Helping others in need is a hallmark of the Thanksgiving season, giving local charities the opportunity to help many marginalized residents throughout Ventura County.

This year, we are highlighting four special nonprofits that work year-round to make a difference, including an organization that strives to better the lives of veterans and their families, and an organization that specifically serves young homeless children.

Read more about how these four nonprofits are making a positive impact in the Ventura County community — and beyond.

Ventura County Military Collaborative

More than 100 volunteers assisted with families during Operation Snowflake.

Since its inception in 2011, the Ventura County Military Collaborative has helped the area’s veterans in profound ways, from helping a WWII vet keep his home to aiding a National Guard member who was homeless and living in her car with her children.

“The Ventura County Military Collaborative provides direct services and programs to make sure that no military or veteran falls through the cracks,” said Kim Evans of Camarillo, founder of the nonprofit effort. “We are all military, veterans and loved ones who volunteer to help our fellow brothers and sisters navigate the often confusing system of benefits, entitlements and assistance.”

Collaborative members strive to make sure that they assist veterans and military in whatever they may need.

“This often includes warm transfers to our outstanding community providers who work closely with us to ensure success,” Evans noted. “In addition we have a free legal clinic, veteran book club, financial aid, employment support, teen club and much more.”

The effort was inspired by Col. Marilyn Rios at Channel Islands Air National Guard Station — and the discovery that airmen needed additional assistance that could be provided by agencies working outside of the gate.

“We brought together 20 of the agencies — government and nonprofit — that we had referred to the most,” explained Evans, who was the director of psychological health at the 146th Airlift Wing at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Station.

“From there the collaborative was born, moving from quarterly meetings to monthly meetings and over 200 agencies now partnering with us to provide amazing services to those who have given so much,” Evans said.

The effort is funded solely through donations and grants, with the biggest funder being Wells Fargo. In addition, the Martin V. and Martha K. Smith Foundation was a founding funder in helping the collaborative get started.

“The other source of funding for us is the individual donations,” Evans said. “Nothing can make me cry faster than a WWII veteran in a wheelchair who hands me a crumpled $5 bill and tells me to keep up the good work.”

The collaborative has moved to having sponsors for signature events and programs, such as Operation Snowflake, a yearly event in which collaborative members and volunteers provide presents, food and gift cards, and an afternoon with Santa for veterans, active military personnel and their loved ones who are struggling during the holiday season.

“Operation Snowflake is coming up in December and we are actively looking for sponsors … who wish to help us make sure that all of our military and veterans and their children have a wonderful holiday,” Evans said.

Since the fall of 2013, the collaborative has been housed inside a suite at 4001 Mission Oaks Blvd. in Camarillo, which is a building owned by the Ventura County Community Foundation. In September, Evans began looking for a permanent spot.

The collaborative is currently located in a temporary home provided by Kids and Families Together.

“We need to move by the end of April,” Evans said. “We need a space of 600 feet or larger and we need furniture once we move. We will be looking in Camarillo and expand our search to Oxnard if needed. In addition we are looking for volunteers to help in the office with answering the phones.”

The collaborative receives about 75 phone calls a month for assistance and is always in need of volunteers to follow up. Volunteers are also needed to update the website, fulfill maintenance projects and help around the office, as well as outreach.

“We are hopeful we can start up our Battle Buddy program and will need volunteers who would like to be partnered with a veteran to help them navigate a difficult time in their life,” Evans said.

Above all, the collaborative provides a place for people in the County of Ventura to help a population that holds true value and meaning.

“As Americans we are well aware of the price that our service members and their families have paid,” Evans said. “We understand the value of freedom and we love this country deeply. To be able to help out another person, who, when the call came, stood up to fight for this great nation, well, that is just an awesome thing.”

For more information, visit VCMilC.Org; call 805-983-4850, or email info@vcmilc.org.

Paso Pacifico 

Paso Pacifico runs an environmental education program that develops “Junior Rangers” through a year-long curriculum focused on science and stewardship.  These Paso Pacifico Junior Rangers gather at the beach to share the signs they made to encourage neighbors to protect sea turtles. The children are from Ostional, a fishing village in southern Nicaragua near the border with Costa Rica. 

Paso Pacifico is an organization focused on connecting people and nature through wildlife corridors.

More specifically, its work is centered on the pacific coast of Nicaragua, where Paso Pacifico works with farmers to restore forests and protect endangered spider monkeys and yellow-naped Amazon parrots — and where on the coast it works with fishermen and -women to create and manage marine reserves and protect endangered sea turtles. 

“Paso Pacifico distinguishes itself by its human-centered approach to conservation,” said Sarah Otterstrom of Ventura, executive director. “It recognizes that people are the problem and also a key part of the solution.”

