OCEANSIDE — After three years, a program striving to help young adults on probation or leaving detention centers through mentorships with formerly incarcerated locals has finally found its new, permanent home in the heart of Oceanside.
Vista Community Clinic’s Resilience Program first opened in 2018 as a nonprofit group dedicated to helping at-risk youth from Oceanside who are on juvenile probation. Funded by the San Diego County Probation Department, the program originally started as a pilot program to be first tested in Oceanside.
Now, a second program is helping at-risk youth in the central San Diego region.
The program has hired six local Oceanside and Vista residents who were former gang members and were previously incarcerated as mentors to youth on juvenile probation in an effort to sway them from trouble and push them toward a better future.
“The definition of resilience is bouncing back from tough times, and that’s something I’ve experienced,” said mentor Joe Taulau during the program’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to its new location held earlier this month. “I know what it feels like.”
Because of their own pasts, mentors can better connect with the youth who are going through the same things they went through at a younger age.
“I believe that the only people who can help these kids is someone who’s had the experience and has been able to overcome it,” said mentor Sandra Mora.
To date, the program has enrolled 106 mentees and 32 graduates. There are currently 18 active mentees enrolled, six others in custody pending re-enrollment, 15 to 20 receiving aftercare mentoring and 22 mentees who have graduated from high school.
The program also has 39 mentees who have successfully completed their probation requirements and only three mentees who reoffended and were placed back on probation.
The program is completely voluntary, according to Jimmy Figueroa, Resilience’s program manager who also serves as a mentor. While not a former gang member, Figueroa grew up in Oceanside with gang-affiliated family members and friends and went through diversion programs at a young age.
When the program first started, it struggled to find a facility that was willing to host it. Finally, Global City Media stepped up to the task, and the program was run there a few days a week for the last three years.
Now, with its new space on Oceanside Boulevard, participants can come in five days out of the week instead of two. The program’s “Restorative Circles” are held a few times each week and are a required part of the program, while the remaining time is open for youth to come in and hang out, receive math tutoring, play video games, work on resumes, study for driving tests and also use the space’s own recording studio.
Figueroa said local known music producers will sometimes come in and help teach participants who have an interest in music production.
“When we don’t have (Restorative) Circles, they have a place to come now or to record music or just get homework done and have help,” Figueroa said.
The program also takes its mentees on field trips outside of the community as a means of exposing them to more places and opportunities and works with Nevarez Boxing Gym to provide lessons.
The program has several community organizations that help support them and are always looking for more to help with sponsoring field trips, providing clothing, utility support, transportation and rental assistance.
According to Figueroa, the program has a strong connection between its mentors, mentees, their families and each of the city’s different communities.
“We wanted to make sure that the mentors reflected the community, so we were very intentional about recruiting mentors from all of the different neighborhoods in Oceanside, and also made sure that we racially reflected the community,” Figueroa explained.
Many of the mentors also know the families of their mentees prior to working with them through the program.
“There’s one degree of separation between all of us,” Figueroa said.
Even Figueroa knew most of the mentors from years ago, and many of them knew each other — but on completely different terms.
“Some of our mentors were once rivals back in the ‘90s and early 2000s when Oceanside was at its worst,” Figueroa said.
But now, the mentors stand together by giving back to their communities and leading the program’s participants down a better path.
“They have a brotherly and sisterly love for each other,” Figueroa said.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the mentors expressed how much it meant for them to give back to the city where they grew up and love.
“I want to give back to my city because I love my city and I want to help the next generation to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Taulau said.
“I’ll never give up on these kids,” Mora said.