Growing up in a community where the majority of the youth are not expected to succeed, I knew that I had to do something to make a difference. I was unsure of how or when I could make a difference in my community until I was introduced to Girls Inc. of the Central Coast. Girls Inc. helped me develop a new perspective, and my involvement started with projects such as Building Healthy Communities (BHC) for East Salinas and Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP).
As a Girls Inc. youth leader in 2009, I was given the opportunity to work with high school girls in an after-school program. I conducted meetings to help the girls learn about: staying healthly, their educational opportunities, leadership and combatting peer pressure. After doing the high school program, I started working with both elementary and middle school programs for Girls Inc. In 2010, I became the program coordinator and supervised new youth leaders who facilitated program activities for the young girls. It was through Girls Inc. that I learned to be a good teacher, leader and motivator, and I had the opportunity to work with other young leaders. Not only did we as youth leaders facilitate the meetings, but we often went to community events where we volunteered and made sure the people from our community were getting involved.
When I was introduced to BHC, a California Endowment project, in August 2009, I instantly knew I had to be part of the project because it focused on helping East Salinas residents improve their living conditions. As a BHC volunteer, I facilitated community meetings where community youth, parents and agencies discussed the future projects and goals of the community. One of the best parts of being involved in the BHC project was seeing the increased number of youth that became part of the project over the years. There were only a few of us when I started, and now there are more youth getting involved and taking charge of the different projects.
BHC gave me the opportunity to understand how other community members feel about violence. Having programs like CASP and BHC that focus on violence prevention from the perspectives of youth service organizations, county housing and health officials, local and state elected officials, criminal justice and law enforcement officials, and educational leaders is so critical. The different programs that have formed an alliance to find solutions have made a difference in my community. I have great hope that all six communities involved in the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention project will benefit from each other’s ideas, and together reduce national youth violence.
Fernanda Ocana works with her fellow community members at the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP) and at Building Healthy Communities (BHC) for East Salinas, to create healthier and safer communities.