For instance, Paso Pacifico’s year-long Junior Ranger curriculum has helped build skills in wildlife observation and environmental stewardship that will help prepare hundreds of local children for jobs in tourism, agriculture and fisheries.

“Another hallmark of our work is innovation, including the design of technology to combat wildlife trafficking and performance-based incentive schemes to promote reforestation and parrot protection,” Otterstrom explained.

Finally, women’s empowerment is core to Paso Pacifico’s programs.

“The organization is one of few conservation groups in the region founded and led by women, and it advances women as environmental stewards through wildlife ranger jobs and through training in tourism, aquaculture and agroforestry,” Otterstrom said.

Over the years, Paso Pacifico has planted more than a million trees, released more than 10,000 baby sea turtles to the sea, helped the endangered spider monkey populations recover by more than 60 percent — and has stabilized the yellow-naped Amazon parrot population, despite drastic declines elsewhere in Central America.

“Our work is funded by everyday people who care about issues like climate change and the loss of wildlife,” Otterstrom said.

This includes individuals who are concerned for the birds that migrate to Nicaragua each winter but return in fewer numbers.

“Such is the case for the endangered southwest willow flycatcher, which is native to Ventura County and which we have documented using genetic studies that it overwinters in Nicaragua,” Otterstrom said.

In addition to individual donors, Paso Pacifico receives grants from foundations and other nonprofits, including the Los Angeles Zoo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Disney Conservation Fund.

Paso Pacifico’s efforts are particularly important locally because wildlife from Ventura County is dependent on the health of the environment in Central America.

“These include our Southern California humpback whales that migrate to Southern Nicaragua to calve and the endangered southwest willow flycatcher, which overwinter in the western lowlands of Nicaragua,” Otterstrom said. “Most importantly, given the climate-change threat, we have a moral imperative to protect and restore tropical ecosystems which provide important carbon sinks.”

In current efforts, Paso Pacifico is rolling out the “InvestEGGator” artificial sea turtle egg that will be used to detect and track sea turtle egg poaching.

“This technology, which was a winner in the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, was designed in Ventura and will soon be manufactured locally,” Otterstrom said. “This Ventura tech will help save sea turtles across Latin America where poaching is a problem.”

Paso Pacifico was founded in 2005 after Otterstrom finished her doctoral thesis in ecology at UC, Davis. Her experience at the Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, Nicaragua, as a Ph.D. researcher spurred her to launch her own conservation organization.

“The area has dozens of farming families living within the boundary of the protected area, remnants of tropical dry forests, and includes a beach that is a major sea turtle nesting site,” Otterstrom recalled.

During her four years working at that site, she witnessed the social conflicts surrounding sea turtle egg extraction and their interplay with poverty and corruption.

“I watched as New York investors bought up large portions of the area, and I became personally involved working to convince them to abandon plans for a golf course — 15 years later there is no massive development though the investors still hope to build a hotel,” Otterstrom said.

Finally, she observed international conservation NGOs “wax and wane” in their interest in Chacocente, “and felt frustrated by their lack of commitment to the communities and the ecological landscape.”

“By studying fire ecology, in an area in which local peoples affected outcomes more than principles of nature, I learned that I could have a more profound impact on conservation, not through scientific study but rather by practicing place-based conservation,” Otterstrom said.

For more information, visit Paso Pacifico at its Front Street office in Ventura; call 805-643-7044; email info@pasopacifico.org; or go to http://pasopacifico.org/

Channel Islands Gulls of Ventura County

Members of Channel Islands Gulls gathered around $3,000 worth of non-perishable food, blankets and coats for the Lighthouse for Women and Children.

The Channel Islands Gulls of Ventura County — a social group of women who raise money for local charities — recently donated a record $31,000 in charitable gifts to 11 Ventura County nonprofit organizations.   

“We put the fun in fundraising,” said Julia Marshall, incoming president for 2018 who currently serves as the chairwoman of the ways and means committee. “At our monthly luncheon meetings, bunco parties, our annual Kentucky Derby party and all our other activities we have a great time raising funds.” 

Because the Channel Islands Gulls started as more of a social group that raised money, “I think we have maintained a more relaxed, fun-loving attitude,” Marshall said. “We are extremely successful, but we do it with minimal protocol. Everyone is warm and friendly.”

The Channel Islands Gulls was founded in 1976 by Mary Beth Dersham, Wanda Pirkle and Florence Haney.

“These founding members wanted to give back to their local communities and would go out for lunch once a month with their friends and decided to go ahead and start the Channel Islands Gulls,” explained Maxine Exler of Camarillo, president of the Channel Islands Gulls.

