It’s easy to forget about all of the great things that are happening throughout Ventura County. This week, we highlight four local nonprofits and the work they do, something we can all be thankful for.

Center4SpecialNeeds of Thousand Oaks

Gina Giambi Peters and her son Nathaniel (center) celebrate five years at an open house for Center 4 Special Needs.

Gina Giambi Peters snips the scissors at a ribbon cutting ceremony on September 22 at the Center4SpecialNeeds office in Thousand Oaks. The ceremony was a five-year anniversary celebration for the nonprofit organization founded in 2011.

When Gina Giambi Peters was told that her 1-year-old son was on the autism spectrum, she never thought she’d launch an organization that bridges the gaps for children with special needs who fall between the cracks.

“Every child deserves that chance, and there are too many of our children that are out there that are not receiving that,” said Peters, whose son, Nathaniel, was officially diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder just before he turned 3.

When he was first diagnosed, Peters attended her first support group — but found it was unsupportive as well as “very judgmental, very biased.”

So she started her own support group — a nonjudgmental, open and informational gathering where parents could learn about everything that was available to them.

“Not just the things I thought were important or worked, but everything that is out there so parents could make their own decisions,” Peters said.

She soon discovered that parents are the best resources — and that it’s a real struggle for those parents to obtain what’s needed for their special children.

Whether parents are dealing with insurance companies, services from a regional center or assistance in their school districts, “It’s all a battle,” Peters said. “The one thing we as special needs parents can do to help each other to make this journey just a wee bit easier, is to share and supply information with one another.”

In 2011, the single mom launched the Center4SpecialNeeds, a grass-roots effort that offers resources, support and funding to families who have children with special needs.

The mission of the nonprofit is to support children and their families with special needs —regardless of their diagnoses — by providing resources, education and a place for growth and opportunity.

“We really recognize the challenging journey parents and their kiddos face — as the founder I understand by having a child with special needs,” said Peters, of Thousand Oaks. “Our networking between parents is amazing and I consult and meet with parents via phone or in person at no charge to help provide information, direction and support.”

Located in Thousand Oaks, “We just expanded our offices to start offering therapeutic services to the community, and we have also started a pilot program and expanded to Orange County,” Peters said.

Throughout the year, the Center4SpecialNeeds offers networking educational workshops and free consultations, as well as fundraising events such as the annual Bridging the Gaps of Hope Gala, which most recently took place on Nov. 5 at North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village.

To keep her nonprofit alive, volunteers are essential, as well as donations, grants and local folks in the community who offer to host events.

“So many families are supported simply with the vast amount of resources, [including] the monthly mom’s coffee, the monthly mom’s night out, dad’s night out and now date night,” Peters said.

Additionally, “We have also provided communication and learning devices to families and assisted with co-pays so kiddos could continue with their treatment and services,” Peters said.

Today, Nathaniel is 13.

“He has his ups and downs — therapy and interventions really provide a lot of support for him and me as a parent,” Peters said. “And that’s why it is so important to help families access such supports.”

The future vision for her nonprofit is expansion.

“We want to continue to grow to a full center, where families with special needs can access a variety of services and resources in one location,” Peters said.

For more information, visit https://center4specialneeds.org/

Corazones Sanos Program

Students volunteer at a food giveaway of fruits and vegetables with The Corazonas Sanos Program offered through the Westminster Free Clinic at United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks.

Melissa Pech, Lesley Diaz, Justin Aguilar, Gabriela Sanchez and Lizzette Cruz volunteer at a food giveaway of fruits and vegetables with The Corazones Sanos Program offered through the Westminster Free Clinic at United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks.

The Corazones Sanos Program offered through the Westminster Free Clinic was inspired by patients who discovered they had diabetes or heart disease and wanted to learn how to become healthy.

“The majority of Westminster Free Clinic’s patients struggle with these health conditions,” said Lisa Safaeinili, of Thousand Oaks, the program’s executive director.

Corazones Sanos is Spanish for healthy hearts. The program is on Wednesday evenings at the Westminster Free Clinic, a 21-year effort that is offered at United Methodist Church of Thousand Oaks.

“The ultimate goal of the program is for people to alleviate or control their risk of heart disease and diabetes through lifestyle change so they can live long, healthy lives,” Safaeinili said. “It is also our goal to have the children of our patients grow up healthy and knowledgeable about their health, and to dream big and have the education necessary to find employment with health insurance.”

