STEAMFest showcases students and technology giants

STEAMFest showcases students and technology giants

By Dennis J. Freeman,Contributing Writer

COMPTON — As a foster kid growing up in Compton, Google software engineer Anthony D. Mays felt awkward in social settings, sometimes not believing that he could be an achiever.

Today, after overcoming personal challenges, Mays is encouraging young people that they can be all that they believe they can be.

Mays represented Google at the Compton Unified School District second annual STEAMFest, and found more than a handful of students seeking his advice. A crowd estimated at 8,000 people filled the Dollarhide Community Center for a few hours as they took in the latest technology from the likes of Apple, Boeing, Cemex, Carrot Group, Hacker Fund, Google, Charles Drew University, and other vendors.

Mays said he was more than happy to share what he has learned with students.

“I’m telling the kids that they have an opportunity unlike any other,” Mays said. “They can learn coding, they can learn engineering. They can learn science, medicine and math and apply their art skills. They can do all that stuff.

“They have the tools. They just have to use them and be willing to work hard. If I can spark inspiration in that regard, then I would love to,” he added.

There was a time that Mays didn’t feel he could be successful in anything. It wasn’t until his foster parents went out and bought him a computer that he figured out he could make something of himself.

Mays, who brought that computer to the STEAMFest event, learned to code off that technological instrument. He would later hone his coding skills from mentors that took him under their wings in middle and high school.

That proved to be the foundation Mays needed to jump headfirst into the technology field. That discovery certainly boosted his self-confidence.

“I didn’t feel like I was the smartest growing up,” Mays said. “I didn’t feel like I was the most capable. I struggled. I felt like I was an imposter every time when I went to college and all this other kind of things.

“I know that I may run into kids that are foster kids or going through the process of losing their family or during abuse or whatever that is. I’ve been through those things.  So I want to be able to share with the students, ‘Hey, I’ve been there and done this. You can do the same thing. You can do it even better than me. You can go out and start your own business.’”

Part of the showcase at STEAMfest was featuring the art, robotics, science and the technology innovation of Compton students that highlighted photography, artwork and astute craftsmanship.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase what’s going on in Compton Unified School District and to show that parents and the students that the turnaround is real,” Superintendent Darin Brawley said. “It’s really an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, this is the new Compton. These are the things that are happening. Your kids can be exposed to robotics, coding, arts, performing arts, you name it. The sky is the limit in Compton.”

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BOOK CORNER: ‘Claretta Street’ offers a tale of Black America

BOOK CORNER: ‘Claretta Street’ offers a tale of Black America

By Marissa Wells Contributing Writer

“Claretta Street” follows the lives of four young African-American girls living in Pacoima as they navigate the turbulent change of the 1960s, coming of age in the decadent and destructive 1980s.

Through the lenses of the young women, the sound and textures of life unfold as the devoted friends provide vivid accounts of one of America’s greatest periods of social change.

This work of historical fiction is the first novel by Pacoima native Colette Barris, who was inspired to write her debut book as a testimony to the struggle and triumph of Africans in America.

“Much is written about the African-American experience, most of which purposely spins black achievements as not much more than snippets of missteps, one depicted (often) as simple and jovial,” Barris said. “While in actuality, the black experience is one of unbelievable intelligence and courage.”

In “Claretta Street,” Barris explores America’s black past without marginalization. The author hopes readers gain “knowledge and appreciation of black female sisterhood and comradery” and “depth and insight of the African-American experience in the development of America further dismantling the mythology of American development.”


Colette Barris

Colette Barris

“I wanted to bring up the element of sisterhood for young African-American women because they need to know that they have it within them,” Barris said. “It’s in their DNA and they can reach out to one another for support.”The author’s favorite character is Denise, the protagonist, because of her love and appreciation for family and sisterhood.

“Claretta Street” is the first installment of Barris’ trilogy. The second book is set to debut in early 2019.

In addition to being an author, Barris is a science teacher in Los Angeles. She lives in the San Fernando Valley.

“Claretta Street” is available for $19.99 (paperback) and $4.99 (kindle) at bookstores and online on

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Friends of the Children offers mentor program for foster kids

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Friends of the Children offers mentor program for foster kids

Childhood and adolescence were anything but easy for Duncan Campbell.