In the beginning the group of ladies had different events at their luncheons to raise money for their charities. 

“They would choose their charities randomly to fit the needs that they needed,” Exler said. “What it basically came down is, they were nickeling and diming themselves to achieve their goal as a club. As the club grew, they started having outside events which brought in new members and raised more money.”

The group now has close to 200 members and looks forward to increasing its membership, which will allow it to contribute to more charities. Numerous recipients have received funding in the past, including California Coastal Horse Rescue, Camarillo Hospice, El Centrito Family Learning Center, Kids’ Art Ventura, Many Meals of Camarillo, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Ribbons of Life Breast Cancer Foundation, St. Vincent De Paul, Ventura County City Center and the Ventura County Rescue Mission’s Lighthouse for Women and Children.

“The Channel Islands Gulls’ primary goal is to raise money for charities through our monthly luncheon auctions and other fundraising events throughout the year,” Exler said. “Additionally, we donate canned goods, coats, blankets, toys at Christmas, toiletry items as needed and networking assistance.”

Most recently, 2016 and 2017 have been “astounding record years” for the gulls in terms of membership growth and funds raised, Marshall noted.

“Our hope is to see this upswing continue in the coming years,” she said. 

For more information, email Juliajmarshall@gmail.com, visit the Channel Islands Gulls of Ventura County on Facebook, or go to www.channelislandsgulls.com

Step Up Ventura

Step Up Ventura

Step Up Ventura is the only nonprofit specifically geared to meet the trauma and attachment needs of children up to age 5 and their parents who are experiencing homelessness.

This nonprofit’s mission is to promote family stability and school success by providing accessible therapeutic child care and preschool to these homeless children so they’re ready for kindergarten. That’s because kindergarten readiness promotes the school success that leads to a future career, as well as financial and relationship stability.

“We have a goal of helping children learn, heal and connect — the end result being that they are kindergarten-ready socially, emotionally and cognitively,” said Judy Alexandre of Ventura, board president. “We provide stability, are available from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and provide an early education specialist and early childhood mental health for all of the children that we serve.”

In collaboration with Magic Carousel Preschool and Academy, Step Up Ventura’s supportive services help homeless children connect, heal and learn in the classroom where both the children’s academic and emotional needs are addressed. 

“This intensive, therapeutic dimension is not available in Head Start or other preschool programs to the extent necessary for young homeless children living in unstable, unpredictable conditions,” Alexandre said.

Since Step Up Ventura began offering outreach services to homeless families in October of 2016, the program has helped homeless families build secure child-parent attachments and resolve childhood traumas. They also learn child-parent activities that stimulate healthy brain development and use principles for positive discipline and child management.

“We are now providing supportive services in a preschool setting where homeless children are receiving consistent, full-time care and educational opportunities with the therapeutic services needed for healthy development,” said Alexandre, further noting that parents of participating children are working full time to achieve self-sufficiency and stable homes.

Step Up Ventura was founded in December of 2014 by a social work graduate intern working with homeless parents, who observed that the very young children of these parents were spending their days going to their parents’ appointments, confined to strollers while their parents sought services. 

“She believed a program specifically for young homeless children was needed,” Alexandre said. 

A small group of social workers and educators agreed that these children needed a safe, child-friendly place to be while their parents worked or went to school, in their striving for self-sufficiency and housing stability. 

“Further exploration of the needs of young homeless children revealed that homeless children are at high risk for significant language, math and learning delays that can create barriers to a child’s development and future success,” Alexandre noted.

This early childhood intervention can have significant impact on many areas of a community’s life. For instance, it can decrease or prevent the need for costly government-funded programs, including special education, legal services, drug and alcohol recovery programs, and mental health services. 

“For every dollar spent on quality early childhood care and education, a community can save up to $2 to $9 on government programs,” Alexandre said. “This program promotes the tools that children need to be successful as adults, giving added benefit to any community in which they live.”

Step Up Ventura is funded primarily through grants and donations.

“There are no county, state or federal monies for specifically meeting the early childhood education needs of homeless children,” Alexandre said. “For each child, we need $1,500 a month to cover the cost of early childhood care and education in addition to the therapeutic needs for these very vulnerable children.” 

The ultimate goal of Step Up Ventura is to provide a safe and age-appropriate place for homeless children so their parents can work, gain financial security and have a stable home for their children.

“By doing this, homeless children will be more ready for kindergarten, leading to school success and a financially secure future where the cycle of homelessness is broken,” Alexandre said.

For more information, email info@stepupventura.org; call 805-665-3385; or visit https://www.stepupventura.org/.