help themselves

The partnership's main goals are to develop neighborhood centers which provide a wide range of services from after-school programs to parent coffees, childcare and English language classes, as well as financial services and access to city and county services, she said.

"We want to teach families how they can use these services that are available to them. We are not direct providers, but we show them how to use what is out there. In effect, we do not give (clients) a fish to eat, we teach them how to fish."

The partnership draws from various services and then shows clients how to use them. In the process, it develops independence in the clients, who go on to help others, and so the program grows.

Asghar said she learned that many of the women and families in the neighborhood were unaware of the social services which were available to them, partially because of language difficulties.

She, along with Trujillo, set up a free English as a second language class through San Joaquin Delta College. That was a step, but many of the women still couldn't come because they had small children at home and no one to watch them, Asghar said.

So she organized a child care cooperative within the center so that women in the class each took a turn looking after the children of other students while they were in class.

"That way, they are all invested in the success of the class," Asghar said.

Maria Hernandez is a young mother of two who came from Mexico two years ago and sells Mary Kay cosmetics to earn money.

Her friend, Maria Rodriguez, doesn't look old enough to have grown children but her oldest daughter is starting at Delta College this fall.

Rodriguez was an accountant in Mexico, but when she came here with her family, she found only menial work because she couldn't speak English. Now, in their sixth week of the ESL class, they are comfortable enough to conduct a halting interview.

"I am so happy to have this class," Hernandez said. "My son corrects my pronunciation, but now I can speak to his teacher and have more say about what happens in his school."

She hopes to become a teacher's aide, she said, because "when you are a teacher you learn more."

Rodriguez agreed.

"I feel so happy," she said. "I passed my citizenship test and my son says to me, 'Oh mama, I am so proud of you.'"

Both women share childcare duties and have plans to continue with other classes.

News of the classes and services spread, mostly by word of mouth, and more women began to come. The majority of clients receiving services are Spanish speaking, but there are Pakistani women who come as well and have their own classes and child care groups.

Once a month, each group has a "coffee klatch" where they can socialize and discuss problems, as well as share their successes.

"These are people who didn't know how to make a phone call before," Asghar said. "Now they are starting to feel empowered, and can take advantage of services which were designed for them in the first place."

The women got together and decided they'd like an exercise class, too, so that is in the works.

"This is what we are striving for," Asghar said. "We want them to tell us what they need and then participate in creating it."

Asghar envisions a day when representatives from all the various agencies will be located in one central office, where child care is available on site. That way, clients can make their appointments and fulfill the requirements that will allow them to access more of the system until they are able to sustain themselves and, ideally, help others.

"It was scary when I first came here. I didn't know if my philosophy would work here," Asghar said. "It is so hard when you are dealing with proud people from a culture where it is difficult to ask for things. But this way, they are part of the solution, so they feel they are providing for themselves."

The partnership's outreach specialist, Trujillo works from a modern furnished office next to Asghar's. He's an open-faced, soft-spoken man who can navigate a computer spreadsheet while bouncing a fussing toddler on his knee, as he conducts an interview. He said he's happy to be able to give to the community. "I think everyone deserves a chance at a better life," he said.

Trujillo came to the U.S. as a migrant farm worker at age 12 and worked in the fields of Southern California until he could attend school at age 16. He moved to Lodi and attended Lodi High School, where he graduated, then later enrolled in San Joaquin Delta College.

"I didn't even know how to say 'no' in English when I started school," Trujillo said. "I was lucky and I always found good people along my path to help me."

At present, the partnership does not have its own home. It rents space from the Lodi Boys and Girls Club, under the directorship of Richard Jones. Asghar and Trujillo each have an office, and rooms are available for child care and for classes and social meetings. Jones said he's happy to have the partnership as a tenant.

"It brings more kids in to have access to more of what we offer, too," he said.

The partnership pays the $25 fee for clients' children to join the Boys and Girls Club if they wish.

"When you are struggling to feed a family, $25 is a lot of money and we are happy to do it," Asghar said.

Asghar hopes to prepare a request to the city of Lodi for a permit to build a separate center on the land behind the Boys and Girls Club, now occupied by Blakeley Park at Poplar and South Washington streets.

The organization is funded through the county and has five offices in Stockton, in addition to the Lodi location. The Poplar Street office serves primarily the Eastside, but is available to anyone who needs it, Asghar said.

For more information, call the Community Partnership for Families at 483-2710.


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