He was neglected by his alcoholic parents from a young age, and his father spent years in and out of jail.

Knowing he couldn’t rely on them, Campbell worked several jobs to get through school. In his 20s, he worked in a juvenile court in Oregon as a child care worker, where he built strong bonds with the children in his unit.

After a stint as a successful businessman, Campbell sold his timber firm to focus on helping at-risk children break out of generational poverty. That’s when he started Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that soon grew nationally.

But the nonprofit’s recent presence in Los Angeles is particularly apt, said Thomas G. Lee, executive director of the organization’s local branch. And that’s because Los Angeles has the largest child welfare system in the country.

“[Friends of the Children L.A.] is about building strong networks with children,” Lee said. “Networks matter. As children form networks with families, it’s important if we’re going to break cycles of poverty and get them out of the welfare system. We have to connect children with families and individuals in a meaningful way and with depth.”

And that’s what the organization does: connect at-risk children with caring adult mentors.

The nonprofit identifies kindergarten children living in poverty and matches them with an adult mentor –– or friend –– until the child graduates from high school.

Mentors spend two hours a week in the children’s classroom and two hours one-on-one, totaling 16 hours a month together.

“Our focus is making sure the child is meeting educational outcomes, social and emotional outcomes, and to expose and get them connected to the array of sources [available to them] in L.A. County,” Lee said.

Thomas Lee

Although L.A. has countless resources for foster children, they are often underused because individuals don’t know about them, Lee said.

“Our mentors become a bridge to those resources,” getting families and children connected to a larger network of support.

But it’s not just foster youth that Friends L.A. advocates for. It’s also youth exiting the foster care system that are parenting.

Lee said the local organization wants to focus on enrolling the 128 children of foster youth into their program. By doing so, it hopes to serve “that population in a real and intentionally meaningful way.”

And their program seems to be working. The organization’s website reports that 83 percent of its children graduate from high school; 93 percent stay out of the the juvenile justice system; and 98 percent avoid parenting, even though 85 percent were born to a teenage parent.

While Friends L.A. is just planting its feet in the county –– particularly in East and South L.A. –– communities and organizations have warmly received it, Lee said, and already it is looking to extend a broader hand to more children in need.

“Foster youth have much skepticism about adults in their life, and for good reason,” Lee said. “But developing a deep level of trust between us and them was really important. … It requires a level of humility, thoughtfulness and care, especially for kids who have been failed by a lot of people.”

But Friends of the Children L.A. is changing that, one friend and one child at a time.


L.A. Executive Director: Thomas G. Lee

Years in operation: national: 25; L.A.: 7 months

Annual budget: $3 million

Number of employees: 7

Location: 672 S. Lafayette Park Place, Suite 33, L.A. 90057

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: City Year L.A. helps students realize their potential

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: City Year L.A. helps students realize their potential

City Year believes in the potential of all students, especially those from low-income communities that attend under-resourced schools.

In an effort to bring out the best in those students, City Year Los Angeles was founded in 2007 as part of an education-focused national organization whose roots date back to 1988 in Boston.

“For the last 11 years in L.A., we have been partnering with local schools to keep kids on track to graduate from high school,” said Jonathan Lopez, the nonprofit’s managing director of impact.

Specifically, City Year L.A. partners with elementary, middle and high schools that serve children from impoverished neighborhoods who are more likely to experience trauma and are less likely to finish high school.

“In our program, we leverage AmeriCorps members to work in schools with students to help with their academic, social and emotional character strength, and we provide mentorship,” Lopez said.

The AmeriCorps is a federal civil society program that engages adult volunteers in public service work all over the United States.

With more than 250 AmeriCorps volunteers in classrooms in 31 schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District, the organization is making efforts to close the education gap with its Whole School Whole Child service model.

Through this model, AmeriCorps members between 17 and 25 years of age are placed in schools where they serve as additional resources for teachers and principals to improve all-around outcomes on campus.

“By deploying young people who are idealistic, who want do service for communities and are close in age to students, they can really help leverage positive growth,” Lopez said.

Many of the volunteers are at their assigned school sites all day, greeting students as they walk through the gates every morning, running after-school programs, helping them with their homework and providing free tutoring.

That added instructional time at the end of school is one of numerous ways the nonprofit seeks to address the needs on campus, Lopez said, which many schools can’t meet because of under resourcing.