Safaeinili gave the example of one patient, Sara, who works three part-time jobs, has diabetes, and has all the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, high triglycerides and cholesterol.

“Her family has an annual income of $26,000 a year before taxes so she is not eligible for free state or federal health services because she is above the federal poverty level,” Safaeinili said.

“Her rent absorbs most of her income,” Safaeinili continued. “What’s left goes for cheap food to fill up her kids in the quickest way possible. Sara cannot afford a car, so she pays neighbors to give her rides. How can she improve her heart health when she can’t afford child care and she faces so many other barriers?”

The Corazones Sanos Program provides doctor visits, Zumba and yoga classes, mental health counseling, grief and loss classes and nutrition education, as well as fruit and vegetable distribution.

“So the ride Sara pays for is full of health benefits and inspiration for healthy choices, losing weight and feeling good,” Safaeinili said. “She feels like she has a whole team of caring people behind her, and that helps her to make changes for herself and her family.”

Safaeinili added that Corazones Sanos would not be possible without the support of AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation’s Connections for Cardiovascular Health, which is the primary funder of the program.

Year-round, the Westminster Free Clinic offers free, early access to health care, preventive services and mental health services, as well as some dental and vision care to more than 8,000 uninsured, low-income people in East Ventura County.

“Food, clothing, backpacks and school supplies, and other life-supporting services that help the family financially, are also provided to decrease family stress and support the whole health of our patients,” Safaeinili said.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of the program, she emphasized. For instance, 86 local high-school students are part of the medical team and help serve patients. Doctors and pharmacists also donate their time to the effort.

“This effort is only possible with the generous spirit of volunteers and donors, and the space donated to us by the United Methodist Church where we serve over 100 people each clinic night,” Safaeinili said. “People can help by convincing their favorite doctor, dentist or other medical professional to volunteer or allow a certain number of free referrals to their office.”

Without the Westminster Free Clinic, “Our most vulnerable population of workers who financially struggle and are marginally housed would not be well enough to work and care for their families due to neglect of their health conditions,” Safaeinili said.

“These families are domestic caregivers for our elderly and children, are house and office cleaners, are gardeners, handymen and construction workers and work in our restaurants and car shops,” she said. “Health is one of the most basic needs. If someone is well, they can work, find shelter and food and care for their families.”

For more information, visit www.westminsterclinic.org

Ventura County Housing Trust Fund

A coalition of affordable housing advocates join U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, in August 2015 at the grand opening of Vince Street Transitional Home in Ventura. The Vince Street project was developed by Turning Point Foundation, providing 10 single room occupancy units for homeless veterans and on-site supportive services for the residents. The Ventura County Housing Trust Fund was an early lender on the project.

A coalition of affordable housing advocates join U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, in August 2015 at the grand opening of Vince Street Transitional Home in Ventura. The Vince Street project was developed by Turning Point Foundation, providing 10 single room occupancy units for homeless veterans and on-site supportive services for the residents. The Ventura County Housing Trust Fund was an early lender on the project.

The Ventura County Housing Trust Fund is “a powerful tool” to increase the opportunities of residents to access decent, safe homes that they can afford — and still have enough money for food, health care and other necessities.

“Ventura County continues to face a critical housing crisis,” said Dawn Dyer of Ojai, founder of the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund.

“The lack of available housing that is affordable to local residents has a negative impact on the quality of life, and economic vitality, throughout our region,” said Dyer, noting that  home prices and rental rates continue to outpace the incomes of many local workers.  

“Without housing that is affordable to a range of income levels, Ventura County residents suffer from overcrowding, put greater strain on public infrastructure and services; and businesses have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified workers,” Dyer said.

Established as an independent 501(c)(3) in 2012, the mission of the organization is to support more housing choices by generating and leveraging financial resources, working in partnership with the public, private and nonprofit sectors throughout Ventura County.

“For those with limited resources or special needs, locating safe housing they can afford can seem impossible, leading to homelessness and associated community issues,” said Linda Braunschweiger of Camarillo, CEO. “Recognizing that the housing crisis is even more acute in some sectors of our community, the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund prioritizes funding for new housing that specifically serves the needs of veterans, farm workers, homeless individuals and families, and emancipated foster youth.”

The Ventura County Housing Trust Fund is an idea that grew out of the first annual Ventura County Housing Conference in 2001, where the concept was introduced as a potential tool to help address the local housing affordability crisis. 

“Beginning in 2005, a group of dedicated volunteers, representing government, business, education, housing and others, worked for several years to establish this fund,” said chairperson Marni Brook of Ventura. 

In 2006, California voters approved Proposition 1C, which included matching grants of up to $2 million each to local housing trust funds. 

“To compete for the state match, applicants needed to raise an equivalent level of local funding,” Brook said. “The trust fund board worked diligently to raise the required local match … which included investments from the County of Ventura, and the cities of San Buenaventura, Camarillo, Santa Paula, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Simi Valley; as well as donations from businesses, foundations and individuals.”

Through its Housing Trust Fund model, “We help finance the creation of new housing by bringing diverse stakeholders together in a model of public/private participation,” said Dyer, adding that the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund is a successful model of interjurisdictional cooperation, with participation from the County of Ventura, and several cities, working together with the private sector to address this critical countywide issue.

With the elimination of Redevelopment Agency dollars, and the reduction in other state and federal funding sources for affordable housing, the role of the Ventura County Housing Trust Fund has never been more critical, Dyer emphasized. 

“The lack of available affordable housing impacts an individual’s long-term mortality rate,” Dyer said. “Health studies have made a direct link to poor living conditions and length of life. Without a low-cost funding source for affordable housing developments, units simply will not be built.”

Creating housing that is safe, decent and affordable in high-cost areas like Ventura County requires financial support, Brook added.

“As we raise more money, we can do more good work in our community.”

 For more information, visit www.vchousingtrustfund.org.

GOCARE Inc.

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Fifth graders Génesis Osiel Vasquez Dávila y Maria del Carmen Ayala Cruz participate in a tutoring program at GOCARE’s Cuajachillo Dos Learning Center.

Headquartered in Ventura, GOCARE is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charity that empowers adults and children living in Nicaragua with the fundamental belief that citizens may live a self-empowered life through the power of education.

Founded in 2001, “GOCARE creates opportunities to reduce poverty and inspire people toward independence through culturally responsive education, mentoring and awareness,” said Michelle Cekov of Camarillo, president and CEO.

Throughout its tenure, GOCARE has worked closely with local residents and communities to create and implement educational and economic development programs into its curriculum, which includes adult education through reading and math, preschool, day care, computer instruction, English instruction and vocational training.

“GOCARE is a legal nongovernmental organization that has been recognized by the Nicaragua Ministry of Education as an exemplary model for youth and adult education courses,” Cekov said.

To date, GOCARE has helped more than 3,400 students graduate from its programs with the core philosophy of the “Come Back to Give Back” mentorship and leadership.

“While pursuing college degrees, students become mentors and leaders within their own Nicaraguan communities and help give back by teaching others to aid people out of extreme poverty into a bright, successful future,” Cekov said.

GOCARE was originally established by a group of Rotarians who traveled to Nicaragua to support and develop programs for people living in extreme poverty. GOCARE began its work when its founder, Jan Lindsay of Santa Paula, saw the need to create an individualized and sustainable model community program to help people in rural areas to be empowered in their lives through education.

“When Jan first started working in Nicaragua, he, like most others, was overwhelmed by the amount and depth of poverty and need he experienced there,” Cekov said.

On his first trip, he was introduced to the community of Pantanal, outside of Granada.

“He was impacted deeply when a group of women and children of Granada shared their story of how they were living off the resources of the local dump,” Cekov said. “They were asking for help; Jan felt powerless at the time and was moved to find a solution to help the people he met. Jan, as an economist, began studying the issues of world poverty in depth. What became apparent was that there were more unknowns than knowns.”

It became Lindsay’s mission to create a community-centered organization that could work together and pool resources and knowledge to empower people through education. Lindsay passed away in 2014.

“GOCARE embraced the philosophy that education provides the path to eliminate poverty,” Cekov said.”Education empowers people to help themselves, and through this model, the Come Back to Give Back model was born.”

GOCARE currently operates through donations and investment income; contributions from donors, however, have dropped off significantly in recent years.

“Many people only want to support programs directly in their own communities,” Cekov said.

“Our world is getting smaller every day and we are connected socially and economically like at no other time,” she said. “We believe that it’s important to have good international behavior, and one way that you can do this is by supporting programs like what GOCARE is offering in these impoverished communities.”

The rural communities where GOCARE students live are very isolated, and the average income is less than $3 per day.

“There are no opportunities for our students to use a computer or learn a second language,” Cekov said. “The programs and scholarships that we offer are designed to help the people living in impoverished communities to learn a skill or trade so that they can empower themselves through education to rise above the situation.”

For more information, visit www.gocarekids.org.