And during school hours, these young volunteers run activities during lunch and recess “to encourage team building.”

But while the academic successes of City Year L.A. are apparent in its results, including a 2015 finding that showed an improvement in math and English assessment scores from schools partnering with the nonprofit, it recognizes that it is more than just about better test scores.

“It’s about social and emotional strength as well,” Lopez said. “[City Year L.A.] does work with students who struggle with attendance. When necessary, we refer students to school administrators to help students with those challenges.”

Besides providing behavior coaching, the organization also “runs a curriculum that helps with character strength like perseverance and optimism,” which supports students’ academic careers.

Though City Year’s influence is vast, reaching more than 320 schools across the country and serving close to a quarter of a million students, there is still a local need for more support in under resourced and underserved schools.

While the nonprofit hopes to expand its programs with more funding, it is also seeking to increase the diversity of its AmeriCorps volunteers. Because boys of color experience unique challenges in school and often live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, the organization is actively recruiting more men of color to serve as role models to them.

In this way, Lopez said, City Year L.A. hopes to serve “the communities we’re in more deeply around L.A.”


Local Executive Director: Mary Jane Stevenson

Years in operation: 11

Annual budget: $13.5 million

Number of employees: 63 full-time, 270 AmeriCorps members

Location: 606 S. Olive St., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, 90014

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: 826LA helps local student writers become published

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: 826LA helps local student writers become published

LOS ANGELES — Not many 6 to 18 year olds can can say they’ve been published.

But there are more than 300 in Los Angeles that can can claim the title of published writer thanks to 826LA.

Since 2005, the nonprofit has supported students throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District and around the country, helping them build confidence as creative and expository writers.

“At the heart of what we do is bring volunteers to work with students one-on-one,” said Marisa Urrutia Gedney, director of in-schools programs and college access. In many under-resourced and overpopulated classrooms, she said, it’s difficult for teachers to give their students personal attention, especially when it comes to their writing.

“Writing is difficult for anyone of any age, and we tell the students that. It takes a certain level of confidence to take what’s in your heart and in your head and write it down,” she said.

Executive Director
Joel Arquillos

The intimate support “really helps students share their ideas so they have more confidence after they finish a writing assignment.”

Through its numerous free programs, more than 9,000 economically disadvantaged students in L.A. are taught how to write everything from poems, chapbooks and short films to stories, magazines and comic books during its weekend workshops.

During the week, students can take advantage of after-school and evening tutoring at two of 826LA’s writing locations in Echo Park and Mar Vista. There, volunteers help students with writing, reading and homework in all subjects.

“Our volunteers also go to schools where they work with teachers directly in the classrooms,” Gedney said. Because it’s not always possible for students to take a field trip to one of 826LA’s sites, volunteers drop into classrooms to support teachers with projects and provide students more one-on-one attention for writing assignments.

As for the many high school students working on their college applications, volunteers offer them help with their personal statements. This college-readiness work, Gedney said, is critical to what the nonprofit does.

“Personal statements help students write about their triumphs and trials,” she said. While students’ college applications show their academic successes, they don’t offer a glimpse into the realities of their lives.

By guiding them through their essays, they’re making “college writing more equitable.”

In 2013, the organization decided to extend this idea of equitability to South L.A., where they opened the Writers Room at Manual Arts High School.

There, students have a creative space where they can explore their writing voices and get college access support. It now serves more than 700 students every year and, as a result of this added support, more seniors are getting accepted into four-year schools.

As the nonprofit steadily grows, so has students’ enthusiasm for writing.

“So many times, once we publish a book of student writing, kids often say they want to be a writer. They say they want to be keep writing and get published,” Gedney said.

Kids frequently carry their published writing in their backpacks all year and show their teachers and classmates the work they’re so proud of, she added.

And this zest for writing that 826LA sees in its students is an energy it hopes to expand to more kids.

“Our hope is to increase capacity and bring in more volunteers into all our programs and centers to support more than 9,000 students a year,” Gedney said.

“We are always excited when people take interest in the work we do because it’s rewarding, exciting and fun.”


Executive Director: Joel Arquillos

Years in operation: 13

Number of employees: about 24

Annual budget: $1,744,809

Location: 1714 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90026